Canzano: Pac-12 gets creative as things get awkward with USC and UCLA
The latest on the Pac-12's quest to survive...
It was recently suggested by a well-placed executive with another conference that Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff ought to use ESPN — and a pile of revenue — to attempt to lure UCLA back into the fold.
After all, the Bruins’ defection to the Big Ten doesn’t officially take place until the summer of 2024. Is it possible ESPN would be willing to go all-in, submarine rival Fox, and increase UCLA’s media-rights distributions to the point where the university might backtrack?
The answer: fat chance.
“Both parties are moving on,” said one high-ranking conference source. “We’re now trying to figure out how to best move forward over the next two years. That’s the phase both sides are in right now.
“I think we’ve all just moved on.”
There are some bad feelings circulating. The conference feels jilted and blindsided by the move. UCLA and USC are bracing for what promises to be an awkward football Media Day next Friday in Los Angeles. And there are some developments that suggest that the sides won’t be chummy over the next 23 months.
Last year, for example, the Pac-12 appointed Bruins’ athletic director Martin Jarmond to a five-year term on the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament selection committee. Jarmond, a former college basketball player, called it a “life-long dream” at the time. That appointment was unwound last week in the wake of the UCLA defection. The Pac-12 removed Jarmond and replaced him on the men’s basketball selection committee with Arizona AD Dave Heeke.
Head coaches Chip Kelly (UCLA) and Lincoln Riley (USC) will be at football media day along with players from their respective programs. But a source at USC told me on Thursday that the Pac-12 reached out to the Trojans this week to discuss whether AD Mike Bohn should be allowed to participate in athletic-director meetings that are part of the schedule. UCLA was also contacted about Jarmond’s presence. I suspect neither will end up involved in those closed sessions.
Takeaway: This divorce is really happening.
It may get ugly at points. I imagine the Bruins and Trojans will be greeted with hostility from opposing fans when they play conference road games this season. That comes with the territory. And I don’t find it unreasonable for the Pac-12 to draw some boundaries and shut the defectors out of strategy sessions. But what’s evident is that the sides are unlikely to be glued back together — even by a pile of money.
DUCKING IN: In the hours after the USC/UCLA news broke, I was told by more than one AD in the Pac-12 that everyone was watching Oregon and Washington. If the Ducks and Huskies stayed, the conference would hold together. It appears neither university has a great option to flee right now. But Nike founder Phil Knight has apparently been busy trying to find one.
Per a source in Knight’s inner circle: “The good news is Phil is working hard to determine the correct path forward and hopefully to determine one that is viable. My guess is, his aspirations aren’t practical or achievable. But try to tell that to the man that has won most battles in his life that seemed out of reach.”
The man known as “Shoe Dog” didn’t pour a fortune into the UO athletic department eco-system to be left in the minor leagues. If I’m a Pac-12 member, I like that the Ducks (and by extension, Knight) are in this with me. But media rights revenue is only part of the issue in Eugene.
Knight has given millions in gifts to Oregon over the years. He’s long been the great equalizer for UO, closing the gap on glaring media rights shortfalls. That helps explain Oregon’s rise in an underfunded conference. But now, it’s access to an expanded College Football Playoff that the Ducks covet.
Does that happen in the Pac-12?
The conference has only appeared in the four-team “invitational” playoff twice — Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016. The SEC has 10 appearances and the Big Ten has six. When it expands to 12 teams, the SEC and Big Ten are likely to have multiple entries.
Oregon could go all-in funding football, but what it really needs is access to the playoff. It needs automatic playoff bids for conference champions, a proposal likely to be shot down by the Big Ten and SEC, who are trying to monopolize the event.
The prevailing thought is that the Ducks wouldn’t just have to win the Pac-12, but also go undefeated to ensure access to the playoff. The SEC and Big Ten members would have a far more forgiving path. It’s a massive problem for those stuck on the outside.
ESPN TO THE RESCUE: ESPN feels like the likely bidder for the Pac-12’s media rights. The network and rival Fox are in a 30-day exclusive negotiating period with the Pac-12. It ends on Aug. 4.
What’s the solution?
That’s become the question to ask.
The original projection for the Pac-12’s new media rights deal was $500 million a year. But that included 5.7 million Southern California TV households as part of the calculus. Split a dozen ways, it worked out to $41.6 million a year, per school.
The new projection: $300 million a year.
Split only 10 ways, that’s only $30 million each annually. It’s a 28 percent reduction. I’m being told that Kliavkoff is determined to be creative and claw back toward the $40 million-a-year distribution threshold.
Could ESPN+ be the answer?
Bob Thompson, the former president of Fox Sports Networks, offered some insight on how that arrangement might work.
“My understanding of the way it works at ESPN is that there’s a budget for the network and then also a budget for ESPN+,” Thompson said. “ So if ESPN+ got a significant chunk of Pac-12 product it could be used to justify higher payment by combining money from the two buckets.”
Could a “loose partnership” with the ACC and some creative thinking with ESPN help make that happen? One current Pac-12 athletic director said on Thursday, “We could potentially give ESPN+ the best content they ever had.”
The conference coaches might not love the limited exposure that comes with streaming games on ESPN+ or even Apple TV+, but the tradeoff could be millions more in funding. Kliavkoff has to go where other conferences haven’t to find new revenue. There will be concessions weighed. Let’s face it: The conference just endured a decade of limited distribution on the Pac-12 Networks and is used to it.
Thompson said, “Still think $40 million per school is a stretch unless they’re going to gut the Pac-12 Networks of all their football and basketball product.”
All options appear to be on the table at this point. I’ll update with more here as it happens.
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Thank you John, consistently excellent articles on just a terrible topic for PAC 12 fans. I don't blame the schools, no individual if placed in similar circumstances would have done anything differently. You would turn down doubling your salary and joining a much more stable organization? Please, contact your mental health provider if you answered yes.
This all leaves me to wonder if CFB is in an economic bubble. Only ESPN and Fox are mentioned as vying for conferences’ media rights. NBC, CBS, and streaming service providers that are not connected to networks seem to only be dipping toes in. Couple that with declining attendance and decreased participation in pre-college football. Not to mention the souring by transfer portal, pay for play, and realignment. Seems like this might be the last big hurrah of CFB. For me, I have decided not to resubscribe this fall after 20 years of pretty avid following. And that was before the USC/UCLA move.