Pac-10 expands, might create TV network

Upheaval in the college sports world — heralded by the U. of Colorado’s move to the Pacific 10 Conference on Thursday — could portend major changes in television rights deals, including the creation of a new sports network.

Instigating the change is the Big Ten Conference’s desire to expand from 11 to 12 teams. The move would allow the conference (under NCAA rules) to stage a football championship game and thereby grow revenue for the 3-year-old Big Ten TV network.

Nebraska U., a powerhouse school from the Big 12 Conference, has become the Big Ten’s top target, according to reports — and the mere threat of the Cornhuskers’ departure sent the first domino falling. The Pac-10, which has been discussing expansion for years, on Thursday announced the addition of Colorado, the conference’s first new school since Arizona and Arizona State came over in 1978.

The Pac-10’s endgame could be to add as many as six teams, according to ESPN.com’s Ted Miller, with Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State also moving from what would be a disintegrating Big 12. That would allow the Pac-10 to split into two eight-team divisions (the eight newest and easternmost members, including Arizona and Arizona State, in one division and the old guard in the other).

Such expansion would give the Pac-10 a huge boost toward creating its own television network, like the Big Ten’s, and allow the conference to push for two automatic bids to the revenue-rich Bowl Championship Series. Colorado, Texas and Texas A&M would boost the Pac-10’s representation in the nation’s top 20 TV markets from four to seven. Any given conference game would have broader audience appeal.

The Pac-10’s football and basketball contracts with Fox Sports Net expire in summer 2012. ABC/ESPN also has a deal for selected Pac-10 football games that expires in 2011, as well as a new long-term deal with the Big Ten for multiple sports broadcasts that runs through 2016-17. While the specific language of these contracts wasn’t available, the industry standard is for there to be a “conference composition clause” that allows either party to renegotiate when the number of schools in a conference changes.

Fox Cable Networks also holds a 49% interest in the Big Ten Network; a scenario for a similar arrangement with the theoretical Pac-16 is fathomable.

Miller said the new conference alignments could allow schools in the Pac-16 to each reap $20 million, compared with the $8 million to $10 million that the Pac-10 now distributes.

Should Nebraska not move to the Big Ten — with Notre Dame, a member of the Big East Conference in everything except football, remaining a long-discussed alternative — the Big 12 could remain mostly intact, with the Pac-10 settling for one more team to make an even 12. Notre Dame’s exclusive contract with NBC expires in 2015.

Of course, the Big Ten could also decide to expand to 14 or 16 teams.

Launched in August 2007, the Big Ten Network is available in 73 million homes and 19 of the top 20 media markets. The network produces more than 350 live events annually, along with original programs.

News of Colorado’s move to the Pac-10 came coincidentally on the day the NCAA announced that it was banning USC from bowl games for two years and revoking scholarships over a series of violations.

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