Imagine the Stanford football team facing top-ranked Texas in a prime-time showdown. Or Cal and Oklahoma squaring off on the Pac-16 Television Network. Or both Bay Area teams earning tens of millions of dollars annually.
We're oh-so-close to those delicious possibilities.
The Pac-10 Conference is on the brink of transforming the college sports landscape by expanding to become the nation's first 16-team superconference — a stunning development for a league long averse to change.
The reason for expansion is not a high-minded academic pursuit but a raw, unrelenting need for cash to support its financially strapped athletic departments. In recent years, Pac-10 schools have fallen behind their peers in the Big Ten Conference, who receive more than $22 million annually in television and bowl revenue.
The Pac-10, which distributes about $9 million to its teams, believes expansion is the best way to boost revenue. Each new member would increase the number of TV-watching households within the league's geographic footprint. And in theory, more eyeballs would mean more dollars when the league negotiates a new television contract next winter.
"There's only one place in college sports where there are huge dollars to be had, and that's football television," said a college sports official familiar with the Pac-10's plans.
The first piece to the expansion puzzle fell into place Thursday, when Colorado, a member of the Big 12 Conference, accepted an invitation to join the Pac-10 beginning with the 2012 football season. (Colorado is the league's first addition since Arizona and Arizona State came on board in 1978.)
Whether the Pac-10 adds one more team or five more teams depends largely on Nebraska, a member of the fractious Big 12 conference.
If Nebraska jumps into the wealthy Big Ten — a widely expected move that could come as early as today — then the Big 12 is expected to break apart. (It would cease operations after the 2011-2012 school year.)
Five teams, including national powers Texas and Oklahoma, would jump into the Pac-10, which at that point would have to be renamed. The 16-team conference would split into two eight-team divisions:
Stanford, Cal, UCLA, USC, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State would form the western division.
Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado would join the Arizona schools in the eastern division.
The division winners likely would meet for the conference championship, with the winner advancing to the Rose Bowl (or the national championship game).
With seven of the nation's top 16 television markets within its expanded footprint, the Pac-16 would have the eyeballs to form its own network and distribute upward of $20 million annually to each school.
"It was clear that the Pac-10 was undervalued from a monetary standpoint," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero tolf the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "The exploration of expansion made sense."
But it's not a done deal just yet. If Nebraska doesn't leave the Big 12, sources believe that conference probably will remain intact — perhaps with Texas Christian filling the void left by Colorado. (Several other unlikely scenarios could block the formation of a superconference, including a power play by the Texas state legislature.)
If it cannot expand to 16 teams, the Pac-10 would invite Utah as the 12th — and final — member. The league then would split into two six-team divisions, with the winners playing for the conference title.
But make no mistake: The Pac-12 wouldn't command anywhere close to the television dollars that come with a 16-team superconference. Nor would it generate as much media attention. And it would allow the college sports landscape to remain largely intact.
At least momentarily.