Did Larry Scott kill the Pac-12? It’s complicated.

The anger was immediate, erupting just minutes after it was revealed that USC and UCLA were headed to the Big Ten conference. One by one, fans typed posts on social media citing the name Larry Scott.

A year had passed since the former Pac-12 commissioner resigned, but people blamed him for the loss of two marquee programs. They called him “destructive” and “a fraud” and predicted that business schools would one day teach about his “leadership failures.”

Larry Scott single-handedly destroyed the Pac-12They write.

That vitriol stemmed from a decision Scott made shortly after taking office in 2009. At a time when other Power Five conferences were working with ESPN and Fox to launch dedicated networks — deals that would raise billions of dollars — Scott persuaded his universities to roll the dice.

He insisted that the Pac-12 build its own network. The company might need time to get going, but it would allow the conference to retain all control and profits.

“If we get this right,” Scott recalled telling his university presidents, “it will be successful.”

His play never paid off. A decade after its debut, the Pac-12 networks are yet to see widespread adoption, the conference falling far behind its rivals in annual revenue and struggling to win nationally in the all-important sports of soccer and men’s basketball.

“It’s easy now to shoot at Larry Scott and play armchair quarterback,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the Sports Business Program at Washington University in St. Louis. “That being said, I think history will show that he didn’t make the wisest decision.”

Which begs the question: with the departure of USC and UCLA and speculation of Oregon, Washington and Stanford soon to follow, how much blame does Scott deserve?

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His hiring seemed like a smart move for a conference lacking in revenue and national standing. Bringing on board an outsider who had proven his marketing skills as head of the women’s tennis federation was a natural choice.

Scott, who didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, knew what he was getting himself into.

“That was my challenge,” he said in 2010.

The new boss rang the opening bell on NASDAQ and ran a promotion in Times Square saying, “We have a duty to publicize our product as widely as possible.” He added two schools, Utah and Colorado, through expansion , and unveiled a revamped logo.

Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott stands next to a chart as he announces the breakup of the NCAA's college football divisions

Larry Scott announces the division of the Pac-10 into two divisions during a news conference October 21, 2010 in San Francisco.

(Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

TV dollars changed the business of college sports. The Big Ten had partnered with Fox to launch their network in 2007, and the SEC turned over their channel to ESPN for a massive rights fee. CBS, ESPN and others expressed interest in the Pac-12.

“One criticism I’ve heard of Larry Scott in the industry is that he always wants to be the smartest guy in the room,” Rishe said. “One wonders if he was trying to reconsider this one.”

Money and equity were only part of the argument for going it alone. The Pac-12 had always considered itself an “Olympic” conference, winning national titles in sports like swimming, volleyball and water polo. A mainstream broadcaster might focus too narrowly on soccer and men’s basketball; A dedicated network would ensure that these sports are presented appropriately.

The Pac-12 Networks launched in 2012 with one national channel and six regional channels, which Scott described as an effort to “super-serve” fans in diverse geographic markets. Scott also landed a historically lucrative side deal, selling a portion of its football and men’s basketball games to ESPN and Fox for $3 billion over 12 years.

He believed this money would give his network some cushion to get established.

Even though the market was crowded — so many sports channels joining in the fray — the Pac-12 reportedly charged carriers 80 cents per subscriber, more than CNN, USA, or FX. Time Warner Cable agreed, but negotiations with DirecTV proved more difficult.

“One criticism I’ve heard of Larry Scott in the industry is that he always wants to be the smartest guy in the room. One wonders if he was trying to reconsider that one.”

— Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis

Scott acknowledged that distribution would be crucial.

“I know there are a lot of fears,” he said in 2012. “It’s understandable … it’s very important.”

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Three years after his big gamble, Scott took a break from the proceedings during the 2014 Pac-12 Football Media Days in Los Angeles to find a shady spot outside. Speaking to a reporter, he preached patience.

“You have to look at that based on where we’re going to be in 10 years,” he said. “Not three.”

Early returns were not promising.

Still unable to secure a DirecTV deal, the Pac-12 only reached 11 million paying subscribers, compared to 57 million for the Big Ten. With the SEC set to restart for an expected 67 million homes, Scott told his university presidents, “We need to look at the long-term benefits.”

Though the ESPN and Fox deals were lucrative, the cable networks called for nightly kickoffs to fill empty East Coast airtime. Fans and coaches were frustrated with the Pac-12 After Dark games.

Additionally, Scott’s project was unlucky.

