July 14, 2024
Desperate appeals to join the Atlantic Coast Conference are pathetic.

Dear Cal and Stanford,

Why are you running away from California?

Yes, the collapse of the Pac-12 conference — with eight schools departing for conferences with better TV contracts — leaves you two without a home for your sports teams.

But your desperate appeals to join the Atlantic Coast Conference are pathetic — and a crime against geography.  And when that doesn’t work out (Atlantic schools don’t want to share TV sports revenues with West Coast interlopers), what’s next?

Playing in the Arab League?

Instead, why not take a breath — and a good look at your home state? Do that, and you’ll see that your best athletic futures are right here in California.

You two could bring together universities from across the Golden State to form a new college sports powerhouse.

The California Conference.

It’s feasible. Football is the revenue machine behind college sports, and California now has 11 universities that play in the highest division. Two of these schools—USC and UCLA—have gone to the Big Ten. But the other nine — you two, Fresno State, Sacramento State, San Diego State, San Jose State, UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and the University of San Diego — could make an entertaining conference for football. These California teams could jump from their current, conferences (Mountain West and Big Sky) to a potentially higher-revenue-producing California conference.

For sports beyond football, the California conference could include more than 20 universities, including seven University of California schools, and 10 Cal State campuses.  You’d remain the top dogs, academically and athletically, but by bringing in the California schools, you’d elevate them in a way that might ease resentment of your elite institutions.

You should know, though, that a number of these schools can hang with you. Take San Diego State. Its football team is often better than yours. Its men’s basketball program just made the national finals. San Diego State is also a rising academic power, second in selectivity among the Cal State schools only to Cal Poly SLO, whose graduates make nearly as much money as yours do.

A California Conference schedule wouldn’t be a big adjustment, because you already play many of these California schools in many sports. Both of you have a long history of playing football against San Jose State (the Stanford-San Jose State rivalry even has a name, the Bill Walsh Legacy Game, in honor of the late Stanford and 49ers coach, a San Jose State alum).

Sports media executives may question whether intra-state games will draw audiences, but that’s because they don’t understand California. College football is about rivalries between regions, and California’s regions are as populous as most states. I, for one, can hardly wait to see Cal or Stanford go to Bulldog Stadium on a Saturday night with a conference title at stake. You’ll see how Fresno State’s storied football program produces more passion than your wine-and-cheese fan bases might muster in a decade.

The new conference also could spawn cross-cultural local fights — working-class Sac State against hippie UC Davis, or the uptight Catholics of the University of San Diego against loose-living San Diego State.

A California Conference would have ancillary benefits. For example, it might revive the Rose Bowl, an essential California New Year’s tradition killed off by the same forces that exploded the Pac-12. Instead of becoming just another quarterfinal game in a national college football playoff — its current fate — the Rose Bowl could pit the California Conference champion against the best team it can get from the rest of the country.

And with any luck, this new athletic union would forge more academic collaboration between California-based schools, who face the same threat — a United States that is increasingly hostile to higher education, non-partisan teaching, and California’s liberal values.

The California Conference would start with one void: It wouldn’t have USC or UCLA. But if the conference could launch and perform well, it’s easy to see those schools leaving the Big Ten and coming home. USC and UCLA athletes, after a few years in the Big 10, may discover that they prefer less travel, fewer missed classes, and better game weather.

It’s also going to be hard to justify, to the state of California and on-campus constituencies, the climate impacts of burning all that additional jet fuel. Teams in the California Conference could get to most games by train or electric bus.

So that’s the pitch — save the planet, save college sports, connect California. Why not take a swing?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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