Canzano: Pac-12 looking for a friend in Bristol
ESPN working on a timeline now.
Eight days ago, the Pac-12 Conference announced on Twitter that its Board of Directors met and authorized the conference to begin immediate negotiations for the conference’s next media rights agreement.
The Pac-12 had been poking around a variety of media-rights scenarios for months, but given the defection of USC and UCLA, there was now urgency. The remaining 10 members were eager to explore options and find stability in the wake of the loss of the Los Angeles television market.
On Wednesday morning, I asked a high-ranking Pac-12 official whether ESPN and Fox might use the entire 30-day exclusive negotiating window or whether we should expect a resolution before the Aug. 4 deadline.
The answer: “Depends on our friends in Bristol.”
ESPN has emerged as the most likely bidder for the Pac-12’s rights. I’ve learned a number of things in the last few days that position that network as the conference’s most intriguing and viable lifeline.
• ADs who have been on regular calls with Pac-12 headquarters and the various university presidents and chancellors tell me that the 10 remaining members of the conference are currently galvanized. I continue to hear this refrain from multiple campuses in various geographical parts of the conference. It suggests that the Pac-12 is determined to spin out of this mess in one piece.
• Will ESPN and Fox really take the entire 30-day negotiating window? The Pac-12 official I spoke with told me, “We’re working closely with our media partners; they have their timeline.”
• If the Pac-12 and ESPN happen to reach a handshake agreement before the end of the 30-day window, they’d still have to wait for Fox to either bid or waive its rights.
• The defection of USC and UCLA comes with a $200 million-a-year hit to the conference’s media rights value. Bob Thompson, the former Fox Sports Network president, told me he expected the Pac-12 would get about $500 million a year prior to the departures. Now, that estimate is roughly $300 million.
• The conference went from 12 members to 10. The pie is being split with fewer entities, so the actual estimated distribution went from $41.6 million per university to ~$30 million. That’s “only” a 28 percent hit. But I wonder if that $11.6 million shortfall might be closed with some fresh and creative ideas.
• ESPN needs Pacific Time Zone college football inventory and it also loves college basketball programming. ESPN has the potential with a “loose partnership” to marry the Pac-12 to the ACC, another of its partners. Everyone knows Clemson, Miami, Florida State and others are restless. The Pac-12’s current plight presents ESPN with an opportunity to generate additional revenue for itself and the ACC.
• I know. I know. Another so-called “alliance.” Except, this one comes with a contract. One forged by ESPN. Better than Kevin Warren’s handshake, isn’t it?
• With a partnership, ESPN would add significant new subscriber revenue for the newly named ACC Network. This would allow ESPN to pay the ACC schools more. The best football and basketball games would be carried on ESPN/ABC. Under that scenario, ESPN+ would get the Pac-12’s Olympic sports and the Pac-12 Networks probably goes away.
• I’d expect a “loose partnership” between the ACC and Pac-12 would likely include some annual early-season crossover football games between the two conferences (i.e. Oregon vs. Miami? Or Utah vs. Clemson? Or how about Washington vs. Florida State?).
• I was told by one insider that if the partnership happens, the Pac-12 and ACC would likely still play a normal regular-season schedule within their respective conferences. The aim is to reach the soon-to-be-expanded College Football Playoff and make a pile of money. A crossover “championship game” between the winner of the ACC and the Pac-12 regular-season champ could help that effort. That event presumably would take the place of the traditional Pac-12 title game that is currently played in Las Vegas.
• That kind of early-December match-up would be attractive to ESPN, who might utilize the new event to make it rain cash for the restless ACC members. Also, the added game would give both conference regular-season champions an opportunity for one final “showcase” in front of the playoff selection committee.
• The second-place teams from each conference might also play head-to-head on the same day in a Las Vegas football double-header. This would create an additional inventory asset for ESPN, a windfall payday for both conferences, and one last-ditch chance for the second-place teams in both conferences to make a playoff case.
• Men’s basketball also presents some interesting opportunities for ESPN. The country never gets tired of seeing ACC powers such as North Carolina and Duke on television. With a “loose partnership” ESPN might schedule some lucrative, mid-season crossover games against the most attractive Pac-12 programs (See: Arizona, Oregon, etc.)
• What happens if ESPN lowballs the Pac-12? That’s a fair question. The network is essentially playing kingmaker in this 30-day negotiating window. It’s bidding against itself in this round of negotiations because Fox isn’t a likely bidder. Under a lowball scenario, I believe a few Pac-12 universities — particularly Arizona State — might become frustrated and consider alternate options (Read: Big 12).
• The Big 12 question is a big one. If the ACC and Pac-12 do partner, would the Pac-12 then covet Baylor, Houston, Kansas or maybe even BYU as expansion members? The first two get you into the state of Texas and the other two could help fortify your conference. The only way the Pac-12 could even consider this is if the media valuation of the members meets or exceeds the annual $30 million-a-year estimated distribution I mentioned above. Either that, or the newcomers take less than a full share.
• How about SMU as an expansion target? San Diego State? Fresno State? Boise State? The same math applies. The Pac-12 has to justify any addition with the number of television households each would bring. SMU gets you a tiny footprint in a robust DFW market (2.9 million TV households). San Diego State gets your product into a potential of 1.1 million homes in Southern California. Fresno State covers an untapped and growing swath of real estate between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And Boise State has a nice brand, but there are only 517,000 TV households in Idaho.
• What else? I’ll keep calling around, reporting and commenting what I know is on the table. I’ll have more on today’s radio show, I’m sure. These are wild times and there’s a lot of flimsy reporting and guessing going on. My goal here is to make you smarter in your conversations with friends and family. I want to give you high-quality, sourced, in-depth reporting and commentary.
I appreciate that you’re here for it.
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Appreciate your diligent work on this topic, John. I find it so fascinating...and yet, with a deep sigh I remember thinking not that long ago: gosh, this CFB product is so great--and unlike the NFL, it's not all business, all money! I wonder how long it will last? Got my answer, I guess...
And the Larry Scott stink still permeates college athletics.