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Canzano: Phil Knight can help put the Pac-12 back together again
Sense of urgency arises in Pac-12.
Larry Scott had no problem with taking a $7,500-a-night hotel room for himself. This was 2019, and the Pac-12 Conference was in peril, woefully behind its college conference peers when it came to revenue, brand and vision.
The Pac-12 commissioner was in Las Vegas for the conference basketball tournament and meetings with his athletic directors, who were bleeding financially. The tone-deaf Scott booked himself in a two-bedroom Sky Suite villa at ARIA.
It came with 24-hour butler service, a private elevator and 3,370-square feet of space. Scott’s suite also included a marble jacuzzi tub, a fully stocked bar, and access to a private pool.
It was a terrible look. One that still sticks in the craw of Pac-12 athletic directors, university presidents and chancellors who are now scrambling to hold the conference together after UCLA and USC left this week for the Big Ten.
“Be clear,” a sitting athletic director told me on Friday, “Larry put us on the path here.”
The conference is now teetering after the defection of its two Southern California-based universities. Los Angeles is media market No. 2, with nearly 6 million television households. That nearly matches the total number of TV households in the next three larger Pac-12 markets (Bay Area, Phoenix and Seattle) combined.
Phil Knight is what.
The Pac-12 Conference presidents and chancellors met on Friday in an emergency strategy session. The conference released a statement from the 10 remaining members indicating that it had authorized commissioner George Kliavkoff to “explore all expansion options.”
What Kliavkoff should do is fly to Knight for a sit down. Because it would be the most un-Larry Scott move ever to show up and make a humble, personal plea to the one guy who might be able to save the Pac-12.
Oregon and Washington are the keys to keeping the Pac-12 together. The Big Ten Conference currently appears focused on luring Notre Dame into its newly formed mega-conference. After that, if it still has an appetite, the Ducks and Huskies could be next. Or they might be left behind, depending on who you ask.
A Big Ten athletic director told me on Friday that the television market of Seattle and the brand of Oregon are attractive selling points. He didn’t think they brought nearly enough value to cut them in with a full share of the conference’s $1 billion-a-year deal with FOX. But the Big Ten’s expansion is being fueled by FOX and it’s possible the network might covet more inventory in the Pacific Time Zone.
What does Knight want to happen here?
That’s today’s question. Because the 84-year-old Nike founder has been busy in the last few years making legacy plays. He and his wife, Penny, have given billions over the years to build libraries, fund cancer research, and study cardiovascular health. They poured their resources into the University of Oregon and Stanford, his alma maters.
The Knights gifted Stanford $75 million in 2021 to fund a study on cognitive decline. A year before that, they cut a $465 million check to Oregon. And last month, Knight emerged as part of a $2 billion-plus written offer to purchase the Trail Blazers — perhaps his biggest legacy play yet.
Knight cares deeply about the state of Oregon. He was born, raised, and made his fortune here. We all know he doesn’t really need an NBA franchise. His pursuit of the Trail Blazers is nostalgic. It turns out, old “Shoe Dog” has a heart and he often has a difficult time hiding it.
The Pac-12 was founded in downtown Portland. In December of 1915, the “Pacific Coast Conference” was born at the now-defunct Imperial Hotel. In 2022, the conference includes Knight’s two favorite universities — Oregon and Stanford. I suppose he could call Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and ask him to take them both. Or he could sit down with Kliavkoff, put his weight behind the Pac-12, and help save the thing.
I was on the telephone on Friday evening with a sitting Pac-12 athletic director who told me he believes the fate of the Pac-12 rests with how stable Oregon and Washington remain.
You’re going to read and hear a lot in the coming months about the role USC’s Carol Folt played in the Trojans’ move to the Big Ten. Per multiple conference sources, Folt assured her fellow Pac-12 chancellors and presidents and even Kliavkoff himself that USC was committed to the conference — until it wasn’t.
Said the conference athletic director: “The destruction of the Pac-12, if that now happens, is on Carol Folt. This comes down to how stable Oregon and Washington are now. It’s a game of liar’s poker. If Oregon and Washington commit to the Pac-12, we’ll survive this thing. It comes down to those two schools.”
Television drives the bus in college athletics. ESPN ushered Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. FOX countered by luring USC and UCLA to the Big Ten with a pile of money. Beyond the television entities, you’d be hard pressed to find forces in sports more influential than Knight and Nike.
Knight’s support would help stabilize the Pac-12. Instead of merging with the Big 12, the conference would now be a threat to dismantle it. In that, the Pac-12 flips from defense to offense, potentially poaching a handful of attractive Big 12 universities in the process. With Knight’s influence and clout, ESPN might also come to the table as a partner in a more meaningful manner.
Notre Dame will presumably make a decision in the coming days and either join the Big Ten or remain independent. Meanwhile, the programs at Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado are a threat to be poached by the Big 12. That conference would like nothing more than to see the Pac-12 disintegrate, and then, pick through the wreckage.
The SEC and Big Ten have cemented themselves as the two “super conferences.” There’s a public battle looming between the Pac-12 and Big 12 to see which ends up as the No. 3 league.
“One of us will have to be destroyed to get there,” said the AD I spoke with.
Oregon and Washington have to be hurt that they weren’t included in the original discussions with the Big Ten. FOX slapped them — and the rest of the Pac-12 — in the face. Knight’s global relationships become one of the most valuable assets the Pac-12 can capture. But only if he’s motivated enough to put his name, clout, and potentially money, behind the Pac-12.
Larry Scott’s dismal leadership left the conference on a doomed path. College athletics shifted dramatically in the last decade. USC and UCLA did what they thought was best for themselves. And all of it leads to one question: Does Knight care about the Pac-12?
I suspect he does. Much in the same way Knight proved he cared about Oregon State when he jumped in years ago to help it retain baseball coach Pat Casey when Notre Dame was trying to hire him away.
This isn’t Keith Jackson’s — “whoooaaa Nellie!” conference anymore. USC and UCLA are gone. Players are being paid via NIL, funding models have shifted, coaching salaries have exploded, and the search for new and expanding revenue sources trumps tradition and loyalty. But amid that, is there no place in major college athletics for the Pac-12 anymore?
Got a thought on that?
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