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Canzano: George Kliavkoff's first year on the job was a doozy of a win
Commissioner officially hired last July 1.
George Kliavkoff laid out his morning ritual for me. He wakes. Then, coffee and breakfast. Then, a few minutes of quiet time before the Pac-12 Conference commissioner steps into a calendar of scheduled calls that begins at 8 a.m. and runs to 6 p.m. most days.
“Pondering,” he said.
“I’ve have time blocked out on my calendar for pondering. I’ve built blocks of time to read, view things, consider stuff. More often than not, that turns out to be some of my most valuable time of the day.”
On July 1, Kliavkoff will celebrate his one-year anniversary on the job. He left a terrific gig working as the president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International to join the Pac-12. He had a healthy salary and an swanky executive office at the Bellagio when a recruiter contacted him.
“The recruiter kind of pushed me because he knew that the mission of the Pac-12 was something I would get excited about,” Kliavkoff said. “Both of my parents have engrained in me that most of the ills of the world have been solved through education.”
Kliavkoff’s father grew up in Eastern Europe and fought in the Second World War. He didn’t know a soul when he came to New York City. His mother was Hungarian and found herself with nothing but $100 when she was released from an internment camp in New York.
“We do sports in the Pac-12,” their son told me, “but we’re in the human-development business.”
He’s been called the “new” Pac-12 commissioner for almost a year now. But Kliavkoff isn’t new to turmoil, turbulence or rapidly shifting dynamics. College athletics has them all. He’s also held jobs as the head of a virtual-reality start-up, was the co-president at Hearst Entertainment, worked as an executive at NBCUniversal Media and was the vice president of business for Major League Baseball Advanced Media.
“I’ve made a career of parachuting into difficult, tumultuous situations,” he said. “Different times in my career I’ve been in the middle of chaos. I’ve been successful in those.”
He’s a logic guy. He enjoys solving difficult puzzles. In fact, Kliavkoff told me he downloads the most challenging Sudoku puzzle he can find at the end of his day and spends some time losing himself in the grid of numbers while he sits in front of a television and the network news.
“One of my few marketable skills is logical reasoning,” he said. “I like taking complex issues and parsing through them and understanding common themes. Partnering with folks to come up with creative solutions. When we formed Hulu we were at the beginning of this whole cord cutting, for example. All of the content that was valuable was being stolen and put on YouTube. There was no way for fans to enjoy the content in a way that created remuneration.”
Kliavkoff’s team ascertained that the most effective way to monetize and distribute content was to bring the content partners together.
Can he help do that with major college athletics?
“I was trying to characterize for the Pac-12 board recently,” he told me, “we are at this unique moment in college athletics.”
Four of the Power Five conference commissioner jobs have turned over in the last three years. The president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, is stepping down, too.
“It’s created a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Kliavkoff said. “I’m trying to find out what the filters are when it comes to making the decisions.”
The Pac-12 commissioner then veered off into a complex dissection of the major issues facing college athletics. Among them: the transfer portal, name-image-likeness (NIL), media rights, the future College Football Playoff, and what to make of the role of the NCAA, if it should have one at all.
Should college athletics continue down a path where the “haves” and “have not” conferences and programs are further divided? Or should the system be interested in prioritizing parity and a level playing field?
Said Kliavkoff: “That’s a really interesting tension that underlies what we’re all talking about.”
Football and men’s basketball programs are subsidizing other sports on most major college campuses. Within the conferences, the better resourced schools are subsidizing the lower-resource universities. And at the NCAA level, Division I athletics subsidizes Division II and Division III.
Beyond that, Kliavkoff estimated that the best-resourced conferences in Division I athletics are subsidizing the rest of the NCAA to the tune of $700 million.
“At the end of the day,” Kliavkoff said, “we’re running into free-market tensions that we’ve not seen before. I think you have this natural tension. Should college athletics operate as a free market? Or operate as a subsidization model? We’re going to have to find some happy middle ground.”
Kliavkoff and his wife, Ellen, kept home base in Las Vegas. Their two children are in college. Their daughter, Laney, is a junior at the University of Georgia. Their son, Henry, is a sophomore guard on the basketball team at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
“I didn’t get to see him play much last season,” dad reports. “Mom got there more often.”
Kliavkoff was busy filling a much-needed, year-one leadership role in the Pac-12. He’s been unafraid to push new concepts and introduce non-traditional thinking to a conference that badly needed it.
He abandoned the money pit that was the downtown San Francisco headquarters, instructing most employees that they could work from home. He formed an alliance with the Big Ten and ACC. He created the first-ever Pac-12 baseball tournament. And he pointed a finger at a football playoff that has routinely excluded the entire western part of the country.
“It’s a broken system,” he told me once.
Kliavkoff exudes a unique blend of confidence, smarts and humility, doesn’t he? Best of all, he’s a fighter — and the Pac-12 desperately needed one — because it’s facing some critical scraps. Also, some important questions.
What’s happening with Pac-12 media rights?
“We’ve begun the process of engagement in our next media rights deal,” he said. “Every single decision is viewed through the filter of what this would do to the value of media rights long term.”
Does the recent Apple TV deal with Major League Soccer mean Apple is a potential partner now?
”All of the direct to consumer services — Apple being one of the dozens — are potential bidders,” he said. “It’s more likely than not that our Tier 1 rights, the biggest of our football games, will continue to be distributed on linear television. The balance of our rights, the content that often sits on the Pac-12 Network, is likely to be distributed on a combination of linear and digital players.”
What will happen with the playoff? Do the major college conferences still need the NCAA? And is there a way to manage and regulate the transfer portal and NIL world?
Kliavkoff and the other commissioners must feel like they’re lost in one of those Choose-Your-Adventure books, picking their path and jumping to a new page. But he told me he feels like the job is more like an obstacle course right now because there isn’t one definitive decision to make or a singular course to take.
It’s been nearly one year for George Kliavkoff. The conference presidents tell me they feel like they made a terrific hire. The athletic directors rave about how inclusive he is as a leader. Also, they’ve seen him frequently in the last year.
What doesn’t the typical outsider know about his job?
“They probably don’t know the amount of travel this job includes,” he said. “I’ve been traveling a lot. I think it’s important to travel and show up on campus and go to campuses.”
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