NCAA sanctions hurt USC football more than expected and Oregon lost coach Chip Kelly to the NFL. None of the best men’s basketball programs have made it to the Final Four.

The conference found itself in a catch-22. His network needed a strong team to attract viewers, but as competing conferences generated larger revenues, spent more on coaches and lavish training facilities, the competition for top recruits became fiercer.

“They had a lot of product, but they didn’t have the level of audience that they needed,” said Daniel Durban, director of USC’s Institute for Sports, Media and Society. “To be honest, the Pac-12 just wasn’t that compelling.”

Meanwhile, the SEC poured unprecedented resources into football, led by Nick Saban and Alabama, who clinched championship after championship.

“The Pac-12 schools have always been on the West Coast, they’ve always dealt with visibility and recruitment issues,” Rishe said. “These issues become more acute once a conference like the SEC takes over, and it becomes harder to catch up.”

The Olympic sports could not compensate for that.

“The Olympic thing can be the icing on the cake,” Durbin said. “But you need the core product.”

The UCLA softball team poses for photos after defeating Oklahoma at the 2019 Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.

The UCLA softball team poses for photos after defeating Oklahoma at the 2019 Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.

(Alonzo Adams/Associated Press)

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The numbers stayed lukewarm through 2018, with the Pac-12 distributing about $30 million a year to its schools, well short of the $40 million the SEC paid out. Washington State President Kirk Schulz and others began to publicly complain.

That summer, while sitting in the stands at an AAU basketball tournament in Garden Grove and watching his teenage son play, Scott held on.

“I would never say that you wouldn’t make another call at some point,” he said. “But at this point, our campuses and I really believe that the original purposes of a Pac-12 network matter.”

ESPN reportedly offered to distribute the network in exchange for an extended rights agreement. No deal was made.

“If that was the case, it was a materially missed opportunity,” said consultant Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media Inc. “There’s definitely room for criticism.”

Pac-12 university presidents finally lost patience after the 2020 football season when it was announced that Scott would be stepping down in June, a year before his contract expired.

“Once our television deal was the most lucrative in the nation, and the debut of the Pac-12 networks helped deliver our championship brand across traditional and digital platforms in the U.S. and global markets,” said Oregon President Michael Schill. in a statement. “However, the intercollegiate athletics market does not remain static and now is a good time to engage a new leader who will help us develop our forward strategy.”

“Larry Scott is one of the problems … [But] you can’t just make one person the scapegoat.”

– Daniel Durban, director of the Institute for Sports, Media and Society at USC

Their strategy will become more difficult as current media deals expire in 2024 and two, if not five, marquee programs are on the way.

This exodus can be linked to Scott’s Gambit. The Big Ten distributed $680 million to schools in fiscal 2021, nearly double the $344 million disbursed by the Pac-12. Without additional revenue, UCLA officials threatened to cut programs. USC President Carol Folt called the Big Ten’s move a benefit to her school’s “long-term success and stability.”

So where is Scott and his 11-year tenure?

Certainly he must take responsibility for leading the Pac-12 on the path to ownership and signing the 12-year ESPN-Fox deal that made it impossible for the conference to adapt to a changing media environment. Also for failure to change course in other ways.

“Remember, when he came on the scene, he was trying to make a splash,” Rishe said. “There was obviously a certain myopia.”

Some factors were beyond his control.

Experts point to that losing streak, the cyclical nature of college sports, and the college presidents who initially endorsed Scott’s media strategy. After the network launched, campus leaders refused to make SEC-level spending and promote winning teams that would attract more viewers.

The conference also faced an uphill battle in terms of geography and time zones, as the majority of TV viewers lived in distant regions of the country.

“Unless you took the Pac-12 and got it across the Mississippi, you’re always going to have these problems,” Berke said. “Essentially, the Big Ten did just that, they took USC and UCLA and moved them to the Central and Eastern time zones, where a lot more of their games will be shown.”

Shortly before retiring, Scott told the Associated Press he regretted his schools weren’t winning more at football. He criticized the university management for abandoning their plan too early.

Fans did not respond kindly to the comments. Still, the final verdict on his tenure is likely more nuanced than a series of angry posts on social media suggest.

“Larry Scott is one of the problems,” Durbin said. But when it comes to something as big as the potential Pac-12 implosion, he added, “You can’t just make one person the scapegoat.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-07-07/did-larry-scott-kill-the-pac-12-the-answer-is-more-complicated-than-you-might-think Did Larry Scott kill the Pac-12? It’s complicated.

Emma Bowman

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