Pac-10 Expansion Analysis – Divisions

Mr Pac Ten
Posted Jun 19, 2010

Collegefootballnews' Matthew Smith Looks at College Football Expansion Possibilities, Part Eight: How to Structure Divisions and Schedules

Well, it seems like the league is now where it's going to be for the foreseeable future, having been turned down by Texas and friends, and inviting Utah instead to round out to 12 teams. Yes, there is plenty of wishful thinking by outsiders hoping the league expands further and takes their teams (see here and here for just two such examples), but it's safe to say the league is done for now. They will most certainly re-evaluate if and when the Big Ten expands further, the Big 12 collapses, or some other major event occurs, but given the firestorm that erupted when they tried to make a Texas-sized move, the most likely outcome is that they wait until someone else does something before trying again.

So the next question for the league is how the hell to organize this thing. In a league that really has three distinct groups of four (Pacific Northwest, California, Arizona+Mountain), and very distinct interests and preferences by each of the different schools, that's a very difficult task. I had written a few months ago (see here and here ) about why this was such a major potential problem, and why it was in fact big enough that the league really needed to hit an expansion home run to make 12 teams work (and make no mistake, while they're nice additions, Utah and Colorado are not a home-run pair). And in fact, we're right in the thick of the very mess I had talked about, as right now we don't have a decision made on how to organize (see this article by Ted Miller ), and the negative fanbase reaction to this situation has already begun (see Bruins Nation, a UCLA fansite , Cal Golden Blogs, a Cal fansite , Ken Goe, a writer for the Oregonian , and that's without any decisions having actually been made). That said, "I told you so" isn't going to solve our problems. What we need to focus on is making this thing work, not pointing fingers and assigning blame for the corner we seem to have backed ourselves into.

One thing: before we dig into the options and their various pros and cons, I'd like to point out that I'm pretty sure that a decision had already been made on this matter, and that only after substantial fan backlash (the California schools all want to play each other every year, the Pacific Northwest schools don't want to get reduced LA access; which one "changed the game" depends on what the deal actually was, since no one knows the specifics) did the league decide to re-evaluate. I say this for the simple reason that it would have been monumentally stupid to not have had a deal in place before inviting Utah. Sticking with just Colorado was an option; it might have created some logistical issues, but it would have been doable. Again I emphasize: it would have been monumentally stupid to have invited Utah without an agreement on this issue in place; even if you disapprove of the league office (I think they've done a decent job so far), you're also saying that ZERO of the university presidents would have insisted on working this one out before moving forward. There's no way in hell that all of them could possibly have been that dumb, therefore the only conclusion is that they actually had made a deal and are now re-evaluating (or giving lip-service to re-evaluating) after they realized that the fans didn't like their plan (whatever its details were).

But enough on that front, let's get into the actual issues. From where I stand, there are three key issues that any scheduling structure pretty much has to embrace:

1) Nine conference games
This is something that the LA schools and Washington would prefer not to have, since they clearly have the ability to schedule marquee non-conference games (or paycheck games, 2 for 1's and 3 for 1's against lesser teams), and going to nine games gives them less ability to go in that direction. Ask a USC fan whether they'd rather see a home and home against Utah or a home and home against Michigan, and the answer is obvious.

However, it's a win for just about everyone else, especially the rest of the Pacific Northwest, who has less of an easy time putting together non-conference schedules they can be happy with (especially Oregon St, who swallowed a paycheck game against LSU a few years ago, and Washington St, who did the same against both Auburn and Wisconsin); of course, Oregon (home and homes against Fresno, Purdue and Boise) Stanford (home and homes against Navy and Wake), Arizona (home and home against New Mexico), and ASU (upcoming home and home against UT-San Antonio) also would undoubtedly prefer nine conference games so they don't have to deal with as many unfavorable non-conference situations as well. It's especially important to note that it's a big plus for three of the four Pacific Northwest teams, since under virtually any alignment scenario they'll feel like they're getting the shaft.

2) The California schools all play each other every year
For better or worse, the California schools (especially UCLA and USC) are the key part of the Pac-10 (now Pac-12 I guess), and have an outsize amount of pull, especially on issues like these. The LA schools have substantial alumni bases in the Bay Area, and vice-versa, which means that their alumni greatly prefer seeing their teams annually without having to travel. Moreover, they've all been playing each other annually for an extremely long time, and substantially value that tradition. Whether or not they're in the same division, this is something that will almost certainly happen.

