Can Washington lawmakers save college rivalries and the Pac 12 in the process? Let’s hope so!

You may think that a story about the University of Washington would be about local hero Michael Penix Jr. who is the pride of Tampa Bay Tech and a real contender for the Heisman Trophy in 2023. In a conference full of talented quarterbacks Penix, Jr. has the tools to lead the Huskies to a Pac 12 Championship and maybe even a College Football Playoff final four spot.

However, there will be time for me head out to Seattle to do that story but today we need to focus on what is going on in The Conference of Champions as there is a lack of clarity in what the future holds for the members of the Pac 12. At the moment their media rights deal is being held up because all the potential broadcast partners want to make sure Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, Washington State and Utah will be hanging around for the duration of the deal.

Ever since UCLA and USC left for the Big Ten, a move that won’t come till 2024 but it has put the Pac-12 conference and its member schools on edge. The University of Washington and Oregon both have been talked about as two teams that could be next on the Big Ten wish list, my sources say that it is unlikely they will be invited but that has not stoped the rumor mill from causing grief for rest of the Pac 12 members starting with Washington State.

Now three members of the Washington state legislature want to see college sports traditions continue and perhaps save the Pac-12 in the process. Enter Senators. Drew MacEwen, Jeff Holy, R-Spokane, and Sam Hunt, D-Olympia have introduced a bill that would not allow the University of Washington to join a conference outside the Pac-12 without taking Washington State with them.

In an interview with the Kitsap Sun Sen. MacEwen had this to say about the proposed legislation.

“I think that both of those schools have rich history in this state, and I don’t think that decision should be made without public input via the Legislature,” MacEwen said of his proposal. “The intent of that bill is to, one, keep UW and WSU together, so we don’t end up losing one to a different conference and the other one is left in a conference that is dwindling, that being the Pac-12, and then at the same time, having the Legislature have input and oversight and approval of any major conference realignments. Looking at it from the taxpayer’s viewpoint, I think we have every right to do that and make sure that we honor our rich tradition in this state of both those schools.”

No state school should be allowed to leave a conference without the state legislature, student-athletes, on-campus students, and alumni having a say in any potential move. The Washington lawmakers are the first in the country that could protect the poaching of schools by other conferences for purely financial reasons and throwing away decades of tradition for a better television deal.

Washington and Washington State were founding members of the Conference of Champions dating back to 1962 when California, Stanford, UCLA, USC banded together. Oregon and Oregon State came on board in 1964 with both Arizona along with Arizona State becoming members in 1978 then came Colorado and Utah in 2011.

The Washington lawmakers understand the real essence of college sports should be regional and should benefit the students attending the schools along with the student-athletes who represent the institutions. The Huskies and Cougars represent the best of the West and Mountain West in the Pac 12.   

This legislation should be at the very least be explored in Arizona, California, and Oregon where protecting conference movement without government, student and alumni impute and approval should taken into consideration. All state run universities should follow the lead being crafted in Washington state.

If the law were to be passed it would be good news to Pac 12 commissioner George Kliavkoff who is looking for a media deal worth between $45 and $50 million per school per year to both Washington and Washington State along with their conference partners. There is no getting around losing Los Angeles hurts but with some creativity and some smart expansion is critical and it should include another Washington based school Gonzaga who would be a great basketball only addition.

The new Big Ten media deal with Fox, CBS and NBC is seven years at about $7 billion dollars and will pay each school in the $60 to $70 million dollar per year range. The new Big 12 deal with ESPN and Fox is worth $2.3 billion over six years giving each member about $31.1 million per year.

According to my former colleague at the Sports Business Journal John Ourand, Seattle-based Amazon has its sights set on making the Pac 12 the first streaming major sports conference in college sports. ESPN and Fox have taken a wait-and-see approach to the Pac 12 for the time being based on what they are calling the “instability of the conference.”

An Amazon deal along with either ESPN, Fox or CBS being part of a new media package would have the type of payout that would be more than enough to be both competitive and calm the waters of leaving the conference. The Pac 12 media deal should be a winner if all the present members stay put and aren’t poached by Big 12 which seems to be exploring the possibility attempting to adding Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah.

My sources in the Big Ten have repeatedly told me that they were reluctantly on board to invite UCLA and USC as a counter move the SEC adding Oklahoma and Texas for the 2025 season. According to one source speaking on the condition of anonymity, “We are done expanding full stop and we don’t see the value of adding more schools. We got Los Angeles so the Big Ten is a coast-to-coast conference and that is all we want.”

The lack of interest in adding more members is one of the reasons that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren left his post to become the President and CEO of the Chicago Bears. It is far easier to deal with NFL owners rather than university presidents and athletic directors who have no interest in expanding at least until their new media deal ends at the end of the 2029-2030 season.

Let’s hope that the Washington state bill becomes law and it can serve as a template for other states outside the Pac 12 to implement. If it were in place here are a few rivalries that could be saved over past few years that were lost due to conference realignment.

The Backyard Brawl – Pitt vs West Virginia, a rivalry going back over 100 years is gone, as is a Big 8 classic Oklahoma vs Nebraska, The Boarder War – Missouri vs Kansas, The Holly War – Utah vs BYU, Battle of the Brazos – Texas A&M vs. Baylor, The Battle for the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia) Maryland and Virginia.

In conclusion, let’s hope the bill becomes a law in Washington state and sends a message that conference realignment needs to be done in plain sight and not be a surprise all involved. While, college sports continues to take on a new professional style it still is something that needs to play be a set of rules that protects all parties involved.