Last week at Pac-12 media day, league commissioner George Kliavkoff did something that looks even more ridiculous in hindsight. On stage, he said he had decided not to announce a new media rights deal for the conference at the event so the focus could be on football.
Of course, he was then asked for clarification: did he say that after a year of waiting, an agreement had been reached on the Pac-12?
“I think you’re reading too much into it,” Kliavkoff said.
Apparently, Kliavkoff had nothing substantial in his back pocket. Colorado knew it, and most of us in the room assumed it did.
News broke Wednesday that the Buffaloes plan to go straight back to their Big Eight/Big 12 roots. On Thursday, the school made it official.
The Pac-12 is now a Pac-9. In the coming days and weeks, this number will certainly change. Whether it will increase or decrease remains to be seen.
Perhaps I’ll use the conference’s predicament to teach my 5-year-old daughter basic math skills. And someday I may have to tell her the story of why there’s no college athletic conference to speak of on our beloved shore — why Los Angeles’ most prestigious universities had to partner with a cluster of schools around America’s Great Lakes to give Southern For Californians have a meaningful reason to cheer on fall Saturdays.
I would start the story on a personal note. In June 2010, I was covering Kansas and the Big 12 for The Kansas City Star when there were real concerns that Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott was about to convince Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to join the Pac -12 to join. That move would have wiped out the Big 12 and left Kansas and others in trouble. Political pressure, coupled with the Big 12’s kowtowing to Bevo, saved the league and kept the surprisingly confident Pac-12 at bay.
Looking back, it’s easy to think about it and say Scott should have given Texas whatever it wanted to come west. But the Pac-12 presidents are not inherently looters. They largely accepted the status quo, instead adding Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West.
After all, the Pac-12 already had a true football powerhouse that won more than anyone else in the 2010s. But just as Scott was trying to lure the Longhorns in, the NCAA was sanctioning USC football over the Reggie Bush scandal.
Texas’ decision to stay there and the NCAA’s decision to crush the Trojans left the Pac-12 without a strong football brand to carry the conference and their ill-conceived Pac-12 network.
No one could have predicted how badly Scott misjudged the conference given that he owned all the Third Division broadcasting rights. Given the Pac-12’s history and prestigious brands, no one could have imagined that Scott would not be able to bring respectable distribution to the network. Few could have guessed that by the end of the Pac-12 media rights deal, so many household wires would be cut across the country.
Kliavkoff was hired to clean up Scott’s mess. Like Scott, he had no collegiate sports experience but seemed like the type of guy who was quick to adapt. At least he seemed likeable, a potential consensus builder.
He told me he particularly enjoyed solving complex puzzles, and in fact he had one on hand in his first few months in office, when Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC.
Suddenly, the Big 12 were on their deathbeds as many thought it was a decade earlier. The other eight schools didn’t want to appeal for the SEC or the Big Ten, so they practically begged Kliavkoff to get into the Pac-12.
Kliavkoff spent that first summer kissing USC’s ring. He hoped to acquaint President Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn with the long-term direction of the league under his stewardship so the Trojans wouldn’t seek a more desirable home like Texas and Oklahoma.
As Kliavkoff tried to adjust to USC, he also narrowed down the list of “Big 12” schools that he thinks could add value to the conference as it seeks its next media rights deal. But when Kliavkoff brought the idea to the presidents, Folt voiced his contempt for the idea of expansion. The rest of the group followed suit because keeping USC happy was more important than, say, adding a school like Texas Christian, Texas Tech, or Baylor to bolster the conference’s position and into the Lone Star State’s fertile recruiting hotbed to advance
Of course, a year later, USC and UCLA faced the Big Ten.
Folt played Kliavkoff, who learned the hard way that higher education is a business like any other. Universities will always follow the money.
Without the LA schools as part of the Pac-12 content offering, Kliavkoff always had a rabbit out of the hat in this round of media rights negotiations.
The new Big 12 commissioner, Brett Yormark, also had no collegiate sports experience. But he quickly overtook Kliavkoff in line with ESPN and Fox and once again joined the frontrunners in collegiate sports coverage.
How much money would the broadcasters have left for this iteration of the Pac-12? Few.
So here we are. Colorado is gone. The Pac-12 spin will be that the buffs don’t take a huge loss due to the poor state of their football program and they can be easily replaced, but it’s more about the symbolism than the school.
Kliavkoff is unable to save the Pac-12 from its imminent demise. The numbers that he brings with him for a TV deal are not enough on their own.
Only Oregon and Washington can keep the league from becoming a “Group of Five” conference. If the Ducks and Huskies are content to make less money but use an easier route to automatic college football playoff berths, then the Pac-12 will survive.
If they’d rather pray for an invitation to join the Big Ten (which probably won’t come) at a renewed conference of leaders who aren’t afraid to fight for their future, then they’ll also make their way to the Big 12 make.
Kliavkoff has proved overpowering so far, but he’ll take more blame than he should. This is due to his superiors and their predecessors, the Presidents and Chancellors, who have repeatedly acted toward major collegiate athletics in ways that the rest of the country would expect from the institutions that represent the West Coast ethos.
They were passive. They were elite. You wrinkled your nose at the pursuit of football success. And they’re about to make what was once an outdated cliche seem all too true: there are just better things to do in the West on Saturdays.