The Pac-12 Conference’s Good-Bye Tour will continue this week with another “last” — the last basketball tournament, which is being played in Las Vegas.

After some 108 years of college athletics, the league is going out of business and the family is splitting up. Following the basketball season, the Pac-12 will play its last spring sports season and close up shop.

The demise of the Pac-12 last fall sent shockwaves through the college sports world. The internet is filled with countless Pac-12 obituaries and nostalgic lists of the league’s great moments and the top athletes in each sport and at each school, etc. The league’s fall has been repeatedly second-guessed, lamented and analyzed as if it were a crime scene.

Who saw this coming over the last century? As ESPN noted, this was a league whose name was always a count-up, not a count-down — Big-5, Big-6, Pac-8, Pac-10, Pac-12. Now: Pac-0.

The Pac-12 has been a legendary brand, the league of John Wooden, Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Mike Garrett, Marcus Allen, Jackie Robinson, more than 500 national titles, hundreds of Olympic gold medals and a dozen Heisman winners. Generations grew up watching Pac-12 schools in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. And now the league is going, going … sold off to the highest bidders for spare parts. It will soon be as forgotten as the once-great Southwest Conference.

USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon will join the Big Ten. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will join the Big 12. Stanford and Cal will join the Atlantic Coast Conference. Oregon State and Washington State, with no good options, signed up with the West Coast Conference in 12 sports for a two-year run.

It’s the end of an era.

The league’s demise was ultimately sealed in boardrooms, but it was not helped by its declining performance on the field. The Pac-12 billed itself as the “Conference of Champions,” but it has not backed up that claim for some time in the two major sports. The Pac-12 has not won a national basketball championship since 1997. It hasn’t won a national football title since 2007, although it claims Utah’s unofficial share of the 2008 title, which was three years before the Utes joined the league.

The Pac-12′s reputation has been slipping for some time and might have been overblown to begin with. It was built on the back of just two schools. Not counting UCLA, the league has won only four national basketball championships in more than a century, and, not counting USC, the Pac-12 hasn’t won a national football title since 1991. The league’s real strength has been the Olympic sports — swimming, track and field.

Related
Next school(s) to leave the Pac-12, turn out the lights

Notwithstanding, the Pac-12 has been a mainstay in college sports. It survived (and played through) the Great Depression and two world wars, but it couldn’t overcome TV rights deals and the modern machinations of college football.

The league’s demise was about one sport — football — and all that came with it: turf wars, money and greed, the lack of a central governing body (it certainly isn’t the NCAA), TV contracts, the West Coast time zone, declining performance on the field, the ongoing realignment craze, the failures of two commissioners …

The Pac-12 was the only Power Five conference that could not secure a long-term TV rights deal. That contributed to the departures of UCLA and USC to the Big Ten, which sealed the Pac-12′s fate. They were the faces of the league. The Big 12 was able to survive the departures of its two biggest brands, Texas and Oklahoma, because the league was able to secure a media rights deal and add new schools. The TV contract combined with the pilfering of four teams from the Pac-12 also hurt the latter’s ability to find its own TV deal, which might have been by design.

The 2024 Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

The Southeastern Conference signed a $3 billion, 10-year TV deal, which begins this year. The Atlantic Coast Conference has a 12-year, $1 billion deal, averaging $83.3 million per year. The Big Ten signed a new seven-year deal, effective in 2024, that will pull in about $7 billion. The Big 12 signed a new TV deal that will pay $2.3 billion through the 2030-31 season.

The Pac-12 was looking for a similar deal, but the league was beset with problems, some of which were impossible to overcome. Based in the West Coast time zone, its games were televised too late to attract East Coast fans. The league’s own TV network was a bust. Pac-12 teams became irrelevant.

The league’s leadership seemed oblivious to these realities. Pac-12 reporter John Canzano reported last October that the league had the opportunity to survive but overreached in negotiations. According to Canzano, ESPN offered the Pac-12 $30 million per school — which paled in comparison to the deals the other Power Five conferences had arranged, but the Pac-12 wasn’t in a good position to negotiate (a fact that escaped the Pac-12). The conference countered with $50 million, which was immediately rejected. Canzano reported that the idea for the $50 million counter came from Utah president Taylor Randall. He believed it would be the starting point of negotiations — but it was the ending point.

Randall provided a written explanation to Canzano: “The Pac-12 Presidents and Chancellors worked collectively in pursuit of a new media rights agreement. Though an offer was made by one of our media partners, we elected to take the rights to market to get the best deal. Throughout the process, many of the CEOs — including myself — pushed to ensure that the conference was aggressive to secure the very best agreement we could. Several conference schools retained their own consultants to value the league, which resulted in a range of estimations. It is my understanding that any mention of $50 million, which was higher than any valuation, was only as a potential starting point in negotiations to help get us to the estimated true value.”

Oops.

The blunders by Pac-12 commissioners have been catastrophic. In 2021, after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were fleeing to the SEC, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby proposed a merger with the Pac-12. That would’ve given the new league 20 teams and markets in all time zones, and greatly enhanced their ability to negotiate a TV deal. The Pac-12 rejected it.

When UCLA and USC announced in 2022 that they would leave the Pac-12, the league failed to act quickly in finding replacement schools. Then last year, the Big 12, having been rebuffed two years earlier by the Pac-12, poached four schools, Utah, Colorado, Arizona State and Arizona.

“There’s a century of history that has gone by the wayside because this conference has mismanaged itself on a bunch of different levels,” Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said during a press conference last summer. “And when you have poor leadership, one of the outcomes is failure. That’s what has happened to the Pac-12.”

The loss of the Pac-12 is a loss for regional rivalries, a loss for fans, a loss for tradition. It is also a loss for the U.S. Olympic effort.

According to reporter Jack Purdy, four Pac-12 schools top the list of universities with the most Olympic medalists, and it’s not even close — USC (337), Stanford (328), UCLA (286) and Cal (239). Texas and Michigan are a distant fifth (166). According to The Washington Post, the top four Pac schools have combined to win more Olympic medals than the next 10 schools combined (which includes two Pac-12 schools, Washington and Arizona).

“Those four schools, in particular, have dominated Olympic participation, especially in the Summer Games,” Olympic historian Bill Mallon told the Post.

The demise of the Pac-12 could greatly affect the quality of U.S. national teams. The conference supports broad-based athletic programs like no other conference in the country — in other words, they field strong nonrevenue (Olympic) sports, such as track and field, swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, etc.

Those sports are collateral damage in the football wars. At the end of the day, the league had to adapt to the rapidly changing times or die; it died.