Canzano: 'The gun was empty': The downfall of the Pac-12 Conference
A tale of hubris, bad leadership and hollow promises.
None of the presidents and chancellors wanted to see the 108-year-old conference die. The members of the Pac-12 Conference CEO Group liked being together. The schools were a solid cultural fit. They shared academic missions. The geography worked.
So why is the Pac-12 dead?
What doesn’t the public know?
“How so many smart people can make such stupid decisions,” a conference insider told me on Wednesday.
Oregon and Washington defected to the Big Ten Conference on Friday. They’ll join USC and UCLA for the 2024 football season. The Big 12 scooped up Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. And Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State are still scrambling for cover.
The downfall of the Pac-12 should be used as a case-study for business schools and leadership courses. It’s a tale laced with hubris, strategic mistakes and mistrust. The Pac-12 as we once knew it is gone.
WSU athletic director Pat Chun told me on Wednesday: “The Pac-12 failed because of failed leadership. College football is fracturing right before our eyes because there’s no leadership. When there’s a void of leadership these are the outcomes you have to deal with.”
Did Fox play a role? Sure. Has college athletics lost its mind? Absolutely. But if a few things had gone differently the Pac-12 might still be a viable, living, breathing college conference.
Several Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors spoke publicly this week. And a handful of conference insiders shared new details with me from behind the scenes. Those in the inner sanctum of the conference pointed to a hurricane of broken promises, shaky gamesmanship, blown opportunities and old-fashioned arrogance.
The person in the eye of that storm?
Commissioner George Kliavkoff.
Kliavkoff assured his bosses for months that a satisfactory media-rights deal was just around the corner. “I just need your patience,” he told him. “A little more time,” Kliavkoff said. The presidents and chancellors believed him, right up until that Tuesday meeting when the commissioner unveiled a $23 million-a-year Apple deal that required his membership to take a leap of faith.
They’d hoped for a big bang.
“The gun was empty,” one person said.
Apple later upped the offer to $25 million per school. Production costs were covered, I’m told. The deal had interesting upside. But it reminded the skittish old-guard ADs and campus presidents of the incentive-laden Pac-12 Network dream that was pitched years before by ex-commissioner Larry Scott.
The Apple deal offered no guarantee of linear exposure. And the schools would be in the business of selling annual streaming subscriptions for $100 a pop.
Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins compared it to “selling candy bars for Little League or Girl Scout cookies.”
Still, Robbins and six other members of the Pac-12 CEO Group miraculously arrived at Friday’s 7 a.m. board meeting prepared to sign the Grant of Rights — “in blood” — he said. At least two of the Pac-12 presidents were so eager to get it done that they executed the document the night before, per multiple conference sources.
However, 10 minutes before the Friday meeting started the enthusiasm was smothered. The Ducks and Huskies informed the conference they were leaving for the Big Ten. The news triggered a mass exodus and the demolition of the Pac-12.
• The Pac-12 hired Doug Perlman and his company — Sports Media Advisors — in the summer of 2022 to help engineer the media-rights negotiation. Perlman and Kliavkoff attended law school together at the University of Virginia. The hire was approved by the Pac-12’s CEO Group, but raised eyebrows within the industry.
Perlman had a solid reputation in the media business, but arrived with little experience negotiating media-rights deal in the college space.
“Doug was way too nice and mild in my view,” said one source with knowledge of the negotiation. “You need cold-blooded killers in this business.”
Perlman formed a tight-knit “deal team” comprised of a handful of select individuals. Few particulars of the negotiation were shared outside of the deal-team members. The conference presidents and chancellors were given regular updates by Kliavkoff, but the CEO Group didn’t actually see the deal until it was put in front of them.
Said the source: “We all know now that we were flailing for the entirety of the time we were in the marketplace.”
• The Pac-12 got an offer of $30 million per school from ESPN in the fall of 2022. It included all the conference’s media rights, including the Pac-12 Network. But the conference presidents and chancellors believed they could do much better.
The board instructed Kliavkoff to reject ESPN’s proposal and make a lopsided counter-offer. The commissioner should have pushed back and managed expectations in the room. He should have been more tuned into the eroding media landscape. Kliavkoff followed the order and the consequences were grave.
Source to me: “You know what we told ESPN after their $30 million per-school offer?”
Source: “We said we want $50 million per school.”
Me: “What was the ESPN response?”
• Fox didn’t ever appear enthusiastic about making a serious bid for the Pac-12’s rights. The network drifted in and out of the Pac-12’s negotiation — at the table one minute, gone the next — but never seemed interested in bidding on more than a limited offering of football games.
