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The Case for Stanford Football Going Independent

Out of the so-called Pac-4, the Stanford Cardinal stand the best chance to survive what has become the literal worst-case conference realignment scenario out west.

Fans, sportswriters, and pundits alike spent the past weekend mourning what the loss of the Pac-12. The league once called the Conference of Champions (never mind that they haven’t won a championship in football since 2004 or men’s basketball since 1997) is almost certainly doomed. With Washington and Oregon headed for the Big Ten and Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado bound for the Big 12, only four Pac-12 members remain.

As of this writing, Washington State, Oregon State, California, and Stanford are all alone. The Mountain West seems like a logical landing spot for that group, and it comes with some upsides, namely geographic fit and a linear TV deal that’s up in two years and due for a bump. But Stanford, who has been as miserable as the rest of the “Pac-4” of late in football and men’s basketball, may have another option to explore.

It’s an option that will sound crazy. It’s far from an ideal situation, and might not work at all in the long term. But in a world with no great options, this one might be the Cardinal’s best shot.

Stanford should seriously consider going independent in football. It can park its other sports in the American Athletic Conference or Mountain West in the meantime.

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Money Matters

Financially, Stanford is taking a hit no matter what. The Pac-12 was last among the Power Five conferences in revenue distribution last year, but still managed to dole out $37 million per school. There is no world in which Stanford can come close to matching that in the near future, save for a last-second invite from a super-conference. If it joins the Mountain West, alternatively, the Cardinal would enter a conference that currently distributes around $4 million per year in media rights revenue to its full-time members and would have to settle for a fraction of that without football.

So, what could Stanford football command on its own as an FBS independent? It’s hard to say — but it’s something.

The problem is that there’s no 1:1 comparison here. You can look at Notre Dame, arguably the biggest football brand in the country, and the $22 million per year it makes off its solo deal with NBC, but Stanford can’t hope to approach that. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s UConn, who negotiated a deal with CBS when the program wasn’t just bad, but historically awful. The Huskies make an estimated $500,000 from putting five-or-so home games per year on CBS Sports Network.

Stanford can certainly do better than that.

Ray Katz, COO of Collegiate Sports Management Group, speculated that an independent Stanford could command in the “high six figures” per game, maybe even approaching $1 million. He argues that while the football team itself isn’t great — four straight losing seasons including just 14 wins combined — Stanford would naturally fill a west coast time slot. That may have some extra appeal now that there is no Pac-12 Conference to speak of, which guaranteed multiple high-major teams playing in the Pacific time zone each week.

There’s another element at play for Stanford, too, and one that isn’t necessarily an issue at other schools: The university has a $36 billion endowment, the fourth-highest of all private schools in the country. That’s not necessarily an indicator of how much it can spend on athletics, however, because the vast majority of that money is expressly off-limits to Cardinal athletics. Because Stanford isn’t public, we don’t know the exact numbers at play, but the university argues its athletics budget is much smaller than its peer institutions because the athletic department functions as a separate entity.

Sure, these are non-traditional times that may call for non-traditional solutions, but despite some recent reports suggesting the contrary, it all makes a potential leap to the ACC difficult to reconcile.

The additional costs that would fall on Stanford University sending all its sports teams fully across the country for every in-conference road game would be astronomical, and you have to figure the Cardinal wouldn’t even be starting with a full share of ACC revenue. This is not to mention that the ACC is now the least-stable of the remaining power conferences, either, what with Florida State publicly pushing for a way out. In light of the logistics, the timing just doesn’t look great there.

Making the Schedule Work

Finances aside, the biggest drawback to the idea of an independent Stanford is how difficult it is to make a college football schedule. This is especially so now that more conferences have gone to nine league games instead of eight.

That said, Stanford just might have the pull to do it in the short term.

Think of it this way: The Pac-12 had most recently played a nine-game conference schedule and the Mountain West only plays eight. If Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State all end up there, they will each need to tack on one more game. Fellow independents UConn and Army also have openings for next season, and independents (Notre Dame excluded) generally rely on each other to fill out each other’s schedules anyway. If Stanford does park its other sports in the Mountain West (or the American, for that matter) it can probably get a handful of games per year against those opponents, similar to what Notre Dame does with the ACC.

Speaking of Notre Dame, Stanford also has a current series with the Irish that folks in South Bend just might be willing to extend…

A Modern Model

Conventional wisdom has always suggested that only a few college brands could truly make independence work long-term (think Notre Dame and BYU). That may still be true even in the dawning super-conference era, and Stanford football has the history, NFL alumni, and national recognition to do it. But in this hypothetical world in which Stanford goes independent, the total number of independent teams in FBS football rises to five alongside Notre Dame, UConn, UMass, and Army. We’re also at a time in which power conferences require more travel than ever, so if other teams decide independence is the way to go, at least for a few seasons until the worst of the realignment chaos blows over, this approach could quickly become more sustainable.

Maybe it starts with Stanford’s age-old Bay Area rival, Cal, which could easily decide it does not want to play football in a Group of Five conference (or whatever those will be called now). Those two schools alone wouldn’t trigger a cascade of independence, but could provide a model down the road if aspects of the super-conference model prove unsustainable.

The thought of a power conference team making a bazillion dollars suddenly going independent is, for now, absurd, but there’s no guarantee that this will always be the case. Immediately, we saw Oregon softball players voicing their displeasure at the Ducks’ move to the Big Ten move, and there’s a real possibility this kneecaps Olympic sports at a lot of these institutions located thousands of miles from their new conference rivals.

Football drives the bus, yes, but this matters beyond just the increase in travel costs. UCLA says it is emphasizing student-athlete mental health as it makes its own Big Ten transition, but the priority is still money. There’s at least one universe in which the west coast schools quickly lose ground in non-football sports because the student-athlete experience just isn’t good. Think that’s nothing to UCLA men’s basketball? Or Washington softball? Or Cal water polo?

Those are all important brands, and if you’re scoffing at Cal water polo, I suggest this piece from Pat Forde on the Olympic impact on conference realignment. Football does dominate the spotlight, but Team USA is a force to be reckoned with.

There’s no guarantee the super-conference era lasts — realignment has never truly stopped since the NCAA came into existence and there’s no reason to think it will now. Schools need to look out for themselves first, and while the Stanfords of the world may not have any great options here and now, this could be the perfect time to get creative.

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