The Day the Conference Died
Friday, August 4, 2023. The day TV money and gross mismanagement killed the Pac-12 Conference. Only a week ago, I wrote about Colorado's defection to the Big 12, a move that left the Pac-12 reeling, with nine teams and no TV deal. Things went downhill quickly. The following day, a disappointing, subscription-heavy TV package was presented to conference members, one that didn't provide nearly enough money or exposure, one that would cripple members' recruiting efforts. For many schools, it was the final straw. Three days later, five teams left the conference for greener, more secure and stable pastures. Oregon and Washington fled to the Big Ten, joining their former Pac-12 stablemates USC and UCLA, who'd left 13 months earlier. Then Arizona, Arizona State and Utah bolted for the Big 12, joining the aforementioned Colorado. The four survivors of the picked-over carcass--Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State--were left foraging for crumbs, trying to find a life raft.
So come 2024, the once proud, century-old conference--the one that produced Jackie Robinson, John Elway, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Barry Bonds, Pat Tillman, Marcus Allen, Alex Morgan and Steve Prefontaine, Jim Plunkett, Ronnie Lott, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sabrina Ionescu, John Wooden and Tara VanDerveer -- will either be gone completely, merged with another league, or expanded to include a number of unattractive new members. This tragic state of affairs demands answers to two questions. How did we get here? And what's next?
How Did We Get Here? Two failed commissioners bear much of the blame for the demise of the Pac-12. Larry Scott, a former women's tennis executive who at the time of his hiring admitted he hadn't seen a college football game in 11 years, created the disastrous Pac-12 Network without a partner (all the other conferences have partnered with ESPN or Fox), got into a pissing match with Direct TV, and insisted on a structure with seven different costly feeds.
His arrogance was another problem. Scott, who never met a microphone he didn't like, spent lavishly on conference offices in downtown San Francisco, stayed in a $7,500 hotel suite in Las Vegas during the conference basketball tournament, and took a $2 million bonus shortly before laying off or furloughing half the conference staff in 2020. George Kliavkoff, the former MGM executive who took over after Scott was finally forced out, was clearly in way over his head. The first thing he should've done upon being hired was ask USC what he could do to keep the Trojans happy (it was well known throughout the industry that they were grumbling). Then he let the Big 12 jump ahead of him in line to secure media contracts with ESPN and Fox. Over the last year Kliavkoff has made a series of ludicrous comments and false promises that left a lot of people (me included) scratching their heads. When he finally got around to pursuing the TV deal, he immediately antagonized the networks by asking for entirely unrealistic rights fees. By that time, Disney/ESPN was in a cost-cutting, layoff mode, and Fox didn't need the Pac-12 with the Big Ten and Big 12 in hand. He also tried to block UCLA's departure and foolishly asked networks to bid on a package that included the Bruins. Two weeks ago, at the Conference's media day, Kliavkoff actually insisted that "the longer we wait for the media deal, the better our options get." Other than that, Mrs.Lincoln, how'd you like the play? There were numerous other serious missteps. In 2015 the league finally had an offer from DirecTV — but Scott and the presidents rejected it. More recently they rejected an offer from ESPN to buy equity in the league and extend its media rights into the early 2030s. Wouldn't they love to have that option right now? The TV Monster: All the missteps and failures of leadership notwithstanding, the bigger culprit here is television. The die was cast many years ago when greedy conference commissioners and athletic directors sold their souls to television. Over the last 40 years college football and basketball have become television content. Games are inventory. Players are commodities. Salaries and facility costs have gone through the stratosphere. The fans don't matter. Tradition, rivalries and geography don't matter. Academics don't matter. The term "student-athlete" has become a punchline. There is no such thing as loyalty. All that matters is money. TV money. Leagues originally were formed to provide like-minded schools, located in a geographic region, with a platform to stage athletic competitions against each other. Now schools jump from league to league in pursuit of TV dollars.
