Softball coaches and players could be the sport that changes the fortunes of the ‘Conference of Champions.’
There are two truths to the Pac-12 conference. Its branded moniker ‘The conference of Champions’ is true. More national championships than any other conference in the country is true. And the fact that the Pac-12 is the worst of the NCAA power five conferences when it comes to leadership, operations, and publicity is also true.
By 2020, the Pac-12 still owned more national championships than any other conference at 529. The closest conference is the Big Ten at 238.
So here’s the issue. Since 2010, there has been a big decline in national success from the conference on the west coast. There is a pattern to all of this. It may look like a spider’s web, but it all makes sense as to why the #1 winningest conference is now five out of five when it comes to the power conferences.
The hiring of former commissioner Larry Scott was the number two problem and the one who started the demise.
Recruiting is the number one reason for the two biggest problems with the Pac-12.
The other problem is exposure and visibility. Visibility breeds recruiting. You do the math.,
The design of the collapse goes back over a decade, but it was recently outed by one sport and its head coaches. The one sport that is the benchmark to prove the downfall since Scott’s involvement more than any other is Softball.
Since 1982, when women’s softball became an NCAA sport, it is the one sport that has been owned by the Pac-12, winning 24 national titles in 37 years. Pac-12 baseball is the same way – 29 overall NCAA World Series titles, and no other conference is even close.
Last week, when the 2021 women’s softball national championship seedings were announced by the NCAA, Pac-12 head coaches spoke up to what they collectively called, “disrespect by the NCAA.” At the end of the season USA Today’s top 25 polls, five Pac-12 teams were in the top 12. Only two of those were seeded in the top 12. The biggest seeding snub was to the University of Washington, the #6 ranked team in the country was handed the #16 seed. It was so bad, the Huskies team got up and left the selection show, live. Walked outright as they were announced that they were playing a 15-24 Portland State team.
Why softball? Because they earned the right to vent and chatter.
Oregon was the ninth-ranked team in the land, and they didn’t even get a seed. Six teams were selected to the tournament. 13 SEC (Southeastern Conference) teams got in followed by 12 from the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) and Big 10.
The evidentiary culprit to this colossal fall from grace is Larry Scott. When former Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott was hired in 2009, he had lofty sights. His vision for the Pac-12 to compete was television money. The SEC and Network were destroying the college sports market not only with income but viewers. The University of Texas has its own network.
The invention of the conference television networks was the key to changing the landscape of national recruiting. It became who was the first network and how did they prepare their programming. The Big Ten started it all in 2007 and the SEC followed in 2014. Ironically, those are the top two revenue-generating conferences in the NCAA.
The networks help the recruiting scene because of exposure and it all started with the advent of the networks..
The SEC has won the national recruiting wars in just about every sport and it all started with their television bravado.
I got my start as a national sportswriter as one of the first high school football recruiting writers dating back to 1994 and have talked to the country’s best high school football players. One thing I asked them was why they are leaving their home state to play football? The top reason was not winning titles even though it was a close second. It was the interest, exposure, fanfare, that college athletes are celebrities. It was their ticket to NFL.
Even though the conference networks are specialty paid programming amongst cable and satellite providers, NBC was strictly the ‘Domers’ of Notre Dame. ABC programming was regional with the rest of the conferences as well as FOX. But the double whammy came from the SEC. They had an ESPN contract in their back pocket as well as CBS. Massive national exposure. Seeing sold-out stadiums and arenas, southern people going nuts on television. Not in the Pac-12. They had USC’s Reggie Bush and Matt Leinert for a couple of years. That was the Pac-12 celebrity but now it’s old school and illegal. You maybe saw them on Fox at 10 pm eastern standard time.
Scott’s network intentions were noble perhaps – the institution of the Pac-12 Network and then the increase the revenue stream and sharing with conference schools. If the conference is making national and network television money, that means exposure, and exposure builds recruiting. Somewhere along the way, it wrong for the Pac-12.
Firstly, Scott, an attorney, had a way with words with the conference university presidents. The promise by Scott to the school higher-ups was to compete and conquer the television deals. Money talks, right? Not when the Pac-12 office’s rent in San Francisco was nearly $7 million a year, just a tad over $3 million in travel expenses, and Scott harboring the highest paid salary amongst all conference commissioners.
But is the overall problem the fault of Scott alone? Not entirely.
Television is great and it helps to recruit but not when your team is seen by only 25% of the country after 10 pm.
The south and Midwest is an entirely different animal. The west coast? Finicky, easily bored, more things to do, need everything now and of course, winning. That trumps everything. But why do schools like Nebraska and Kentucky sell out just about every stadium and field no matter what sport or win/loss record?
One Big 10 athlete and father said, “there’s nothing else to do but college sports.” That’s may very well be true, but why did USC and UCLA (the #2 and #3 schools with the most national championships) sell out 90,000-plus stadiums to watch OJ Simpson, Ronnie Lott, Troy Aikman, and Kenny Easley play? Matt Leinert and Reggie Bush’s Southern California Trojans arguably fielded the greatest college football time in 2004 and they didn’t sell out every game. Nebraska sells out every game.
All these schools have nothing to do with the downfall of the Pac-12 except for overall support.
Support produces recruiting and recruiting wins every time.
University of Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea, the second-winningest coach of all time, basically had an interesting quote post-selection Sunday, “The influence that ESPN has on our sports is pretty interesting.” He’s right. California high school softball is the premier hotbed for college softball. 10 years ago, California girls were staying home in the Pac-12. Not anymore. A southern California high school coach said, “My girls are getting recruited by the Pac-12 and the SEC. And then they go home after practice and watch an SEC game on ESPN.”
‘The Pac-12 needs to wake up,” said Candrea. “The Pac-12 Network hasn’t really helped. When I turn on the SEC Network, they have a show that looks just like ESPN. Unfortunately, you turn on the Pac-12 and it’s a bunch of replays.”
Softball is the only sport that has spoken up with this problem and demanded turned heads. Scott’s television vision failed. Now it’s up to new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff to listen and understand that softball might be the sport that changes the Pac-12 for good.