Failing to guarantee this will seriously piss off all four fanbases, seriously destabilizing the league. The fact remains that the league simply couldn't afford to risk them saying "screw you" and walking out, and there's a real possibility that two or three of them might very well threaten to do just that if they don't get their way on this issue. Unless I'm seriously misreading the political situation (which is possible), I have to conclude that this is a virtual lock.

Given that constraint, you can also pretty much assume the Pacific Northwest and "Arizona + Mountain" schools will also be playing each other every year, both for travel purposes and to balance the schedules.

3) There will be equal (or close to it) revenue sharing (for now)
It's not hard to figure out who's for this and who's against it. Whether it's totally equal revenue sharing or not, it will at the least likely be more equal than the current setup. It's another thing to give to the Pacific Northwest schools (though again, it doesn't really help Washington). That said, given that Texas is going to experiment with their own sports network, if that turns into a success I'd expect that some of the wealthier Pac-10 schools are going to want to try the same thing. Whether or not they could get away with it I don't know, but at the least I suspect they'd try to negotiate for it. But that's an issue for another day. For now, equal (or close to equal) revenue sharing is a major concession to the same schools who will feel unhappy about whatever division structure ends up happening (in fact, Wazzu AD Bill Moos proposed this exact trade-off, link here ).

So with all that said, I can conceive of four different division scenarios (all assuming a 9-game conference schedule):

1) The Zipper (one example; all regional teams play each other annually)
East: Washington State, USC, Stanford, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado.
West: UCLA, Washington, Cal, Oregon State, Utah, and Arizona State

2) North/South A (Cal and Stanford play both UCLA and USC annually)
North: Washington, Washington St, Oregon, Oregon St, Cal, Stanford
South: Colorado, Utah, UCLA, USC, Arizona, Arizona St

3) North/South B
North: Washington, Washington St, Oregon, Oregon St, Colorado, Utah
South: Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona, Arizona St

4) Three Divisions
Northwest: Washington, Washington St, Oregon, Oregon St
Central: Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC
East: Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Arizona St

Since the school most likely to take a hit without any noteworthy concessions coming their way (in fact, equal revenue sharing might hurt them) is Washington, I'll use them as an example of how these different structures would work, and look at a potential four-year run of their schedules, starting in 2011. Let's start with the first proposed division setup:

1) The Zipper (all regional teams play each other annually)
2011: vs UCLA, @ Cal, @ OS, vs Utah, @ ASU, vs WSU, vs UO, @ USC, vs Ariz
2012: @ UCLA, vs Cal, vs OS, @ Utah, vs ASU, @ WSU, @ UO, vs USC, @ Ariz
2013: vs UCLA, @ Cal, @ OS, vs Utah, @ ASU, vs WSU, vs UO, vs Stan, @ Colo
2014: @ UCLA, vs Cal, vs OS, @ Utah, vs ASU, @ WSU, @ UO, @ Stan, vs Colo
(play the first seven teams annually; play the other four only every other year)

It's as balanced geographically as possible, given the constraint of all regional teams playing each other every year.

This is the same sort of wacky divisional design experiment that the ACC tried, and it sucked the life out of the conference, in large part because it encouraged annual meetings that largely didn't make any sense (BC against every Atlantic team, though Maryland made some sense; Miami against Virginia, UNC and Duke; Virginia Tech against Georgia Tech; etc.), and forced apart regional matchups that would have made sense (Miami-Clemson, FSU-Georgia Tech, UNC-Wake, Duke-NC St, etc.). Considering how drastically the league has underachieved relative to how people thought it should have worked, and how little anyone else seems to care about it, it seems insane to replicate their failed experiment.

There's no particularly good reason why Washington should play UCLA every year but USC every other, Cal every year but Stanford every other, ASU every year but Arizona every other, and Utah every year but Colorado every other. If you try to "fix" the problem by regularly flip-flopping teams between divisions, then the divisions become completely and utterly arbitrary, and even less appealing to the average college football fan (and appealing to them is extremely valuable, especially with the league experimenting with its own TV network).

