Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday that Pac-12 brass is negotiating to move the Pac-12 Championship game out of campus sites and into Levi’s Stadium. On Wednesday, Bud Withers of The Seattle Times reported that Seattle’s CenturyLink Field may have its own bid.
Indeed, the Pac-12 Championship’s move to a neutral site and NFL stadium appears to be inevitable.
Editor’s note: This move was made official on May 16.
Motivations for a move to an NFL stadium are apparent. Travel planning is easier with more than a week for preparation. I can attest personally to the challenges of making arrangements with just a few days’ notice, having to make my own in order to cover this year’s Pac-12 Championship pitting Stanford against Arizona State.
Most obvious is the point one source addressed to CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd: “A ****-load of money.”
For those not fluent in asterisk, I’ll translate: the conference stands to generate a whole lot of revenue with this move.
There are also inherent risks.
A replay of the Pac-12’s failed attempt to build its conference basketball championship into the West Coast version of the Big East Tournament is a real possibility.
Upon its relaunch in 2002, the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament spent a decade in Los Angeles at Staples Center. Circumstances were similar: previous tournaments were held at the site of the No. 1 seed, the venue was new, there was money to be made and the tournament could attract more attention to the conference.
Staples Center never quite caught on as premier attraction, which often made for a disappointing atmosphere that did not reflect well on the Pac-12.
Basketball found the right venue in 2013 with its move to Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, but football does not have a long feeling-out period in which to get this right.
Pac-12 football is at a critical point with 2014 marking the debut of the College Football Playoff. The league has just started to build a cachet on the national landscape, earning praise for its level of play throughout the conference.
The SEC and now-defunct Big 12 Championships had no issue presenting their events as big-time, but the culture of those conferences is different. The Pac-12 could face a learning curve more comparable to that of the ACC and Big Ten.
In three of its first five championship games, the ACC had attendances of 53,212 in the 76,867-seat Jacksonville Municipal Stadium; and 27,360 and 44,897 in the 65,908-seat Raymond James Stadium. Only after it moved to Charlotte did the ACC finds its niche.
In 2012, the Big Ten attracted just 41,260 to the nearly 70,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium, despite featuring two programs with fanbases recognized for traveling well: Nebraska and Wisconsin.
There is also the challenge of creating a genuine college football atmosphere, which can be difficult at NFL stadiums that are built with luxury boxes as the top priority.
By hosting the Pac-12 Championship on campuses, the conference does not have to manufacture atmosphere. Walking the grounds just outside of Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium last December, I was entrenched in a big-game, college football atmosphere—because that’s exactly what it was.
The bars and restaurants outside Sun Devil Stadium were packed. Fans tailgated in the parking lot. It was exactly the kind of scene one expects from a college football Saturday.
Commissioner Larry Scott recognized it, as well. In his state of the conference address prior to the Dec. 7, 2013 Stanford-Arizona State matchup, Scott discussed the pluses of playing the championship at a Pac-12 university venue.
“Been on campus for a few hours, and definitely sense the buzz about this game,” Scott said. “[It] is everything we hoped for when we created the Pac-12 football championship game in this model. The city’s going to benefit, the community, the university and the fans are rewarded with this extra game and are able to support their team that earned it with the best record in the conference.”
Scott was also forthright about the conference’s consideration of a move away from the campus model, saying the Pac-12 was in talks with various NFL suitors.
Campus sites have not batted 1.000 for producing a big-time feel, either. The excellent 2012 championship between UCLA and Stanford drew a dismal 31,622 to Stanford Stadium, the result of wretched weather and a kickoff time that coincided with Friday rush hour traffic.
The conference is on a rotating schedule, with championship-game broadcasting rights shared between Fox and ESPN. The Fox broadcasts are slated for Fridays, including this year’s, which could be the first neutral-venue championship.
The Friday-night scheduling is a conundrum in its own right, regardless of location. Traffic issues that contributed to the low attendance at the 2012 Pac-12 Championship could pose a problem at Levi’s Stadium, but would be an even more grave concern for a title game at the Coliseum or Rose Bowl.
Location is sure to be a point of contention for other, much different reasons. As Scott mentioned in his address, the on-campus championship currently rewards the team with the conference’s best record. Had Levi’s Stadium been open and the 2013 Pac-12 Championship played there, 8-1 Arizona State would have played in 7-2 Stanford’s backyard.
Given Los Angeles’ two stadiums are home to Pac-12 teams, home-field advantage is more of an issue in the City of Angels. Washington played its 2012 home slate at CenturyLink Field; moreover, as the northernmost possible location in the conference, Seattle could present travel challenges for a matchup not featuring teams from Washington or Oregon.
San Diego is easily accessible from most Pac-12 cities and a destination location, but the cavernous Qualcomm Stadium is not the best of venues.
Las Vegas is good to Pac-12 basketball, but UNLV’s current home of Sam Boyd Stadium holds just 40,000—far less than any Pac-12 venue. Sam Boyd Stadium is also far removed from The Strip.
Until Sin City sorts out the on-going debate about building a stadium on The Strip, the NFL’s newest venue is a logical choice for the Pac-12 Championship. But moving away from campuses is still a gamble.