The Pac-12 is moving its conference championship game to the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara for the next three years.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, 49ers owner Jed York and team President Paraag Marathe announced the plans Thursday outside Levi’s Stadium. The first three conference championships had been held at the home of the division champion with the best conference record - Oregon in 2011, Stanford in 2012 and Arizona State last year.
Scott said the conference didn’t go through a bidding process for the title game now but did when it expanded the league with Colorado and Utah before the 2011 season, eventually settling on a home-hosted site. He mentioned Seattle, Glendale, Arizona, Denver and Los Angeles as possibilities at that time.
Scott said the “excitement and demand” surrounding the opening of the $1.2 billion stadium, located about 45 miles south of downtown San Francisco, is a unique opportunity for the conference. He compared it to the high level of attention the opulent Dallas Cowboys stadium received.
The commissioner also cited the 68,500-seat venue’s central location in the conference, the luxurious amenities and the corporate dollars in Silicon Valley as reasons to take the championship game to the neutral site. The winner will be in line for a Rose Bowl berth or a spot in the new four-team College Football Playoff.
“The importance of this game continues to increase. And with this new agreement, we’re going to be playing on one of the most exciting stages in all of football,” Scott told reporters outside the stadium in Santa Clara.
As part of the conference’s previously outlined television agreement with FOX and ESPN, the game will alternate being played on Friday night and Saturday. FOX will broadcast the game this season on Dec. 5, ESPN will show it on a Saturday next year and FOX will televise the game on a Friday night again in 2016.
The Pac-12 is following a model similar to that of other major conferences that hold championship games. The SEC, Big Ten and ACC stage their title games at neutral sites. The Big 12 no longer has a championship game.
Attendance has been good at two of the three Pac-12 title games, with nearby Stanford being the exception - partly due to rain, a rematch of the game between Stanford and UCLA played six days prior in Los Angeles and a 5 p.m. Friday kickoff that gridlocked traffic on the San Francisco Peninsula.
“A lot of events conspired against us,” Scott said in a conference call with reporters.
Marathe, the 49ers president, said he is not concerned about traffic for the Friday night games, though the Santa Clara site has not been tested with a big crowd yet.
In previous years, Scott noted the challenges of staging the championship game at a host school when the site - not to mention the teams - often isn’t known until a week before the game.
He also had acknowledged concern from some school presidents about the travel demands that fans would face if teams in the far-flung conference - which stretches from Washington to Arizona - would have to travel to Santa Clara, which is about 15 miles from the Stanford campus and just across the bay from Berkeley. But having a neutral location also has big benefits, Scott said, notably giving the conference time to plan logistics and sell tickets locally.
For the 49ers and the city, it’s a major victory as they have been trying to fill dates at the new stadium.
The NFL already has awarded the site the 50th Super Bowl to be played in February 2016. The stadium will open with a Major League Soccer game on Aug. 2 between San Jose and Seattle.
It also will serve as the new home for the upgraded Fight Hunger Bowl, which had been played at AT&T Park in San Francisco, home of Major League Baseball’s Giants. And Cal will host Oregon in a regular-season game at Levi’s Stadium on Oct. 24.
York said about 80 percent of the 49ers’ ticket base has some Pac-12 connection, and he expects the conference championship game to be a sellout.
“When we were selling suites, when we were selling seats,” York said, “this was hands down the No. 1 event people were asking about.”
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