The Big East and the Far East

While Big East Commissioner John Marinatto reaches all the way to San Diego to keep his crumbling league together, Larry Scott, his Pac 12 counterpart, continues to make himself the most intriguing figure in college athletics.

After pulling off a record-setting Pac 12 television contract this spring, Scott is looking to the Far East to extend the conference’s footprint. But as Pete Thamel wrote in The New York Times Monday, Scott’s current visit to Beijing is just as much about academic and cultural exposure as it is about athletics:

“Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors say there is a strong desire for the results to transcend sports, hoping that an increased presence in China will lead to recruitment of future students and positive cultural experiences for their athletes who travel there.”

The goal is to have some Pac 12 games in sports like basketball and volleyball to be played in China in the next few years, and Scott also has hired a Nike marketing veteran with previous experience there.

This is all unprecedented and fascinating as Scott continues to turn heads with his novel ideas. With his background with the Women’s Tennis Association, Scott has brought a creative, forward-thinking approach to college athletics that is really refreshing.

But as Sports Business Daily indicated in a June profile of Scott, it’s his consensus style that has helped elevate the Pac 12’s profile in a hurry. Said Arizona State president Michael Crow:

“The conference in the past was what I’d call sleepy and procedural. He’s made it entrepreneurial and creative. It’s been a challenge, but he has us working as a group instead of individual universities. It’s a political process and he’s been very successful at it.”

What really struck me about Scott were his comments to The Oregonian last year that he wants to see if women’s sports can turn a profit someday:

“My dream would be for us to have two or three women’s sports that not only pay for themselves but be revenue-generators.”

Now, there are a lot of skeptics about this. I count myself in that group, and even he admits it’s a long-term goal at best. But what I like the most about Scott is that he’s willing to put these thoughts out there, publicly, unlike anyone I’ve heard in his position.

If nothing else, setting such a lofty goal might be just the thing to unlock some creative marketing and promotional possibilities for some women’s and even men’s non-revenue sports.

Whether Scott’s latest ideas will bear fruit remains to be seen. But contrast that with Marinatto, who was taken totally by surprise when Syracuse and Pittsburgh bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference this fall. A glorious basketball conference is being shattered, primarily because the Big East didn’t have the proactive football chops to stay ahead of the curve. To be fair, Marinatto inherited a weak hand, and the league was made vulnerable after losing Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami to the ACC in 2004.

If its Big East football move is officially formalized, San Diego State will shift 14 other sports to the Big West, giving athletes in those sports an entirely different experience.

This may become the unfortunate reality for many schools chasing down BCS affiliations and money and committing crimes against geography. It’s truly a shame, and while college realignment is nothing new, what’s happening now in some places is the result of a lack of foresight and creative thinking.

Unlike some of the usual suspects who decry the continued commercialization of college athletics (also not a new charge), Scott has to work pragmatically inside a system that typically doesn’t welcome new ideas.

I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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