With the new Pac-12 TV deal done it's time to look to the future. The money is secure, but the entire process made it clear that the conference is heading in a new direction under commissioner Larry Scott. No longer is the conference settling for what is easy. Now they're pushing for what could be best, even if there is significant risk involved. So, with that in mind and the conference taking complete control of all Pac-12 events it's time to consider what will become of the conference's two marquee events.
One is the new Pac-12 Championship Game for football, which will be played for the first time fall. For the first season it will be played at the home site of the team with that better record. That is different than the other power conferences, all of whom play their title game at a neutral site NFL stadium. The SEC keeps their game at the same site, playing at the Georgia Dome every season. The Big 12 and the ACC have rotated the game around and the Big 10 will play their first title game in Indianapolis this fall, but they may move it elsewhere in future years.
The Pac-10 Basketball Tournament has been at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles ever since it was revived in 2002. This has drawn criticism from coaches of the eight teams not in Los Angeles, but the tournament was operated by Fox Sports, which is based in Los Angeles and wanted it at Staples Center. After 2012, the tournament will no longer be run by Fox Sports and instead by the conference. Scott has said they will consider moving the tournament, although it has been speculated that new TV partners Fox and ESPN would prefer that it stay in LA.
So, with these options available, what should the Pac-12 do with their two marquee events when changes can be made starting in the 2012-2013 season.
Football Title Game
The first question for the conference is whether the game should stay at the home stadium of the higher seed or move to a neutral site. The pro of keeping it at a home site is that it is guaranteed to fill the stadium. That counts for a lot considering how embarrassing the tens of thousands of empty seats at the ACC Title Game has been for that conference as well as the questionable passion for football at some Pac-12 schools.
If the Pac-12 does decide to go to a neutral site, there aren't a lot of options for sites though. Phoenix has an incredible stadium in University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals, the Fiesta Bowl and a Super Bowl host stadium. Denver has Invesco Field, a gorgeous stadium near downtown, but Denver in December probably won't draw a ton of fans. Qwest Field in Seattle is fantastic, but there isn't an option in Oregon. The Bay Area has no modern stadiums and neither does Los Angeles. The Rose Bowl could be an option, but getting the city to approve a Friday night game would be tough so they probably join the Bay Area in hoping stadium proposals get passed. In the meantime, Phoenix, Denver and Seattle are the only options.
The other problem is a neutral site is whether or not the stadium would fill if a local team isn't playing. Another option is playing at a truly neutral site in a neutral stadium. The only city that fits the bill is Las Vegas. Getting fans to go to Las Vegas wouldn't be tough and the city would undoubtedly put on a great show, but right now they don't have a usable stadium. The only one is Sam Boyd Stadium, which is much too small. If it could be upgraded or another stadium could be built, as is being proposed, Vegas could be the ideal annual home to the game. If not, home sites are probably the best way to go.
It is no secret that the Pac-10 Basketball Tournament hasn't drawn well at Staples Center. Every year there are empty seats with a half-full arena considered a good turnout. The atmosphere is poor and it undoubtedly benefits UCLA and USC by getting to be so close to home. That doesn't mean that the tournament should definitely leave Staples Center though. The potential of Los Angeles still outstrips any other venue.
The conference has had rather poor marketing and there's been little done in the way of travel packages to entice fans to travel. Furthermore, they have struggled to create an environment that makes people feel like it's a big event. That said, there are more alumni of all Pac-12 schools in Los Angeles than anywhere else. If done properly, the conference could get many more fans out to the arena just by targeting the alumni and fill the seats. A full Staples Center would make for a fantastic atmosphere in the conference's biggest TV market.
If the conference decides to move the tournament around it could go to NBA arenas in Phoenix, Oakland, Salt Lake City, Denver and Portland or the arena in Seattle the Sonics used to play in. All of them are relatively modern arenas capable of hosting the tournament. They're in relatively large cities, some larger than others, and would have the hotels and other accommodations necessary to host. The question in those cities is whether the arena would be empty if a local team isn't playing. None have the alumni bases of LA to draw upon.
The best bet for the conference is to give Los Angeles another year or two to prove it can fill the arena. With the tournament under the direction of the Pac-12 there would be new leadership to try a new approach. If that approach can fill the arena then Staples Center would be a smart permanent venue. While it is undoubtedly an advantage for UCLA and USC, a full arena with a great atmosphere would make the tournament the best it could be. If after a year or two still at Staples Center under new direction doesn't start to fill up the arena, the travelling road show should begin, moving the tournament to any of the other possible venues around the conference.