The Pac-12 Needs a Life Preserver
The once proud Pac-12 Conference, the one Bill Walton likes to call "the conference of champions" at every opportunity, has taken up residence in the Intensive Care Unit.
It's not on life support yet, but most assuredly it is in critical condition. The problem is that no one, it seems, is very interested in the league's media rights. That is, to put it mildly, a life-threatening disorder. Football and basketball TV rights fees are the lifeblood of college athletics. They fund most Olympic sports programs. They are the reason schools jump from conference to conference. Why games are scheduled every night of the week and kickoff times aren't decided until six or 12 days out. Why things like tradition, rivalries, loyalty and academics no longer matter much to the commissioners, athletic directors and head coaches whose pockets are lined with booty from the efforts of 18 to 22 year old "student-athletes."
The Pac-12's appeal has diminished for a number of reasons.
The conference has been AWOL from the College Football Playoff for the last six years. It hasn't won an NCAA basketball title since before the turn of the century. Its two biggest attractions from a TV standpoint, USC and UCLA, announced last June that they were leaving for the greener pastures of the Big Ten come 2024, meaning that the league will no longer have teams in the LA market or its men's basketball standard-bearer. Despite these value-deflating realities, rookie commissioner George Kliavkoff boldly promised he would get a deal done for more than $40 million per year per school. That was never realistic, but it became even more unlikely when another rookie commissioner, the Big 12's Brett Yormark--whose rights were due to expire a year after the Pac-12's--leapfrogged Kliavkoff and cut a deal with ESPN and Fox. Checkmate. At one time Kliavkoff had hoped to announce a deal by Pac-12 media day in late July. Then, after the LA schools' defections, the target day was Thanksgiving. Here we are in February, the podium is vacant, and his options are decreasing mostly rapidly (apologies to Sting). Fox has cast its lot with the Big Ten and Big 12. ESPN has partnered with the SEC and ACC, and also kept a piece of the Big 12. NBC and CBS are both in bed with the Big Ten. ESPN has been Kliavkoff's most likely suitor, because the network needs West Coast inventory to fill the late night TV window, and "Pac-12 After Dark" has become a popular staple. But ESPN knows the Pac-12 is desperate and is not offering anywhere near what Kliavkoff wants. The Big 12's pricetag, $31.7 million per school, for all intents and purposes established a ceiling for the Pac-12. At this point, it may be hard to even reach that ceiling. Other options include Amazon and Apple, but with every other Power Five league on over-the-air and cable networks, it would be an embarrassment for the Pac-12 to air the bulk of its games on a streaming service. The limited exposure, damage to the brand, and impact on recruiting would be disastrous. I'd be remiss not to point out here that this is what happens when a league makes an "out of the box" hire like Kliavkoff, and like Larry Scott before him. The Pac-12 has needed an experienced hand in the commissioner's chair since Tom Hansen retired. Instead they've gone with men who have no background in college sports. Scott convinced the league's presidents to go it alone with the Pac-12 Network, rather than partnering with ESPN or Fox, as the Big Ten, SEC and ACC did. The other conference networks are all thriving. The Pac-12's has been an utter failure. It was recently discovered to owe one of its distributors $50 million and is likely to be shuttered entirely. No question Kliavkoff inherited a mess, but he was completely caught off guard by the exodus of the LA teams. His claim that UCLA would lose money by moving to the Big Ten was ludicrous. His insistence that TV networks submit bids for a conference including UCLA was laughable. Every day the Pac-12 goes without a new deal, it becomes more desperate and more vulnerable. Kliavkoff may try to add value through expansion--with San Diego State and SMU the likely targets--but they wouldn't move the needle much. Whatever deal Kliavkoff comes up with, hopefully very soon, must be attractive enough that conference members agree to grant their rights. If the deal is less than the Big 12's, or if a significant number of games are going to air on Amazon, some schools may decide to jump ship. The Big 12 is lurking, and Yormark would love nothing better than to poach Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado. The Big Ten's interest in further expansion diminished when commissioner Kevin Warren left to become CEO of the Chicago Bears, but if the Pac-12 suddenly collapsed, I believe they'd take a hard look at Oregon, Washington and Stanford. So the clock is ticking on the Pac-12. Hopefully the countdown will end with a media deal that holds the league together rather than one that tears it apart.