2) North/South A (Cal and Stanford play both UCLA and USC annually)
2011: vs WSU, vs UO, @ OS, vs Cal, @ Stan, vs UCLA, @ Colo, vs Ariz, @ ASU
2012: @ WSU, @ UO, vs OS, @ Cal, vs Stan, @ UCLA, vs Utah, @ Ariz, vs ASU
2013: vs WSU, vs UO, @ OS, vs Cal, @ Stan, vs USC, vs Colo, @ Utah, @ ASU
2014: @ WSU, @ UO, vs OS, @ Cal, vs Stan, @ USC, @ Colo, vs Utah, vs Ariz,
(next four years flip the non-division @ / vs to avoid playing at ASU more often and at Ariz less often; since the CA schools play each other every year Washington skips one of them and one of the other four non-division teams every year)

While the Pacific Northwest schools don't get an annual LA trip, they do get an annual Bay Area trip (which would help solidify recruiting in Northern California at least). This is the most balanced non-zipper format available. It's an easily understood format that doesn't make the average football fan scratch his head and wonder what the heck they were thinking.

This gives the Northwest the least LA access of any format. It's somewhat unbalanced in terms of home-away splits every four years, though flipping the non-divisional home-away assignments makes it even over eight years.

3) North/South B
2011: vs WSU, vs UO, @ OS, vs Colo, @ Utah, vs UCLA, @ Cal, vs Stan, @ Ariz
2012: @ WSU, @ UO, vs OS, @ Colo, vs Utah, @ UCLA, vs USC, @ Stan, vs ASU
2013: vs WSU, vs UO, @ OS, vs Colo, @ Utah, @ USC, vs Cal, vs Ariz, @ ASU
(non-division games would go on a three-year cycle, not a four-year cycle)

It's an easily understood format that doesn't make the average football fan scratch his head and wonder what the heck they were thinking. This format gives Washington the same access to LA as they have to the Bay Area, which means trips two out of three years, with one year in three going to both, and zero years going to neither.

This is very unbalanced geographically, with both the Bay Area and LA teams in the same division. It could very well lead to the perception that the South is especially strong and the North especially weak. It shouldn't be nearly the same level as the old Big XII North vs South, but you definitely have historically stronger programs in better recruiting grounds in the South.

4) Three Divisions
2011: vs WSU, vs UO, @ OS, vs Cal, @ Stan, vs UCLA, @ Utah, vs Colo, @ ASU
2012: @ WSU, @ UO, vs OS, @ Cal, vs Stan, @ USC, vs Utah, @ Colo, vs Ariz
2013: vs WSU, vs UO, @ OS, vs Cal, @ UCLA, vs USC, @ Utah, @ Ariz, vs ASU
2014: @ WSU, @ UO, vs OS, @ Stan, vs UCLA, @ USC, vs Colo, vs Ariz, @ ASU
(next four years flip the non-division @ / vs to avoid playing at ASU more often and at Ariz less often;)

This gives the same exact access to the California markets as the "zipper", evenly split between the Bay Area and LA, and doesn't favor the Arizona and Mountain teams in that regard at the expense of the Northwest schools. It makes absolute geographic sense, since the Pac-12 really would be three distinct areas. It makes enormous sense to use this for basketball, since you have all 12 teams in the tournament anyway and the implications of ranking the division champs really don't matter; in fact, I'd recommend this as the best approach to use in any sport that doesn't have a two-team championship game.

If splitting the league North/South doesn't fly politically, this makes the next most sense, because even though it's a risk, it at least hasn't been proven to be a giant mess like the zipper split already has.

It's a wacky, experimental idea (see: ACC for how well wacky experimental division setups can work). For a title game, you'd need a rock-solid set of rules that everyone buys into for deciding which two division winners get in, since the divisions aren't equal, and there's around a 25% chance that the 2nd and 3rd best division winners wouldn't have played each other (math says exactly 25%, but practically speaking it's more complicated).

You'd also almost certainly have to decide that it's only good for a fixed period of time (perhaps four years, perhaps even less), and be ready to pull the plug if it's not working out, and people are unhappy with it. The risk of failure makes it a difficult setup to want to buy into, though again, it's still less dumb than the zipper.


Ultimately, I think that the best (or least bad anyway) structure is the second one, splitting the divisions as Colorado had thought they were promised, guaranteeing the California schools get to play each other every year, making the schedules fit that framework (as shown in my example), and giving the Northwest schools equal (or approximately equal) revenue sharing to soften the blow of less LA access (though again it wouldn't help Washington much).

However, if that doesn't fly, then we could put the California schools into the South and the Mountain schools into the North, or we could try the 3-division experiment and see whether it works out or not. But whatever we do, I just hope it isn't the zipper idea. Please let us not be that dumb.

Mr Pac-10's 2009 Blog

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