Canzano: Pac-12 needs to find focus and urgency in the desert
Expansion, media rights, and more...
The Pac-12 presidents and chancellors are meeting Monday on campus at Arizona State University. The conference athletic directors will join them for part of the discussions via Zoom.
I hope they find some focus.
As much as I enjoy uncovering palace intrigue, what the Pac-12 needs most of all right now is to emerge unified, galvanized, focused and holding a couple of major victories.
Some thoughts on that front:
• MONEYBALL: My original projections for the Pac-12 media rights deal (with help from some key industry sources) put the conference’s annual media-rights distribution in the neighborhood of $27 million to $29 million, per school. That would have put the Pac-12 about 10 percent to 15 percent behind what the Big 12 eventually negotiated ($31.6 million per school).
When the Big 12 announced its media deal, however, I was immediately told by a high-ranking Pac-12 executive: “We are very confident to beat that number.” That made me wonder how the future of the Pac-12 Networks might factor into the financials. There’s just no way to easily build a case to beat the Big 12’s annual distribution number without using the conference-owned network as the hammer.
Would the Pac-12 sell the network to ESPN? Lease its live-sports production arm to Amazon, YouTube or Apple? Or do something else?
• EXPOSURE VS. REVENUE: There’s been important discussions in the last six months among campus leaders and the athletic directors about finding the balance of revenue vs. exposure with the media-rights deal.
The members obviously want the largest revenue stream available but remain committed to having wide distribution as well. Nobody I’m talking with expects the Pac-12 to go “all-in” with one entity (read: Amazon) with its media rights.
As Colorado AD Rick George said: “I’ve been a proponent of: ‘The Pac-12 Networks isn’t good enough for us.’ I’m in LA and I can’t watch our men’s basketball team at the hotel I’m in. The lack of distribution hurts. When you’re not getting the exposure on the Pac-12 Networks, that’s harmful. There has to be a balance. We need that exposure when we’re not on a FOX or ESPN or an ABC, we need to have that exposure on the other medium for us to be relevant.”
Bob Thompson, the retired FOX Sports Networks president doesn’t think the conference should go all-in with a streaming service. He likes balance, too. Thompson reminded me that Amazon Prime is only available in 42-45 percent of internet households in the country.
David M. Carter, a USC sports-business professor, thinks it’s too early for the Pac-12 to go all-in with a streaming service. He could see it being the norm in a decade, but not now. Carter is a proponent of a more gradual entry.
He told me: “To go too quickly toward streaming you’re going to leave a lot of money on the table and if you move too slowly you’re also going to leave a lot of money on the table.”
The Pac-12 still wants to bask in the glow of ESPN’s shoulder programming. That powerful hype machine drives the narrative during college football season. What’s said and promoted on ESPN has an impact on the Top 25 polls, recruiting, the Heisman conversation, television ratings, attendance, and undoubtedly influences the College Football Playoff selection committee. The Pac-12 covets that platform and, frankly, needs it more than some others.
• RENEWED FOCUS: It feels more and more like the Pac-12 is preparing to get out of the “media company” business. The conference has no plans to replace fired Pac-12 Networks president Mark Shuken. It abandoned the downtown-San Francisco money pit offices and recently leased a 42,000-square foot production facility off Highway 680 in the Bay Area suburbs (San Ramon).
Feels like the Pac-12 Networks may be sold or absorbed as part of the conference’s ongoing media-rights negotiation. The conference may still produce some of its own content for streaming purposes and other uses. But the indicators are definitely telling us that the Pac-12 is looking for new focus.
I’ve never thought the Pac-12 should be a media company. It was an ambitious swing but one that was rife with complexity, high overhead, and distribution issues. The product looked great. The on-air talent was gifted. But the product came accompanied by too many big questions. Was the Pac-12 trying to be a great conference? Or a media company? Both? At once? The mission lacked cohesive vision and focus.
The whole thing reminds me of an interview I once heard with Apple CEO Tim Cook. He pointed out that his company could fit all of the Apple products it sells on a single table top.
Said Cook: “It’s hard to stay focused. And yet we know we'll only do our best work if we stay focused. And so the hardest decisions we make are all the things NOT to work on.”
• EXPANSION: The Pac-12 presidents and chancellors need to start seriously talking about expansion, if they haven’t already. San Diego State has been patient and holding its breath. Nobody wants the the Aztecs to turn blue and pass out. Athletic Director J.D. Wicker told me multiple times in the last several months that the Pac-12 has been giving him the same messaging that the conference is putting out publicly.
“Think it will move fast on expansion once TV is done,” Wicker said.
He’s looking forward to the media rights deal getting done more than just about anyone. San Diego State feels like a no-brainer addition. I wrote in depth about the dance SDSU is in with the Pac-12.
I’ve also had good conversations with several coaches and administrators at schools such as SMU, Boise State, UNLV and Fresno State. The assistants at those schools would love to be able to use pending Pac-12 membership as a recruiting tool.
• TIMING: I initially found it interesting that Commissioner George Kliavkoff scheduled the quarterly meeting this week in Tempe vs. holding it in Las Vegas in March. But several athletic directors warned me not to read too deeply into that. The conference has these meetings four times a year. The last meeting was in November. They’ll meet again in May. This was more about establishing rhythm and continuity. Also, there’s a ton to discuss right now.
Still, I remember former commissioner Larry Scott using the March meeting in Las Vegas during the Pac-12 basketball tournaments to flex. He lived large. Big suite with the marble tub and butler service. Lavish cocktail parties. Last March in Las Vegas, I asked Kliavkoff where he was staying during the Pac-12 tournaments.
His answer: “My house.”
No charge to the conference, folks.
• AWKWARD: The president of USC and chancellor of UCLA will participate in parts of the meetings. Also, Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn and Bruins AD Martin Jarmond will join via Zoom. I asked two other conference ADs what that is like. Is it awkward to have the defectors in the meetings? This has been ongoing since UCLA and USC announced they were leaving last summer.
Both ADs said it was a little awkward at first, but is now a non-issue. Said one: “We’re over it. We’ve all moved on and are focused on the 10 remaining members.”
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