In today's world, everyone is out for themselves. No one is in charge. The regional rivalries and storied traditions that made college sports so special have been ruined for both fans and athletes. Today's conference alignments make no sense geographically. Suddenly, we are asked to care about Rutgers vs. Oregon. Suddenly, we have pro sports 2.0. So What's Next for the Pac-4? Here's what the crystal ball looks like today (bearing in mind that the situation is still very fluid): It's possible the Pac-4 could find four to six teams to add (San Diego State, SMU, Fresno, Boise, etc). Those teams would have to be willing to join a shattered league with a weak TV package (assuming some version of the Apple deal would still be on the table). Mountain West teams would also have to be willing to ante up a hefty exit fee ($34M). However, if the two leagues merge, that wouldn't come into play. It's worth noting that Gloria Nevarez, the capable and highly-respected Mountain West Commissioner, has strong ties to the Pac-12. Gloria was an associate commissioner and senior women's administrator in the conference for eight years and previously was an assistant AD at Cal. The Presidents and ADs at Stanford, Cal, WSU and OSU will take her calls. Most likely, WSU and OSU will end up in the Mt. West. You have to feel bad here for OSU coach Jonathan Smith, who's done an amazing job in Corvallis. In fact, his teams have won two of the last three from Big Ten-bound Oregon. The Bay Area Teams: Stanford and Cal have a bunch of options: 1) go along with OSU and WSU to the Mt. West; 2) lobby for an invite to the Big 10, Big 12 or ACC; 3) go independent; 4) try to form an academic league. It's hard to believe that Stanford — one of the world's premier universities, winner of more national championships than any other school in the country, and winner of 26 of the 29 Directors’ Cups honoring the most successful NCAA program across all sports — can't find a home in one of the five (now four) power conferences.
But the recent decline in football and men's basketball, half empty stadiums, and a below average TV draw will do that to you.
To maintain its level of excellence across the board, Stanford is going to need the income from either a conference distribution or its own TV package. Otherwise, sports may have to be cut.
Going independent has risk, since Stanford is not Notre Dame, which has a lucrative NBC TV deal. Could the Cardinal get someone to pay to televise its games? Questionable, at best. It might be worth considering independence as a stopgap until the Big Ten or another league hopefully comes calling. This is the tactic BYU employed before getting invited to join the Big 12.
Of course, with an endowment approaching $40 billion, Stanford's administration could decide to subsidize the athletic department without breaking a sweat.
Cal is in a more precarious position, without the academic panache or financial resources of Stanford and carrying a massive debt from its stadium renovation.
It may be time for the Bay Area schools to re-visit our idea of the "Nerd League" Academic Conference. In time some of the underperforming, strong academic schools could be pushed out of their conferences if the top brands become unwilling to share revenues with bottom feeders.
Perhaps sooner rather than later, Northwestern and Vanderbilt may no longer be welcome in the Big and SEC. Throw in Rice and Tulane (from American Athletic), Boston College (from the ACC), the three service academies--and perhaps Syracuse and Virginia--and you've got a nice league, one that I think would be very attractive to a TV network and to fans who are disgusted by the current climate. (Note: BC, Syracuse and Virginia would have to negotiate a reduced exit fee from the ACC, which currently has a TV deal stretching into the 2030s, but Florida State is going to challenge it very shortly).
Bottom Line: Money-driven conference re-alignments are destroying the tradition, rivalries and regional flavor of college sports. Not to mention the mental health and lost class time of athletes journeying 3000 miles on a commercial flight to play a field hockey game. College football has become more and more like the NFL. We may soon reach the point where there are only two or perhaps three 20-team superconferences--the Big Ten, SEC and possibly the Big 12. Where football coaches make $5 million. Where athletic directors make seven figures and feel compelled to hire 35 deputies/associates/assistants. Where schools pay tens of thousands of NIL dollars to induce recruits to sign letters of commitment or transfer.
The college sports that we've known and loved for so many years have been corrupted almost beyond recognition. Now the main goal is to feed the beast.
I'll still watch the games, but I may be holding my nose.