Canzano: Time for big bosses in Pac-12 to lead
Presidents and chancellors must get it right.
While we wait for white smoke to rise from the chimney at Pac-12 Conference headquarters signaling the approval of a new media-rights deal, it’s worth a discussion about the campus leaders who will light the match.
The Pac-12 presidents and chancellors got some key things wrong in the last decade plus. That required a unique blend of ignorance, apathy and arrogance. But as Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The best way to correct a mistake is to make it right.”
The Pac-12 is trying.
A few facts:
• Pac-12 CEO Group is comprised of the 12 presidents and chancellors who lead the conference campuses.
• With USC and UCLA set to exit in summer of 2024, only the presidents/chancellors of the 10 current remaining schools will vote to approve a potential media deal and possible expansion.
• A three-member “executive committee” guides the board and will present proposals to the group. That three-member panel currently includes Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, Stanford president Marc Tessiere-Lavigne and Washington State president Kirk Schulz. Cauce is the chair.
The world of academia is a curious place. Leaders value consensus-driven decisions. For this reason, one person in higher education told me that a “7-3” or “6-4” vote always ends up presented as “10-0” — no matter what.
Another industry source said: “The collegiate world traditionally is a place where everybody likes to think about something, debate, make a decision, then debate some more.”
There has been high turnover among the campus leaders of the Pac-12 in recent years. Nine of the conference’s current 12 campus leaders were hired after the summer of 2015. Half of them have only been on the job since 2017. And only UCLA’s Gene Block and Arizona State’s Michael Crow were present when the conference gave the keys to ex-commissioner Larry Scott in 2009.
Michael Schill, the former University of Oregon president, left Eugene for Northwestern University last summer. He was replaced in August by interim president Patrick Phillips, who will cast UO’s vote. And Oregon State was without a permanent president until it hired Jayathi Murthy, who has been on the job officially for only four months.
I’ve written frequently about Scott’s embattled tenure. He put the Pac-12 on its current rocky path. How did Scott manage to work a decade as commissioner? Why was he able to operate, seemingly unchecked?
The short answer: his bosses.
The presidents/chancellors at that time were disconnected. They were preoccupied with managing problems on their own campuses and filling holes in their own budgets. They were distracted and I happen to think Scott liked it that way.
It helps explain both the unusually wide berth the ex-commissioner enjoyed and the misfire that was the Pac-12 Network. Remember, in August of 2012, the Pac-12 announced it was launching its own media company. This was sold to the public as a bold and innovative move.
The SEC and Big Ten both had their own networks with dedicated programming, but their networks were owned and operated by ESPN and FOX, respectively. The Pac-12 planned to make its network as a side hustle. What the presidents and chancellors didn’t publicly say at the time was that they were going on their own because they had no other choice.
ESPN declined to partner with the Pac-12 on the launch of the network in 2012, I’m told. FOX and CBS also turned Scott’s conference down. So did the Discovery Channel, per a source involved in the negotiations.
“We weren’t wanted,” said the source. “The only option the Pac-12 had if it wanted its own network was to do it ourselves. I don’t think anyone who was sitting in the room — the presidents, chancellors, and consultants — nobody had launched a network. Nobody knew what it would take.”
Scott justified his $5.4 million salary and the use of a private plane by explaining to his bosses that he wasn’t just running a conference. He was pulling double-duty as a media executive, too.
At the launch, the conference boasted that the network would be available in 40 million households. Later, the Pac-12 claimed it could be found in as many 90 million homes. But DirecTV refused to distribute the channel. So did some others. The poor distribution became a source of ongoing frustration for fans and schools. In the end, as few as 12 million television homes actually got the Pac-12 Network.
The content was well produced. The on-air talent was good. The technology was solid. But the network was a poorly distributed money pit. The studios in the downtown San Francisco headquarters swelled to 114,000 square feet that cost $90 million in rent over a decade.
The network aired hundreds of events. Some of the non-revenue generating sports, particularly women’s basketball, thrived with the exposure. The network apparently also provided the conference some rare flexibility.
A long-time Pac-12 staffer with knowledge told me that Scott sometimes slid the salaries of a handful of “conference” employees to the “network” side of the books.
“None of them had media experience in their background,” the source said. “Why were they on the Pac-12 Network payroll?”
Again, the big bosses weren’t all that tuned in.
A few months ago, the Pac-12 Network announced it was moving the operation to a 42,000 square-foot facility in the Bay Area suburbs. I took that as a sign of progress. The move to a less expensive facility made sense. But I still wonder if the conference needs to be a media company at all.
Arizona’s president — Dr. Robert Robbins — was the head of cardiothoracic surgery at the Stanford School of Medicine. Colorado’s chancellor, Philip P. DiStefano, has a doctorate from Ohio State. Utah’s new president Taylor Randall took over for Ruth Watkins last October. Randall has a rich business background.
What I’m saying is, the current CEO Group is a collection of intelligent, highly educated people. UW’s Cauce has two bachelor’s degrees, two masters degrees and a doctorate from Yale. WSU’s Schulz is an expert in chemical engineering. Nobody will be surprised if he’s someday named president of the NCAA. But right now, all those smart folks in charge need to do what inspiring bosses do — take command.
The Pac-12 presidents and chancellors need to be informed, proactive, and decisive. They need to demonstrate that they understand how critical this media rights negotiation and expansion decision are to the Pac-12’s future. They have to get it right and they can’t sit around debating it into paralysis.
It’s time for the Pac-12’s leaders to lead.
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