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WCC Seeks More Exposure, Competition

July 11, 2008

By Curtis Pashelka
Contra Costa Times

SAN BRUNO, Calif. -- Jamie Zaninovich is comfortably seated in front of his desk when a man's voice comes over the speakerphone to ask if he's inside his office. After Zaninovich explains that he's in a meeting, the caller says he'll try again later.

"I don't even know how to answer the phone," Zaninovich said.

A little over a month into his new job as West Coast Conference commissioner, Zaninovich admits he's still finding his way.

But as he follows Michael Gilleran, who held the post for 24 years and helped secure a multi-year national television deal with ESPN, Zaninovich, with his background in marketing, is excited about bringing the WCC into the digital age as it seeks to become the most visible and competitive non-BCS conference in the country.

"I think the recognition part is as important as the competitive part," Zaninovich said. "The competitive part has to do with the fundamental success of our schools. The recognition part is more challenging because we are in large media markets, but we're not the top dog in those markets.

"That's the part that we have to commit ourselves, from a branding and exposure standpoint, to tell the great stories that we have in this conference."

Zaninovich earned a bachelor's degree from Stanford in 1993 and a MBA from its business school in 2001 before spending the next two years as the school's senior assistant athletic director for strategic planning and men's basketball operations.

He worked at Princeton University for the past five years as its senior associate A.D. for external relations, where he negotiated a television agreement with ESPN and helped to build the athletic department's brand identity.

With the WCC's television contact with ESPN for men's basketball in place for at least the next three years, Zaninovich is looking at increasing the conference's exposure through regional television and the Internet. More games in sports such as volleyball, soccer and baseball, where the WCC had nationally ranked teams in recent years, could be streamed online.

"The media landscape is changing so quickly," Zaninovich said. "We need to be strategic in not chasing that, but understanding where it's going and putting a strategy in place to grow with the changes in new media. It'll take a little bit of time to kind of figure out where we want to go with it, but certainly there are a lot of opportunities."

But men's basketball remains the WCC's driving force. With a record three teams -- Gonzaga, St. Mary's and San Diego -- making the NCAA Tournament in March, and most of the players from those teams returning this season, it appears the conference is on the verge of one of its greatest eras.

To increase fairness and perhaps national exposure, the WCC is holding the 2009 conference's men's and women's basketball tournaments in Las Vegas. Zaninovich said the conference, working with ESPN, is also looking at holding men's basketball games on Thursdays and Saturdays instead of Saturdays and Mondays, starting this season.

Zaninovich is meeting with representatives from the eight WCC schools this week in Lake Tahoe to talk about the possible schedule change and other opportunities as the conference moves forward.

"We'll talk about whatever is best for the league and helps get us the most exposure," said St. Mary's athletic director Mark Orr, who will be in Lake Tahoe. "We had three men's basketball teams get into the NCAA Tournament, so there's definitely an opportunity to grow."