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Oregon State, wandering in the Pac-2 Wilderness seeks Legislative Help

Written by Rick Metsger on Dec. 13th, 2023
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“Two can be as bad as one, it’s the loneliest number since the number one.”

Last week the President of Oregon State University and the school’s athletic director, came before the House Committee on Higher Education to plead their case for financial help in the wake of the implosion of the Pac-12 Conference. Left as roadkill by their ten conference brethren, Oregon State and Washington State have become a conference of two, facing a coming year with nobody to play and without a television partner willing to pay to watch them play the games they don’t have. 

OSU told the legislative panel that it faces a loss of $40 million in the year ahead, due in large part to a loss of broadcast television revenue. Last year the Pac-12 conference doled out $37 million to Oregon State. Next year that revenue is expected to be less than $5 million. OSU may indeed need help from the Legislature, but thus far they have not told their prospective ‘investors’ how that requested money will be used to re-establish a self-sustaining enterprise. 

The issues are real, significant, and cry for resolution. However, the most significant challenge facing both OSU and WSU is the here and now. Neither team has a complete football schedule for next fall, and with the dreaded Transfer Portal opening now all the other issues are minor skirmishes by comparison. OSU has already lost its coach, Jonathan Smith to Michigan State. Since college athletes have become essentially free agents, free to transfer from one school to another with ease, Oregon State’s desire to remain a top-tier, Power Five football program may vanish along with its player roster once the portal opens December 4th and players are allowed to change schools.

OSU is loaded with top caliber players, the kind of players other Power Five teams would love to add to their teams. These student athletes want to continue playing at the highest level, but how can they be expected to stay at OSU if no football schedule exists for which to play? No schedule, then no team and then no tv revenue contract to pay the bills for everything else. By New Year’s Day the roster could be decimated if leadership at OSU and WSU doesn’t have a viable plan that the players can touch, feel, and believe.

Putting together a new conference will take time, time the two schools do not have when it comes to ensuring a schedule of top tier opponents for next season, a prerequisite to persuade their current players to stay. The task is formidable. Schools in the other Power Five conferences already have their schedules developed for next season. Schools are already booked for their 12-game seasons and NCAA rules limit them to no more than those twelve games. They could not schedule either OSU or WSU even if they wanted to. What’s left? Lewis & Clark? Willamette?

The two schools have been silent most of the Fall on how they intend to play not only football, but all the other sports next season. Trustees put trust and hope in leadership. Lawyers then advise leadership not to talk. Hello? Are they forgetting someone? Their meal ticket, the ones needed to whittle away at that multi-million-dollar deficit -The student athletes. They will not make their decisions based on trust and hope. The student-athletes are not just a key audience-they are the only audience right now. They need to be engaged both publicly and privately. It is their decisions that will ultimately decide the success or failure of any plan the folks in the ivory tower devise. It appears now they have received the message.

It is not that OSU leadership has not been working behind the scenes. December 1st, OSU and WSU announced it had formed an alliance with the Mountain West Conference to play six games with members of that conference. That is a start. Earlier this past month, a judge in Whitman County ruled that OSU and WSU should control the Pac-12 assets (and liabilities). But that is just one step in the legal process. It will be appealed to by the defectors. That’s the long game. But right now, the two schools are operating with their backs to their own goal line.

I wrote a few weeks ago that I saw only one possibility that OSU and WSU could maintain power five relevancy in the next year or two, and least in football, while a conference rebuild process begins. They needed to publicly address the possibility of playing football in the next two years as the Pac-2 with one conference game (each other) and eleven non-conference games. They have now announced their intention to do just that. They should also muster all public and political pressure needed to force Oregon to play their instate rivals next year and beyond. The schools should demand the NCAA extend them a modified ‘Hawaii Exemption’ for the next two years. Because of the distance and cost to travel to Hawaii, teams that scheduled the University of Hawaii are allowed to play an extra 13th regular season football game.

Owning that exemption would give OSU and WSU a door opening to talk with every other Power Five team about scheduling a 13th game with them, which could be played during the ‘bye’ week in those school’s regular conference schedules. Not every school will take them up on it. They just need three or four that will.

With a Power Five schedule, OSU and WSU may entice enough of their players to stay committed to the program. Coaches may even be able to recruit again. Maybe a broadcast partner will be found that will find the schedule compelling enough to offer a contract that starts putting some money back into the depleted coffers.

Oregon State, with a projected $40 million deficit for the next year, is indeed in a world of hurt. Considering the economic, community and campus impact of losing the school’s status as a top-tier athletic participant, the Oregon Legislature may find it worthy of giving some financial assistance for the next two years. The Legislature has certainly handed out tens of millions more to other entities in the name of economic development that did not pan out all that well.

And the donors? Much is made about the support of Phil Knight at the University of Oregon as elevating that school into national prominence. Have you heard of Jensen Huang, the CEO and founder of the microchip powerhouse Nvidia? Nvidia is the darling of Wall Street. Huang is worth more than Knight and Huang is a proud OSU graduate. Last year he gave $50 million to OSU to advance research in artificial intelligence and robotics. Could he be enticed to contribute $100 million to OSU as matching funds to rebuild the Pac-12 with OSU as its anchor?

But before that would ever be considered by donors or the Legislature, OSU must demonstrate how it is going to reinvigorate the revenue stream and a viable plan to accomplish the objective. This is not a time where ‘Silence is Golden’. Our ears are listening while our eyes are watching the sand filter through the hourglass.

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