Black Friday In The Pacific

My best friend who lives in the Pacific Northwest was out of pocket yesterday, and on the heels of her grandma turning 90 I was a notch worried.  Finally after a fretful day she texted me back that all was fine with them, but there had been a power outage in the area.

Judging by what went down with their top tier universities yesterday, I dare say they fared better than the conference they jumped ship from.  And as what’s left of THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Billy Witz recapped, the de facto death of the Pac 12 Conference came relatively swiftly:

Two weeks ago, George Kliavkoff, the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference, stood on a Las Vegas nightclub stage and — after a video montage celebrating the league’s rich history of star quarterbacks that runs to the present — confidently proclaimed a bright future.

A new media rights deal would be announced “in the near future,” he said at the conference’s football media day. The impending agreement would lock in 10 schools and pave the way for expansion, eliminating the uncertainty that had hovered over the Pac-12 since the University of Southern California and U.C.L.A. had bolted for the Big Ten last summer.

Kliavkoff waved off concerns about the Big 12 poaching his schools.

“The truth is we have bigger fish to fry,” Kliavkoff said.

By the end of Friday, the Pac-12 was cooked.

A week after Colorado jumped to the Big 12, two of the conference’s remaining cornerstones, Oregon and Washington, refused to agree to a proposed television contract they deemed insufficient and instead headed to the Big Ten. Later, Arizona leapt to the Big 12, taking Arizona State and Utah with them.

By nightfall, all that was left of the Pac-12 were Stanford, California, Washington State, Oregon State and the memories of a century-old alliance.

Kliavkoff is being castigated mercilessly today as a clueless and tone-deaf leader who was bereft of the skills needed to save a sinking ship.  There is no less unforgiving an analyst out there than Trojan Wire’s Matt Zemek, who authored a lengthy narrative of how he believes things began to unraveling from the start of his reign:

We don’t have a transcript of the dialogue between the Pac-12’s school chancellors and presidents and the people they interviewed to replace Larry Scott.

Yet, as the Pac-12 teeters on the brink of collapse, we can be very confident in saying this much: The job interview process did not go well. It wasn’t handled well. The Pac-12 CEO Group didn’t understand what kind of leader it needed, and George Kliavkoff didn’t fully grasp the dimensions of his situation.

People reading this might say, “But wait: George Kliavkoff took over the Pac-12 before USC and UCLA left for the Big Ten. No one could have anticipated they would leave.”

Narrowly, that might be true. However, the Pac-12 had suffered under Larry Scott. It was not in an advantageous position. Everyone knew it needed a better media rights deal. That’s why Kliavkoff was hired, regardless of whether USC stayed or left.

To be fair, Zemek does tell some of the back story about how Scott’s vision for a super conference and what he saw as kneecapping may have worked against Job, let alone Kliavkoff, steering this ship somewhere else besides an iceberg:

As bad as Larry Scott was, and as responsible as he is for the Pac-12’s problems, we do have to remember that in 2011, he pitched the Pac-16 proposal in which Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State joined the Pac-12.

It was the presidents who shot down that proposal. The commissioner was bold; the presidents were fearful. That memory looms large 12 years later, as the Pac-12 stands on the verge of extinction.

But as Witz reminds–and I had a front-row seat to these shenanigans–it was Scott’s earlier bravado that may have actually predestined yesterday’s events:

A little more than a decade ago, the conference’s commissioner, Larry Scott, was hailed as a visionary — a college sports outsider who landed a 12-year, $2.7 billion media deal after adding Colorado and Utah that more than tripled the conference’s rights fees and placed it ahead of every other conference.

But Scott’s insistence on launching the Pac-12 Network without ESPN or Fox as a partner turned into a colossal failure because the conference had no leverage with cable distributors. Thus, many of them refused to meet the Pac-12’s asking price and left the network with far fewer viewers — and far less revenue — than other conference networks.

FOX just happened to be launching the Big Ten Network as a complement to its successful (from a carriage fee basis) RSN business at the time.  A sister Pac 12  service that effectively covered the part of the country the Big Ten did not yet reach would effectively have given FOX a national footprint and a de facto competitor to ESPN, which Rupert Murdoch and the architect of the RSNs Jeff Shell coveted.  Instead, Scott decided not only to go out on his own, but effectively ripped off the RSN concept with an ambitious and ultimately unproducable plan to create eight different sub-channels for PTN as well as a “master” channel, channels that would superservice each of the DMAs the conference reached, but in effect forced them to seek two top tier channel positions at a time when getting even one was extremely difficult.  And frankly a non-conference warmup game against a Mountain West school in September wasn’t something that most operators thought was compelling.

Not only did Scott overestimate his value offering, but he really pissed off Murdoch.  And now with the experienced Tony Pettiti in charge of the Big Ten, an executive who led MLB Network and CBS-owned television stations prior to his current role, when he smelled blood in these waters, he pounced.  With FOX among the many benefactors that now have not only a conference footprint that ranges from the Washington, D.C. DMA (Maryland) to the state of Washington, but a Big 10 schedule for its primary network that will span four time zones and more than half the year.

And let’s not forget FOX’s ambitious expansion in college sports coverage also includes deals with the Big 12, a conference all but left for dead after Texas and Oklahoma ankled, but whose commissioner Brett Youngmark has done an exceptionally credible job of attracting top tier replacements, as Zemek described:

The Big 12 did not approach this situation the way the Pac-12 did. The additions of BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston fortified and expanded the league and provided a buffer against possible defections. Media markets — particularly Houston — were added to the equation. That helped fetch a price point that was surprisingly good, considering Texas and Oklahoma were leaving.  The Big 12 faced the problem of Oklahoma and Texas leaving for the SEC. The Pac-12 faced the problem of USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten. It’s not as though the Big 12 was in a structurally better position than the Pac-12. Both conferences faced existential concerns. The Big 12 clearly handled its situation better, and the willingness to expand is a clear point of differentiation. The Big 12 was willing to pull the trigger and add teams. The Pac-12 was not. That made a huge difference.

So the 2023 season that awaits may be one of the most competitive and exciting in Pac history, but it is virtually certain that it will be its last.  For longtime fans, it will be like watching a beloved friend with a terminal disease soldier on, doing their best to elicit cheers when tears and regret well up in those watching this death by a dozen, if not a thousand, cuts.

But for as much as the temptation to boo Kliavkoff may be, especially for the disenfranchised faithful in the Bay Area, Corvallis and eastern Washington, do try and cut the man a smattering of slack.  Let it be cemented in the minds of anyone doing a post-mortem that the self-delusion that Larry Scott could be as successful as cable mind as Jeff Shell, and his de facto middle finger when FOX had exactly the infrastructure and leverage he was seeking at the time, is the reason we are where we are today.

It’s one thing to poke a bear.  It’s entirely another to try and outsmart a Fox.



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