Canzano: Pac-12 not buying what Big 12 is selling
Commissioners playing a different game.
Brett Yormark graduated college at Indiana University and went to work as a ticket seller for the Nets. Then, he sold television time to professional sports teams, and after that, he graduated to peddling sponsorships.
He’s a salesman.
Yormark helped sell America on NASCAR as a mainstream sport. Then, he got in the business of Barbara Streisand concerts, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel events, boxing matches and NBA sponsorships. Jay-Z’s no dummy. When he needed a cut-throat salesman to head Roc Nation, he hired Yormark.
Said one industry insider: “Brett is a sales guy, through and through. He’s out selling. Doesn’t matter whether he’s in New York, Dallas or Provo.”
Like Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross famously said, “Always… Be… Closing.”
That’s Yormark, who is now employed as the Big 12 Conference commissioner. His act is one giant sales pitch. Keep that in mind when you hear him float the idea that his conference may be closing in on a media-rights deal with ESPN and Fox. Ask yourself, who’s he selling today?
You and me? Or the Pac-12’s four corners universities?
The Big 12’s media rights contract with ESPN and Fox expires after the 2024-25 academic year. It’s easy to make a deal with your existing partners. Basically, an extension. So it’s possible Yormark wants to step in front of the Pac-12’s ongoing negotiation and make sure his conference doesn’t get stuck eating leftovers.
I asked Bob Thompson, the retired Fox Sports Networks president, to lay it out for us on Friday. What are the advantages (if true) of the Big 12 closing a media-rights deal early? What’s the potential impact on the Pac-12?
“If he can get a deal done and jump in front of the Pac 12, he’s got something to dangle in front of the corner schools,” Thompson said. “Whether or not they’re interested, he wants to try and find out.”
Multiple conference sources continue to tell me that Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Arizona State aren’t interested in leaving the Pac-12 for the Big 12. They’ve never wavered and I believe them. But maybe Yormark is chumming the waters anyway.
One current Pac-12 Conference AD waved it off on Friday morning and told me: “Our path is clear and we are progressing nicely.”
The Pac-12’s media rights are on the open market. I’m told a digital partner (Read: Apple and/or Amazon) are in line for a chunk of the rights. Not sure if that means Tier 1, 2 or 3. But it’s possible that the Pac-12 — long accustomed to carriage issues with the Pac-12 Networks — is more willing than its peers to trade some distribution for a larger windfall.
Thompson said if Fox and ESPN renew with the Big 12, he believes Fox is likely out of the running for a Pac-12 partnership. He thinks Fox would use Mountain West Conference football games to fill FS1’s late Saturday-night window.
“ESPN would probably go back to the Pac-12 and buy a package of games, but they’re not gonna pay a lot for them if there are no other networks bidding,” Thompson said.
A negotiation with new partners (i.e. Apple, Amazon, etc.) is a very different animal compared to a renewal with existing media partners. Thompson called it “long, arduous and very complicated.”
It requires intricate discussions about how the new partners would be incorporated with the traditional or existing entities. Also, it’s likely ESPN and Fox have some rights of first refusal or the right to match on any potential deal with a third party.
Yormark’s public pitch is dramatically different than the subdued, calculated act of Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff. I’ve wondered for a while if it’s a misfire for Kliavkoff to sit silently when so much is being said about his conference. Others tell me it’s just a difference in style, possibly dictated by the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors.
Kliavkoff is a strategist, not a salesman. Since July, he’s only surfaced once to offer public comment. He told Jon Wilner and me in our podcast, “I don’t feel, candidly, any sense of urgency at this point. No one’s going anywhere; we’re all together; we’re focused on doing this.”
Count me among those who believe a healthy college-sports ecosystem includes both the Big 12 and Pac-12. I think both conferences will cut new media rights deals and end up co-existing. But I’m fascinated by the dramatically different approaches.
In mid-July, Yormark and Kliavkoff had conversations. Multiple sources tell me that the talks were cordial. However, there was never serious discussion about a merger or partnership between the Big 12 and Pac-12. There were just too many tentacles and complications.
The men hung up.
Within an hour, someone leaked that the Big 12 “was no longer interested” in a merger deal. It was opportunistic messaging but left several Pac-12 presidents and chancellors puzzled. They weren’t considering a merger with the Big 12.
Kliavkoff is expected to speak at Pac-12 basketball Media Day next week in downtown San Francisco. He’ll be collegial and talk basketball. But I think he’d be wise to update Pac-12 stake holders (fans, players, coaches and recruits) on where the conference’s negotiation sits.
The Big 12 can certainly cut an early deal, but I think it’s wiser to wait 12-16 months. You know, let the value of live sports programming continue to escalate, then cash in. If I’m ESPN/Fox, I’d love to do an early deal with the Big 12 and save some money on the back end.
Still, there went Yormark again this week, telling (read: selling) CBS Sports that he’s going to use showmanship to get more eyeballs on the Big 12.
“I'm going to create … new events, go to new markets, do media blitzes, use music, celebratize our events, use influencer marketing,” Yormark said.
Always closing, that guy.
I suppose being visible and loud makes Yormark look busy and proactive. It certainly shifts the focus to the Big 12. But it reminds me of one of those time-share sales seminars you encounter on vacation.
I may listen for a minute, but I’m not going to take a seat and get sucked all the way in.
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I'm already tired of Yormark's act. Can't believe anything he says. I also think it's unseemly to take some subtle swipes at his predecessor, Bob Bowslby, by always talking about how he wants to re-energize the conference, how it had grown static or stale, how he's going to rebuild the Big 12's image. As if media tours are going to make a difference. Bob Bowlsby was one of the most knowledgable, capable and classy people in college athletics. So far, all Yormark has done is play P.T. Barnum.
In the end, he's selling a conference anchored by Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU. He's selling a conference that lives in states already owned by the Big10, SEC, or Pac-12 (West Virginia and Kansas are the only Big12 states not overlapping with major conferences). It's a conference with no football blue bloods and no notable success in the modern era. It seems inevitable that TV ratings for this group will dwindle significantly when UT and OU are gone.
All the flashy lights and music in the world can't change the actual product here.
Of course, Kliavkoff is selling a flawed product as well. But the Pac-12 has two things in its favor: (1) late night inventory and (2) untapped potential in large markets. If Houston is ever top 10 good, they will still be playing 3rd fiddle to A&M and UT in Texas markets. If UW is ever top 10 good, they will deliver all of Seattle, which is a large market. Ditto for ASU, CU, and Cal with Phoenix, Denver, and San Fran.
If I had to pour money into one of these, I'd go for the one that could actually pay off big.