Fox was already all-in with the Big Ten and had a sizable chunk of the Big 12’s deal. The TV network didn’t need the Pac-12, particularly after snatching the Los Angeles market and 5.7 million TV homes when USC and UCLA joined the Big Ten.
Fox stood to benefit if the Pac-12 destabilized and lost additional schools — or better yet — completely imploded.
One conference AD told me that Fox emerged as a powerful “force” in the weeks before the break-up of the Pac-12. When Colorado lost patience with Kliavkoff, the Big 12 peeled the Buffaloes away. Then, Brett Yormark’s conference, armed with a media deal that would distribute a guarantee of $31.7 million per year, focused on pursuing the border schools.
Arizona and ASU listened and acted like they might leave right up until that Thursday night meeting of the Arizona Board of Regents. The rival schools came out of it linked at the arm, determined to stick together. As Arizona’s president said himself, the Wildcats were prepared to sign and commit to the Pac-12 the following day.
For roughly 12 hours it looked like Kliavkoff’s conference had pulled a rabbit out of its hat. It had fended off the Big 12, for now, but Fox’s other media partner (the Big Ten) had reopened the pursuit of Oregon and Washington.
As a member of the CEO Group told me on Thursday: “Now we have to fend off the Big Ten.”
The Big Ten wooed the Ducks and Huskies with the powerful exposure of Fox’s linear platform and a guaranteed cut of the conference’s media-rights package. The average annual distribution to the newcomers will be an average of $35 million per year for six years. It’s a reduced share for UO and UW, but more than either expected they’d get in the Pac-12.
One problem, though, Oregon officials informed Pac-12 leadership the Ducks wouldn’t leave the conference for less than a full share of the Big Ten’s deal. In the hours before the Pac-12’s fateful Friday meeting, the Big Ten added a sweetener.
Oregon and Washington were informed they would receive a full share of the Big Ten’s subsequent TV negotiation (in 2030). When UO president John Karl Scholz announced Oregon’s departure on Friday afternoon, he didn’t talk about the six-year guarantee. Scholz instead noted that the annual distribution would “average” $50 million in revenue over a 10-year period.
Without a linear option, the Pac-12 simply couldn’t match that.
Said one well-placed conference source: “Fox obviously screwed us and I would argue that after that initial ESPN offer in the fall that ESPN was no friend.”
• George Kliavkoff lost credibility with his board and the public during the last 10 months. The commissioner overpromised and under-delivered. It helps explain why a few Pac-12 presidents and chancellors randomly popped up, gave conflicting public interviews, and offered a series of timelines on when they expected the media deal to get done.
I spoke with several members of the Pac-12 CEO Group and a multitude of industry sources over the last year. I was repeatedly told the board was galvanized, had solidarity, and remained confident it would get a satisfactory deal.
When Oregon State’s new president, Jaythi Murthy, gave me a 27-minute radio interview in February, she echoed Kliavkoff’s enthusiasm. It almost exactly matched what several other members of the Pac-12 CEO Group were also saying.
“We are together on this,” Murthy told me. “We’ve got confidence in the future of the Pac-12 and we know things are going to be good.”
I later found out that the Pac-12 commissioner had spent 45 minutes briefing OSU’s president shortly before our interview.
Said one source: “We waited and waited and they didn’t deliver. Even Colorado waited until almost the bitter end.”
The lack of credibility was a killer down the stretch for the Pac-12 leaders. The commissioner was faced with selling a less-than-ideal Apple deal to a room that was annoyed with being strung along. Kliavkoff wasn’t just asking his members to bet on themselves. The commissioner was doing it without the trust of his board.
“I like George a lot as a person,” one person said, “but we were told things that didn’t come true time and time again.”
• Ex-commissioner Larry Scott played a key role in the demise of the Pac-12. His leadership put the conference on the path to destruction a decade ago. Scott doesn’t get a pass. But as awful as he was I’ve wondered if Scott would have let the conference die.
Would he have lost USC and UCLA to the Big Ten?
Would he have managed his board better?
Scott loathed traveling to Pullman for football games. He’d leave Martin Stadium after halftime on his chartered flight and be home in the Bay Area by the end of the game. But the ex-commissioner loved Los Angeles where he could stay at five-star hotels and dine in fine restaurants. Scott spent far more time in Southern California. One of his sons, in fact, attended USC.
Scott was also a deft self preservationist. The Harvard-educated tennis player didn’t know much about football, but he was a shrewd negotiator.
I spoke to one long-time conference source this week who confessed he’d been thinking about the ex-commissioner this week. Scott had the unhappiness of the LA schools on his radar in 2009. He knew USC was a flight risk.
Scott’s successor was blindsided by it.
The source said: “No matter what you think of Larry I think he would have played much better chess than we did the past couple years.”
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