In a Scheduling First, Pac-12 and SWAC Plan Home-and-Home Basketball Games
The Southwestern Athletic Conference’s men’s basketball teams have, year after year, traveled west to play Pac-12 Conference schools. A twist is …
The Southwestern Athletic Conference’s men’s basketball teams have, year after year, traveled west to play Pac-12 Conference schools. A twist is coming in 2022: Pac-12 teams will start to travel to play the SWAC’s historically Black colleges and universities.
Under a four-year scheduling arrangement that the leagues are expected to announce on Monday, Pac-12 and SWAC programs will stage home-and-home games beginning next year. The partnership is unusual because Power 5 programs usually build their nonconference schedules around neutral site matchups that are made-for-TV showdowns against big-name brands, or home games that involve paying less wealthy and prominent schools to play.
The new plan, which calls for no money to change hands, will see SWAC schools hosting at least one high-profile nonconference game, potentially attracting more attention and ticket-buying fans to their universities in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. League executives expect that all of the games, which are to be played early in each season, will be televised.
“It kind of evens the playing field,” said Charles McClelland, the SWAC commissioner, who noted his league’s protracted struggle to attract top-tier nonconference opponents for home games. “This is something that we have been waiting for within the Southwestern Athletic Conference.”
According to McClelland, the league, founded in 1920 and based in Birmingham, Ala., has never had such an agreement with a Power 5 conference like the Pac-12, which has its offices in San Francisco.
In 2022, Southern will play at Arizona, Florida A&M will visit Oregon and Alabama State will travel to Southern California. Also in 2022, Arizona State will take a trip to Texas Southern, Washington State will compete at Prairie View A&M and Colorado will appear at Grambling State. In 2023, the teams will meet again, with the home and away programs swapped.
Alabama A&M, Alcorn State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Bethune-Cookman, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State will take the SWAC’s places in the rotation in 2024, along with California, Oregon State, Stanford, U.C.L.A., Utah and Washington from the Pac-12. The pairings for those games have not been determined.
There have been a dozen matchups between Pac-12 and SWAC teams across the last two seasons. The Pac-12 schools won all of them, including Utah’s 143-49 dismantling of Mississippi Valley State and two games that were decided by just 4 points. (In those two seasons, Florida A&M, which joined the SWAC this year, also played three road games against Pac-12 universities.)
McClelland still expects SWAC teams to travel for so-called guarantee games that lead to big payouts. But he said that the structure of the basketball season effectively made the new home games bonus opportunities for his league.
Pac-12 leaders similarly welcomed the home-and-home agreement, which Bernard Muir, Stanford’s athletic director, predicted would “open our eyes and our fan bases to an opportunity that we don’t traditionally get.”
“Certainly, there’s games that occur between Power 5s and H.B.C.U.s, but to do this across the board in both conferences, I think it’s really unique,” he said.
Dana Altman, Oregon’s coach since 2010, said he expected the trips to become important learning experiences for players in the two leagues. In an interview, he recalled a 1999 trip to Mississippi Valley State, in Itta Bena, Miss., with one of his Creighton teams as revelatory.
“It was good at the time, just that our guys went to a small campus in a very small town,” said Altman, who once had Florida A&M’s coach, Robert McCullum, on his staff at Oregon. “I think this trip will be good for our players, especially when they learn about the school and get some of the history of the school.”
Some SWAC schools, officials said, are considering playing their home games under the arrangement at bigger, off-campus arenas in their areas.
Although the SWAC commands large home crowds for football games — the most of any conference outside the Power 5 or Group of 5 leagues that dominate Division I football — it has struggled to draw audiences for men’s basketball. For the 2019-20 season, the league ranked 29th of the 32 Division I conferences in home basketball attendance, and its schools averaged fewer than 1,600 people per home game.
The Pac-12’s schools, by contrast, typically drew more than 7,000 fans per game.
Jason Cable, the athletic director at Alabama State, said U.S.C.’s appearance there in 2023 would be the university’s most significant nonconference game at home in memory. He said that the exposure and opportunity would be valuable to a university like Alabama State, the lone Division I school in Montgomery, and he predicted that those benefits would outweigh the value of a check that would be earned through another road trip.
“There’s not many opportunities to see Division I athletics, let alone a school from the Pac-12 coming into our city,” Cable said. “U.S.C. is a national brand, and I think anytime they show up, it brings a significant amount of attention. There will be some individuals coming out for U.S.C. — and at the same time, their eyes will be placed on our campus and Alabama State.”
Officials in both conferences said the scheduling idea sprung from the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year, an event that led to protests across the country, including in college sports. Coaches and league officials said they had brainstormed ways to respond to the demonstrations and to expose players to a broader swath of American life and culture.
“We really wanted to do something that was tangible and differentiated from what was done in the past,” said Jamie Zaninovich, the Pac-12’s deputy commissioner and the league’s lead negotiator for the arrangement. “We sort of sat around and looked around and said ‘What a statement that would be if we agreed to go on the road to play home-and-homes.’”
McClelland’s league was an eager partner, particularly since he said he had urged colleagues in the industry to “not just come up with a mission statement.”
“Never,” he said, “have they invested in coming to our campuses.”
Although the new partnership is limited for now to men’s basketball, Zaninovich said Pac-12 officials “hope to look at similar opportunities” in other sports.