Pac-12 executives visited SMU’s campus last week and are also considering San Diego State as an expansion candidate. The merits of both have been discussed and debated for months. Their fate must be determined within weeks.
But we can’t ignore the elephant in the region: should university presidents offer Gonzaga membership?
The Bulldogs are the top basketball program in the Pac-12 footprint that is not in the Pac-12.
They are the only program remotely capable of filling the void left when UCLA departs for the Big Ten in the summer of 2024.
They are the only program that could stand next to Arizona as a second tentpole in a reconfigured conference.
It’s an intriguing idea, one worth considering for Pac-12 as it sifts through membership options and awaits a media rights contract:
The conference can withdraw and continue with 10 schools.
It could add San Diego State and SMU for all sports.
How about adding SDSU for everything, SMU just for football and Gonzaga for all other sports.
Or how about this: add San Diego State and Gonzaga in all sports and Boise State in football, merging the best of the Zags and Broncos to create one Power Five-worthy member.
But Gonzaga brings complications like no other option.
Would the presidents of the 10 secular universities welcome a Jesuit school?
Would Washington and Washington State take Gonzaga’s athletic profile to the next level?
Does expanding from the inside also make strategic sense? In the two instances of expansion over the past half century, the conference has expanded its boundaries: with the Arizona schools in 1978; and with Utah and Colorado in 2011.
The Zags can be thought of as a defensive game. Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark has made it no secret that he wants to move to the Pacific Time Zone and values basketball for its powerhouse league. What would the Pac-12 think of the Big 12 banner flying in the Palouse?
The solution to every problem, the answer to every question, is money.
Are the Zags an asset to the Pac-12? Would they increase the annual income for the existing members?
It depends in part on their asking price. (They don’t come for free, after all.)
To establish a baseline, let’s assume the Pac-12 could sign a media rights deal that brings in $30 million annually per campus.
Usually basketball is worth about 20 cents for every media dollar, so we allocate $6 million (out of $30 million) to each school’s hoop program.
Are the Zags worth over $6 million? Certainly so.
– They are an avid NCAA tournament player and have averaged 3.5 units per year for the past decade. (Each game played is one unit.)
At $350,000 per game (the estimated value of a unit this year), that’s more than $1 million per year. And because the units last six years, the Zags generate about $7 million in units annually. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 average is about $1.5 million.
Even if we lowered Gonzaga’s average to 2.5 units per year as a Pac-12 member to account for more regular season losses (due to tougher competition), fewer placements, harder early round matches, and something less success, the Zags would be a cash prize. machine compared to the typical Pac-12 program.
— Gonzaga is also doing well on television.
Against Power Five opponents over the past five years, the Zags have averaged 900,000 viewers, according to data provided to the Hotline by a media industry source. By comparison, UCLA averages 450,000 viewers and the Pac-12 average is closer to 200,000.
That said, some context is required. While Gonzaga’s matchups with Power Five opponents are high-profile, non-conference affairs that often get top-notch broadcasts, UCLA’s audience data includes dozens of conference games against second-tier foes that don’t move the ratings. So let’s be careful before giving Gonzaga twice the audience value that UCLA generates.
But we don’t need the exact ratings to know Zags speed better than the typical Pac-12 program.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that Gonzaga has a media rights value of $12 million per year, twice the Pac-12 average for basketball ($6 million) within our estimated media rights deal.
That sounds great, but then again, it’s complicated. Whatever media dollars Gonzaga accompanies to the conference must be divided eleven ways. Of course, the Zags will demand a portion of the total annual revenue – not a full portion because they don’t play football, but a large enough portion to warrant the switch from kingfish status to the West Coast Conference.
Let’s use another round number: $10 million. In order for Gonzaga to participate in the conference, the school would need a lump sum of $10 million per year.
Subtract that from the total valuation, divide the remainder into 10 parts, and we’re left with $30.2 million per school.
That’s just a $200,000 bump. Even adding up Gonzaga’s estimated NCAA Tournament unit revenues (divided 11 ways) doesn’t bring annual revenue growth to $1 million per school.
To be clear, this is just a back-of-the-envelope exercise designed to explain the financial calculation at the heart of the Gonzaga issue.
Surely the presidents will also assess the subjective factors, with institutional fit at the top of the list.
And the conference has no doubt discussed basketball options with its potential media partners during ongoing negotiations.
Finally, we have to mention the long range piece. Gonzaga’s Mark Few is 60 years old. Will he coach for another three years? Five more? Ten more? And what does Gonzaga basketball look like in the post-Few era?
If the Zags aren’t a top-25 program, they’re of little value to the Pac-12. In fact, they could be diluting.
The Hotline has been discussing Gonzaga as a potential expansion target for months with contacts in the university’s basketball and sports media industries, and there is no consensus.
They are a tentpole program now, but what about 10 or 15 years from now?
They have more value than the Pac-12 average, but given basketball’s secondary position on media rights, is it enough to make the 11-way split work?
Is it enough for Washington schools to approve it?
Our hunch, and it’s nothing more:
Because there is no consensus, because there are complications, because the accretion piece is unclear, the Pac-12 is unlikely to issue a membership invitation.
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