Canzano: Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff's legacy hinges on what happens next
Pac-12 leader faces crisis.
George Kliavkoff was in Montana with his wife, taking a couple of days off, when his world got dumped on its head. The Pac-12 commissioner spent the first 364 days of his term bustling around the conference footprint, shaking hands, listening, and galvanizing the membership.
On day No. 365, that same conference ripped apart at the seams. USC and UCLA started talks with the Big Ten more than a year ago, per a source directly involved. The initial conversations cooled late last year but picked back up a couple of months ago. Now, the Trojans and Bruins are leaving the conference, effective 2024.
“I can’t believe it didn’t leak,” said the source.
Kliavkoff, who fashions himself a puzzle-solver, launched into crisis-management mode last Thursday. He called an emergency meeting of the remaining 10 members of the Pac-12’s CEO Group. They got on a series of calls and voted to explore possible expansion options and immediately open the conference’s 30-day exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and Fox.
One Pac-12 athletic director said, “Be clear: Larry Scott put us on the path here.”
The same AD wondered if Kliavkoff had been too nice, and too trusting, particularly when it came to USC. The Trojans sit in the nation’s second-largest media market with 5.7 million television households. Despite marginal on-field success in the last decade, USC’s brand, geography and influence made the university a must-have.
Said the AD: “George is great. But he had one job — keep USC in the fold.”
More than a decade ago, the Pac-12 members found themselves in line for what was then a lucrative media deal. The ADs met in July 2010 at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Then-UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero chaired the meeting. USC AD Pat Haden was there, too. The conference’s 10 other athletic directors dug in — 10 vs. 2 — and made it clear that they had the votes and believed the conference should share revenue equally.
Former Oregon and Washington State AD Bill Moos told me this week, “I spent a lot my professional career trying to achieve parity for schools. We got there. It was the best thing that ever happened to the Pac-12.”
That parity helped members such as WSU and Oregon State compete alongside the Los Angeles-based universities. Former Beavers’ athletic director Bob De Carolis told me once that when the conference ADs were shown the dollar figures of what they’d receive from the first television deal, “I nearly did a cartwheel coming out of the meeting.”
USC wasn’t all that happy, however.
By extension, neither was UCLA.
Former Fox Sports Network president Bob Thompson estimates that the Pac-12 would have commanded a $500 million-a-year television deal in the next round of media rights negotiations. That would have given each Pac-12 member an annual distribution of $41.6 million. With the move to the Big Ten, USC and UCLA will receive more than $71 million annually.
Said a USC staff member, “Every AD in the Pac-12 would’ve made this move if they’re honest with you. It wasn’t personal, just business.”
Now, all eyes are on Kliavkoff.
Several days before the USC and UCLA defection I asked him what the average fan or media member didn’t understand about his job as commissioner. Kliavkoff said, “In this job, I’m traveling a lot. I was on the road a lot in the first year. I think it’s important to travel and show up on campus and go to campuses.”
It was something his predecessor didn’t do well. Larry Scott traveled by chartered aircraft, stayed at luxury hotels, and didn’t often spend the night in cities that didn’t have an ample offering of five-star hotels. It chapped some conference members who noted that he often stayed only until halftime of their games, then chartered a flight home.
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told me last month that he called Kliavkoff and asked if the commissioner wanted to join an advisory board in person in Salt Lake.
“He didn’t hesitate, flew out, met with them for three hours, had dinner and jumped on a late Southwest flight, probably in a middle seat,” Harlan said. “That’s the type of leader you want, and I am thrilled that he will lead us in the years ahead.”
A sitting athletic director in another major conference said, “Should George have seen the USC and UCLA thing coming? Sure, with hindsight. But he probably had ‘SC and UCLA telling him that he had nothing to worry about and at some point you have to trust someone and their word. The bigger mistake was not securing College Football Playoff expansion.
“To me, that was his biggest mess up.”
Kliavkoff is now under the microscope with his first, major crisis to solve. The college world is watching and waiting. The future of the Pac-12 is at stake. Amid that, the conference has soul searching to do and questions to answer.
Form a loose partnership with the ACC and let ESPN serve as the glue? Raid the Big 12 for a couple of new members? Partner with the Big 12? How about adding San Diego State? SMU? Or Fresno State?
Or maybe just stand at 10 members?
Kliavkoff is either going to lead one of the great comeback stories in college athletics history or his conference is going to be left behind. We’ll find out in the coming weeks. But whatever he’s selling to conference members behind closed doors appears to have calmed the waters.
USC is gone. So is UCLA. There’s not an easy replacement for the LA television market. So now, the mission is to keep the Pac-12 within eyesight of the Big Ten and SEC as either the No. 3 conference in major college athletics or some part of it. Kliavkoff’s legacy as commissioner now hinges on this.
In a recent conversation with the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors, Kliavkoff said something prophetic. He was trying to explain to the CEO Group that college athletics had reached a unique moment in history.
There are a series of complex issues (NIL, transfer portal, etc.) that have arisen. Also, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced his departure. And four of the Power Five conference commissioners turned over in the last 36 months.
“It’s created a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Kliavkoff told them.
He had no idea how right he was.
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Pretty hard for George to read minds, as apparently lately USC and UCLA weren’t overtly screaming for bigger slices of the pie, and in any event it’s clear the other schools would have voted them down. The schools’ own self interest/greed blinded them to the value of the L.A. schools and the vast amounts of money they were leaving on the table. Kind of like in the workplace, you underpay your star performers at your peril, because they always have other opportunities.
IMHO, the only beauty to this whole thing, John, is knowing that SC will remain as an also ran & UCLA ‘may occasionally’ get an invitation to the Dew Drop In Hotdog Bowl’.