Canzano: Pac-12 trying to hold itself together amid USC-UCLA defection
What happens next?
USC and UCLA first held discussions about ditching the Pac-12 Conference and defecting to the Big Ten last summer, I’m told.
“We’ve been on this for a year,” a high-ranking athletic department staffer at USC shared on Friday morning. “It lost steam, then it picked up two months ago and was a slow build leading up to yesterday.”
So much for the so-called “alliance.”
The Big Ten raided the Pac-12 on Thursday, stabbing it between the shoulder blades and snatching the Los Angeles television market. The move blew up more than 100 years of Pac-12 history, torched the Rose Bowl, and turned the “Power Five” into the “Super Two” (SEC and Big Ten).
USC and UCLA will begin play in the Big Ten in 2024 and share in that conference’s $1-billion-a-year FOX television windfall. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors scheduled an emergency virtual meeting with commissioner George Kliavkoff.
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens wasn’t aware that USC and UCLA were leaving until he saw the news break on Thursday. Same goes for Oregon State AD Scott Barnes. They were blindsided like the rest of the conference. And Kliavkoff was at a family vacation home in Montana when day No. 365 on the job kicked like a mule.
Will the Big Ten try to poach Oregon and Washington, too? Would it covet the Bay Area television market and chase Stanford and Cal? And what happens to Oregon State if the Pac-12 further disintegrates around it?
In the hours after the news broke, Oregon got busy sifting through its options. Mullens closed ranks, and instructed his staff not to make public comment. UO President, Michael Schill, communicated with Kliavkoff and several fellow Pac-12 presidents and chancellors.
Said one long-time UO administrator: “It’s not what Phil Knight had in mind 20 years ago — to end up in the minor leagues.”
The prevailing theory is that Oregon and Washington would love to tailgate the Los Angeles schools and follow them into the Big Ten. But I’m not convinced either university brings enough value to make splitting the FOX television revenue with two additional partners a no-brainer.
Be sure, the end of the Pac-12 as we know it is about television money. FOX coveted the Los Angeles television market and aimed to buy it by preying on the biggest vulnerability of the Pac-12 — its lousy TV deal.
The Pac-12’s woeful media rights deal, negotiated by former commissioner Larry Scott, continues to haunt the conference. In the last fiscal year, every Pac-12 member received $21 million less in distributions than Big Ten universities did. That difference will swell to more than $50 million a year, per university, by 2024.
Said the 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.”
The Pac-12 has been immersed for months in strategy sessions and discussions about the conference’s next media rights deal. Kliavkoff told me two weeks ago, “Every single decision is viewed through the filter of what this would do to the value of media rights long term.”
What the Pac-12 didn’t do, per the USC source, is ask how the Los Angeles-based schools felt about how the conference’s revenue is divided. All the Pac-12 universities currently receive equal shares.
“No one ever had a conversation with us about how we felt about the revenue share,” the source said. “Nobody asked, ‘Are you OK with it? Would we like to see something different next contract?’ Not one conversation with LA schools, that was a mistake. We could’ve ended up leaving for the Big Ten regardless, but you have to have the conversation when we have higher cost of living in LA, higher tax, and 60-70 percent of the Pac-12’s TV market.”
I doubt it would have mattered.
I also don’t think the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors would have gone for an tilted revenue-sharing model. As a result, USC and UCLA turned its back on the Pac-12 on Thursday. They now face two awkward years of competition in the conference they destroyed. The rest of the involved parties need to now do what’s best for themselves.
Phil Knight is 84. He’s not involved in the day-to-day operations at Nike and has been busy making legacy moves. His $2 billion-plus written offer to purchase the Trail Blazers last month wasn’t a portfolio play. It was a move designed to keep the NBA team in Portland, the city he was born in. I expect his alma mater, Oregon, will go to the mattresses and explore whether joining the Big Ten (or SEC) is feasible. If it falls short on that front, UO will have no choice but to position itself as a well-funded Pac-12 outlier, like Clemson in the otherwise underwhelming ACC.
For Oregon State…
The Beavers are in a difficult spot. They aren’t located in a major television market and don’t add tangible value to potential suitors. OSU has to hope that the Pac-12 holds itself together without further defections. If Oregon and Washington bolt to the Big Ten or Arizona/ASU and Colorado/Utah leave for the Big 12, the Beavers will be left behind.
Best-case scenario, OSU stays put in a Pac-12 alongside the other current leftover members. Worst case? OSU wakes up a few years from now in beautiful, newly renovated Reser Stadium but… alongside Boise State, Fresno State and San Jose State in a newfangled conference that doesn’t factor nationally.
For the Pac-12…
In the next 72 hours, the primary focus of the Pac-12 has to be retaining Oregon/Washington and keeping the Big 12 from poaching Utah/Colorado and ASU/Arizona.
Beyond that, it must get proactive. Would ESPN — or another media partner — swoop in with a lucrative media deal aimed at holding what’s left of the Pac-12 together? ESPN needs programming in the western part of the country. The Pac-12 needs an immediate infusion of cash to sell its current members on sticking around.
Along those lines, I wonder if some sort of Pac-12/Big-12 merger might materialize, creating a third super conference with 20+ teams and multiple time zones for ESPN. It feels like the most viable path to relevancy.
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