Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Pac 10 Hopes Series With Big 12 Tunes In Viewers

By Bud Withers, Staff Reporter
The Seattle Times

Angling for ways to improve its modest national profile in basketball, the Pac-10 Conference is in serious discussions with the Big 12 that would bring about a "challenge" series of games between the leagues as soon as the 2007-08 season.

The concept would be modeled after the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, which began in 1999 and features teams from one league pitted against the other, usually paired similarly top to bottom in strength. That made-for-TV event is played over two nights, with a final tally providing a "victory" for one league.

"We're working very hard on that," said Duane Lindberg, Pac-10 assistant commissioner for electronic communications. "I'm optimistic."

Lindberg and assistant public relations director Dave Hirsch were in Dallas last week, helping formulate a draft proposal to be reviewed next week by the league commissioners, Tom Hansen of the Pac-10 and Kevin Weiberg of the Big 12.

One of the issues to be worked out is involvement of the leagues' television partners. Fox Sports Net has the rights to Pac-10 games, and ESPN has the Big 12.

Lindberg said Pac-10 coaches discussed the concept at an annual meeting in May.

"Certainly, I think it has potential," said Ben Braun, California coach.

Games would likely take place in late November or early December 2007.

"What it does, it helps the entire league," UCLA coach Ben Howland said Monday. "There are some teams in our conference that have a harder time scheduling quote, unquote, quality opponents from the other power conferences. We [at UCLA] have a pretty easy time scheduling because of the media market we're in, where others don't.

"But in terms of helping the whole [Pac-10] power rating, it's a real good thing. It locks everybody into another good game every year."

After a season in which its computer ranking lagged, the Pac-10 has been making a renewed push to maximize national exposure, long a sore point in the league.

Washington athletic director Todd Turner is chairing a committee to that end, also including Lindberg, Braun, athletic directors Dan Guerrero of UCLA and Bob Bowlsby of Stanford (newly hired), coaches Ernie Kent of Oregon and Herb Sendek of Arizona State (also new) and Washington State faculty athletic representative Ken Casavant.

Partly because of constraints related to the Pacific time zone, the Pac-10 has had a long relationship with Fox, and not long ago renewed a contract with the Los Angeles-based partner that runs through the 2011-12 academic year.

That has been less than satisfying to many, including some coaches in the league who believe that the lack of a contract with college basketball's heaviest carrier, ESPN, hurts the Pac-10.

Referring to some of the league's coaches, Lindberg said, "They believe the college-basketball world revolves around ESPN. But Fox has been a good partner for us."

Two factors essentially have prevented the Pac-10 and ESPN from getting together:

• Academic advocates in the conference have been against making drastic changes to the Thursday/weekend conference scheduling, which precludes playing on other weeknights, including ESPN's "Big Monday" offering.

• The 8:30 p.m. (Pacific) time for ESPN's "SportsCenter" news program means Pac-10 games would have to air earlier (6 p.m.) or later (9 p.m., 10 in Arizona) than the league wants.

Since the Pac-10 signed the previous contract with Fox, ESPN2 has grown significantly, without the "SportsCenter" limitation that troubles the Pac-10. But, says Lindberg, the league re-upped with Fox in its exclusive negotiating window before talks with ESPN really got started.

"We never had the opportunity to sit down and go through that exercise with ESPN," Lindberg said. "We felt we had good intelligence to know what kinds of opportunities we potentially would have with ESPN in basketball that dealt with exposure, number of games and revenue."

Lindberg says the Pac-10 fares better financially with Fox, and "the athletic directors have significant bills to pay."

One thrust advanced by Fox is more Pac-10 games on Sundays to pair with its weekly ACC game. Including nonleague games early in the year, the Pac-10 will have 10 such games in 2006-07, up from seven last season.

At its May meetings, the Pac-10 also heard a presentation from a charter-aircraft carrier. Unlike most conferences, the Pac-10 flies commercial because of costs, and that limits flexibility in scheduling because of potential missed class time.

(reprinted with permission)



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