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Canzano: Amazon's NFL win creates moment of truth for Pac-12
Will the Pac-12 strike a deal?
Amazon and Nielsen finally got finished counting. Turns out the streaming service averaged 13 million viewers for last Thursday night’s NFL game.
Big win for Amazon.
I almost wrote “it delivered” but I caught myself. By any measure, the event was a success. It beat expectations. I’m also thinking Amazon’s primary aim wasn’t really viewers, but rather, selling Prime memberships.
Like a lot of you, I’m wondering if we’ll see Pac-12 football games streamed by Amazon and/or Apple beginning in 2024 or even sooner. I’ll get to that in a bit. First, we have to get real about a few uncomfortable truths about the Pac-12:
• LAPPED: The Pac-12 is way behind. I first started writing about this seven years ago. The conference’s media-rights payout was woeful vs. peers. As a result, the conference athletic departments were underfunded and the football programs were mostly left out of the playoff.
Oregon, Washington and Utah rose to the top of the football standings in the conference in that period. Why? Because those universities were outliers who built great programs and relied less on media-rights distributions than some others.
Phil Knight was a financial equalizer for the Ducks, in particular. Meanwhile, Washington and Utah had a wise blend of head-coaching stability (Chris Petersen and Kyle Whittingham), strong season-ticket sales, and solid athletic-department fundraising teams.
• MISTAKES WERE MADE: USC and UCLA’s defections shouldn’t have happened. At least not without a fight. Conference commissioner George Kliavkoff should have been tuned into their dissatisfaction.
His predecessor, Larry Scott, set the table for the Southern California departures. Scott deserves a large slice of the blame. But as one Pac-12 AD told me days after the news broke: “George is great. But he had one job — keep USC in the fold.”
USC’s president, Carol Folt, was on the conference’s media rights committee and expansion committees. According to others on the committees, she gave every indication that USC was all in on the Pac-12 for the next media rights agreement.
I’m not convinced Kliavkoff could have halted it. Also, not sure what he was supposed to do if one or both of those schools weren’t being honest. But I’d feel better had the commissioner been more proactive. One source in the USC athletic department told me that nobody at the Pac-12 ever asked whether they were happy.
“No one ever had a conversation with us about how we felt about the revenue share,” the source said. “Nobody asked, ‘Are you OK with it? Would we like to see something different next contract?’ Not one conversation with LA schools, that was a mistake. We could’ve ended up leaving for the Big Ten regardless, but you have to have the conversation when we have higher cost of living in LA, higher tax, and 60-70 percent of the Pac-12’s TV market.”
It was a misfire. One that Kliavkoff now has to rebound from.
• LEVERAGE ISSUE: The Pac-12 lacks leverage in its current media rights negotiations. It’s trying to foster some by leaning hard into streaming services as a viable carriage possibility, but the conference would be far better off if it had a few football brands ESPN couldn’t live without.
Currently, the Pac-12’s strongest selling point is the Pacific Time Zone. That’s it. No other conference can consistently play Power Five football games in that window. But if the time zone is all the Pac-12 has to sell when the next round of media-rights negotiations come up in 4-6 years, it will be a sin.
It’s why the next few football seasons for Utah, Oregon, Washington and some others are particularly important. One or two of the remaining 10 conference programs needs to make the playoff. Anything USC or UCLA does won’t count. The conference may celebrate a little if the Trojans make the College Football Playoff this season, but we all know that’s going to be chalked up as, “USC? That’s a Big Ten team…”
It’s worthless in a future negotiation.
The Pac-12 must matter in the playoff in the next few seasons. Without that, all it has to sell is a time zone. I’d hate to see the Pac-12 stuck selling geography when the Big Ten and SEC are peddling great brands and riveting inventory.
How badly does Amazon want the Pac-12?
That’s become the question to ask in the wake of its foray into the NFL. The Pac-12 covets Amazon’s money, no doubt. And the conference presidents and chancellors would love to emerge from the negotiation viewed as forward-thinking winners.
The Pac-12’s pipe dream, ideally, is to sell the content now on the Pac-12 Networks to a streaming service (Amazon/Apple). Then, sell the remaining football and basketball inventory to ESPN and get wide distribution.
The driving force behind Amazon’s venture into the NFL feels more about Prime memberships than ratings to me. Keep in mind, Amazon executives were talking a victory lap over Thursday night’s Prime membership haul before Nielsen even started counting.
The company reported the “biggest three hours for U.S. Prime signups ever” during last Thursday’s NFL game, according to an internal memo sent by Amazon exec Jay Marine.
The Pac-12 Networks programming — Olympic sports and 36 football games — won’t move the needle from a ratings standpoint. But I definitely think the content would generate a boatload of Prime memberships in the Pac-12 footprint.
We might all bellyache about USC vs. Oregon State being stuck on the Pac-12 Network this Saturday night. The Utah vs. OSU matinee will air on the conference’s network next weekend, too. But I’ll bet the Pac-12 loves that it can dangle these kinds of games to a bidder such as Amazon.
Kliavkoff tipped his hand a little earlier this week when he sat down for a 2-on-1 interview with Jon Wilner and me. I asked him about the balance he’d like to strike between linear providers and a streaming service.
“We really want our content to be available to our fans,” he said. “Our content should be available on any piece of glass connected to the Internet… that might mean you need to subscribe to a service. It doesn’t mean you’ll get it for free, but it has to be available everywhere.”
I mean, Kliavkoff is pretty much talking about Amazon or Apple there, isn’t he? Or maybe he’s trying to leverage ESPN into buying all the Pac-12 Networks content for ESPN+. I don’t think Pac-12 fans care where they’re watching, as long as they can watch.
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