Canzano: UCLA gone? Yup, but Pac-12 leaves door ajar anyway
Conference making contingency plans.
LOS ANGELES — Chip Kelly was playing in a charity golf tournament in New Hampshire when his phone rang with the news that UCLA was defecting to the Big Ten.
“It’s going to happen in an hour,” Kelly was instructed. “Make sure you don’t say anything.”
Kelly’s foursome included close friend and ex-New Hampshire quarterback, Matt Cassano. Also there, recently retired New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell and ex-Nike executive Gary DeStefano.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day was in the group behind Kelly, playing with his father-in-law and some others.
“By the time we got to No. 16, everyone in the world knew,” Kelly said.
I talked with Kelly on Friday in Los Angeles about a variety of subjects including his sleep habits, the time he’s spent with Navy SEALs, and how he came out of the new Top Gun: Maverick film ready to hop in a military-grade jet.
“I’d probably pass out,” Kelly said. “I don’t think I could handle the G’s but I’d like to try.”
What Kelly and I didn’t talk about was whether he could handle the whiplash of a possible flip-flop by UCLA. I didn’t ask. In part, because I don’t believe for a moment that the Bruins’ head coach has a say in where UCLA plays in 2024 and beyond. But Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff just might.
I want to stop right here and point out that in no way do I expect UCLA to reverse course and announce it will rejoin the Pac-12. That would require a series of wild events to occur. Also, it would potentially come with a damaging public relations hit to the Bruins. But it’s something I left Media Day thinking about.
Add San Diego State? Poach Baylor or Houston? How about UNLV? There are a variety of options that need exploring. One of them involves the possibility that the Pac-12 might give UCLA second thoughts.
Said one person familiar with the situation: “The not-so-hidden question is UCLA. The Pac-12 won’t move on expansion until that’s decided.”
The Regents of the University of California system may have a say. That mostly feels like political posturing, though. One UCLA official, in fact, told me, “All that is just a bunch of noise.” In the meantime, I wonder whether the Pac-12 is asking bidders on the conference’s media rights to run valuation models that includes UCLA and/or USC staying.
The Bruins are leaving. They announced it. The Big Ten talked about it. They’re gone, right?
“Maybe,” said Kliavkoff on Friday.
Former Fox Sports Networks President Bob Thompson told me that prior to the defections of USC and UCLA, he expected the Pac-12 would sign a media rights deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million a year. That would result in annual distributions of roughly $42 million to each Pac-12 university. In the Big Ten, the Bruins and Trojans are expected to collect a minimum of $72 million a year.
That’s a $30 million-a-year gap, minimally.
Could the Pac-12 go all-in, get creative, sell off the Pac-12 Networks, and cobble together a media rights package that would push above $60 million a year in distributions and give UCLA and/or USC something to think about?
“I’m not going to get into the specifics,” Kliavkoff told me. “What I will say is the UCLA community, I feel bad for. The vast majority of people in that community immediately did not like that decision and I think the longer that decision sticks, the worse they’re going to like it.”
I doubt it happens. The dollars probably won’t be there. UCLA and USC are telling everyone they’ve moved on and I believe them. But the win that Kliavkoff needs most is one that unwinds the defections. If Kliavkoff could pull it off, it would define his legacy.
“I am not predicting that they come back,” Kliavkoff said. “But if they came back, we’d welcome them back.”
Expanding with San Diego State and maybe one or three others is a decent fallback plan. It would aggregate some additional dollars and get the conference back in Southern California. Mining the landscape for new partners, such as Amazon, Apple and Turner is sound strategy, too. There are some new media players at the table and they may have a pile of money to spend with Fox and ESPN gobbling up so much of the Big Ten and SEC. But if the Pac-12 is smart, it’s asking bidders to give them a valuation model that includes USC and UCLA remaining.
Would UCLA stay in the Pac-12 if the potential $30 million distribution gap were whittled down to $10 million-a-year? How heavy would the pressure from alumni, the UC system and non-revenue generating sports feel in that scenario?
Years ago, Chip Kelly announced he was leaving Oregon for the NFL. He was set to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was gone. The university was making contingency plans. Then, overnight, Kelly changed his mind and decided to come back for one more year.
It was a Chip-flop.
That was one quirky person, changing his mind, though. A UCLA flip flop would require the unwinding of decisions, and a willingness from the Bruins to withstand some blowback.
Stanford coach David Shaw told me he thinks geography will ultimately win out. Shaw said he believed the traditional Pac-12 universities would one day be re-united. Perhaps, in five years, or maybe a decade, when the media rights deals come up for bid again.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in the next couple of years, but my heart of hearts tells me that in some point of time this will self correct,” Shaw said. “The reason conferences were created were proximity reasons… I do believe in the next round of TV contracts, it will start to go back.”
It sounds like a pipe dream, but I left Friday’s Pac-12 Media Day wondering about UCLA’s next 24 months. USC may leave regardless of the media numbers. But we all noted that Kliavkoff was collegial toward both the Bruins and Trojans in his remarks.
He threw a haymaker at the Big 12, sniped at the Big Ten, and lamented the loss of the “college” part of college athletics. But the commissioner insisted the Bruins and Trojans would continue to be treated as respected members of the conference.
He left the door ajar.
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