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Y. or Utah could still have shot at joining Pac-10

SHARE Y. or Utah could still have shot at joining Pac-10

For now, the athletic departments at BYU and Utah are busily gearing up for play in a new conference in 1999. And for the most part, those involved with the two schools are optimistic about the future and happy with the decision to break away from the Western Athletic Conference.

But, as the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side.In the words of BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg, "BYU will always ensure that it does what is in BYU's best interest. If there were a better alternative, we'd take it."

There are plenty of folks linked, directly and indirectly, to the Cougar and Ute programs who think the schools could do much better than being immersed in a new league. In fact, for years, fans, coaches and administrators alike from the U. and the Y. have been pining for membership in the prestigious Pac-10. And what they want to know is, will it ever happen?

In recent weeks, several publications from coast to coast have speculated that when the Pac-10 expands, it will extend an invitation to either BYU or Utah. The thinking goes like this: When the Big 10 adds a 12th member - and it covets Notre Dame - the game of conference align-ment musical chairs will begin anew, and the Pac-10 will go to an even dozen.

Colorado and Texas of the Big 12 have had standing offers to join the Pac-10 fold since the early 1990s. But, some observe, the Texas Board of Regents may never allow the Longhorns to abandon the other Texas schools. Colorado, a liberal institution based in Boulder, probably would have few qualms about attaching itself to the West Coast. It appears to be a natural fit, academically, athletically and philosophically. CU, after all, has long been known as the "Cal- Berkeley of the East."

As for a 12th school, what's left for the Pac-10 to choose from? Exactly. That's why it is widely believed that either BYU or Utah has a fairly legitimate shot at Pac-10 membership in the near-to-distant future.

Yet the official word out of the Pac-10 is expansion is not happening any time soon. "It's been a topic of discussion among the presidents over the last few years. But we're not actively pursuing expansion," assistant commissioner Jim Muldoon told the Deseret News in a phone interview this week from the Pac-10 offices in Walnut Creek, Calif. In the same breath, however, he added, "You never say never."

The allure of the Pacific-10 Conference is unmistakable. The 83-year-old league is steeped in tradition and reeks of glitz and glamour. The conference has produced top-flight athletes and owns an extensive, upscale fan base. Indeed, there is an aura, a mystique surrounding the Pac-10, and there is a reason why it has a trademark on the phrase and likes referring to itself as "The Conference of Champions." It may be a boast, but it's also a fact.

For instance, Pac-10 teams won 11 NCAA championships this season and 25 over the past two years. It had four teams advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the 1998 NCAA basketball tournament, and Stanford, like Utah, qualified for the Final Four, marking the fourth time in five years a Pac-10 team had made the Final Four field. Arizona and UCLA claimed titles in 1995 and 1997, respectively. In football, the Pac-10 sent six of its members to bowl games in 1997-98 and emerged with a 5-1 record. Its only blemish was Washington State's narrow loss to eventual national champ Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

"Each school is contributing to this success," said assistant public relations director Dave Hirsch. "It's strong across the board. It's one of the premier conferences in the country."

Now for the numbers that really matter these days in the world of college sports: The Pac-10 grossed $15.8 in bowl revenue ($10 million of that came from the Rose Bowl), a sum was divided among the conference's 10 schools. By contrast, the WAC earned $2.1 million from its two bowl appearances and that was divided among 16 schools.

Even though the Rose Bowl, which for decades has belonged exclusively to the Pac-10 and Big 10, is becoming a part of the Bowl Championship Series this year, don't cry for the Pac-10. Money will still be plentiful.

According to electronic communications director Duane Lind-berg, the Pac-10's television deal with ABC and FOX Sports Net for football and basketball runs through the 2005-06 season and next year the league will earn in excess of $30 million, a figure that is expected to escalate to $40 by the end of the agreement. In 1997, the Pac-10 cut its own deal with ABC and the 1998 football schedule shows ABC will broadcast 14 games involving Pac-10 teams and FOX Sports Net will televise 18 more.

Furthermore, the conference launched last year a joint marketing venture with FOX, giving birth to Pac-10 Properties, yet another cash cow. The group deals with licensing, merchandising and special events. It targets 260,000 students, 2 million alumni and 42 million people living in the Pac-10 area, which includes a bevy of major markets: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix. It emphasizes a unique market and a West Coast bond. It's a niche the conference has conscientiously carved out.

The conference is guaranteed at least $350,000 in revenue a year from Pac-10 Properties, Muldoon said. "It's also a way to line up corporate partners," he explained. To date, the conference has several, including Seven-Up, Hertz and GTE, and 25 merchandising licensees. It's a financial structure and setup that most conferences, like the WAC, can only fantasize about.

No wonder BYU and Utah have long looked at escaping to greener, which in this case means money, pastures. (The WAC as a whole earned a total of $12 million in revenue this past season.) But gaining entrance to the Pac-10 is akin to getting into an exclusive country club. Who you are, and who you know, matters.

"Most Pac-10 schools feel they're in an elite club," one reporter who has covered the Pac-10 for 20 years told the Deseret News. "They're not anxious to change."

Muldoon says the Pac-10 won't invite two more teams to its ranks simply based on what the Big 10 does. "But if the dominoes start to fall in other conferences, like the Big 12 and Big East," he said, "we'd have to look at it."

Going to a dozen schools would enable the Pac-10 to create two divisions and stage a lucrative football championship game, worth mil-lions to the conference coffers. But, Muldoon said, "It's not worth going to 12 teams for a football game."

The Pac-10 marches to the beat of its own drummer. Not only does it not have a title game in football, it's one of the few conferences remaining that doesn't hold an annual postseason basketball tour-na-ment to determine its champion. The Big 10 started a basketball tournament this past season and word is it wants to have a football championship game, too, once it finds a 12th member.

Financially, it doesn't make much sense for the Pac-10 to expand at this time. Why divide the pie 12 ways, when you only have to divide in by 10 now? "Keeping the number of teams down helps us, as compared to other conferences, in terms of revenue," Hirsch said. "With our economic standing, exposure in the media market, location and the desire to avoid di-luting the competition, we're happy where we are now. The feeling is we're already as spread out as it is and travel costs is a factor."

Yet Hirsch leaves a flicker of hope for schools who long for Pac-10 membership. "The presidents are keeping their eyes on things. It's not a closed-door situation," he said. "When and if we make changes, we will do it on our own terms."

Muldoon was asked if BYU and Utah are viable Pac-10 candidates. "Conceivably, yes," he replied. "When and if the Pac-10 does expand, it will look at the Western half of the U.S. It's not like we're going to add somebody like Miami."