The brand-spanking-new commissioner is absolutely, indisputably right: The Pac-12 can “continue to compete and thrive” without expanding.
The conference doesn’t have to grow, but it must evolve.
It must do something in the wake of the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma and college football’s Power Five morphing into the Power Two-And-Maybe-More.
Presenting the Hotline’s (initial) four-step plan for the Pac-12 to navigate the tumult …
Step 1: Be aggressive.
George Kliavkoff had a weighty to-do list when he took charge of the conference on July 1, but all other issues pale compared to ensuring the conference’s basic survival and success.
It’s a brutal position for a newcomer, but Kliavkoff must be creative, decisive and aggressive – areas of supreme Pac-12 weakness in recent years.
Multiple industry sources told the Hotline that Texas began actively (but quietly) examining options beyond the Big 12 more than a year ago.
The Pac-12, under the leadership of Larry Scott at the time, was either unaware of the opportunity or unable to capitalize.
“Their chance to do something really smart with realignment has already passed,” one source said, “because they weren’t prepared and in front of this.”
Strategically, the conference is paying dearly for the delayed action on Scott’s future.
Had the presidents made a change before the pandemic – there was ample justification as far back as 2018 – the Pac-12’s tactical position could be markedly different today.
It cannot be unprepared for another nanosecond.
Kliavkoff’s industry connections and institutional knowledge aren’t ideal for the realignment game, which invariably plays out on back channels.
But by all accounts, Kliavkoff is a quick learner and a creative thinker and, critically, knows what he doesn’t know.
If he leans on the right people to fill the gaps and perform reconnaissance, the Pac-12 won’t remain paralyzed.
Of course, Kliavkoff can only do so much without the consent of the very presidents who declined to move on Scott for those crucial years.
Step 2: Disregard overtures from the Big 12.
Kliavkoff said Tuesday that he has already received “significant inbound interest” from other schools.
We took that to mean the Big 12 universities now in scramble mode and, perhaps, some Mountain West schools performing due diligence on the Pac-12’s plans.
But the conference must protect its brand. There is strength in alignment, and the 12 schools have alignment on multiple fronts that matter to athletic departments, presidents and chancellors, regents and trustees.
Expanding for the sake of expansion – simply because the SEC is getting bigger – would be worse than doing nothing.
Any new member(s) must meet the Pac-12’s academic standards and bring enough media value to increase annual revenue for the existing schools.
Those are the two key bars, and none of the remaining Big 12 schools clear both of them.
If the Kansas football program weren’t abysmal, the Jayhawks would fit. But the strength of their basketball program doesn’t carry enough value for the football-heavy Pac-12.
(The ACC is a different story: The pairing of KU basketball with the Duke and North Carolina brands could make a material impact financially on the ACC.)
Step 3: Partner with the Big Ten.
The challenge for the Pac-12 is finding ways to increase its media rights value without expanding for the sake of expansion.
How can it improve the content without devaluing the brand? By getting creative with the inventory.
Two years ago, the Hotline suggested a non-conference scheduling alliance with the Big 12. That won’t happen now that Texas and Oklahoma are moving on.
Instead, the Pac-12 should seek an arrangement with the Big Ten.
Early in the 2010s, the conferences agreed to a scheduling partnership, but it fizzled at the last minute when the Pac-12 balked. This is a fine time to revisit the concept, with both leagues under new leadership.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been on the job for 18 tumultuous months and might not have a desire to expand, but he could be open to partnerships that add value to his conference’s media deals.
Kliavkoff acknowledged on Tuesday that non-conference scheduling alliances have been discussed but declined to provide details or a timeline for resolution.
A deal with the Big Ten would be significant enough for the Pac-12 – not only for media valuation but also as a connection to the national stage – that the conference should do whatever is required to make it work.
Even if that means agreeing to two games annually against the Big Ten and reducing its intra-conference schedule to eight games.
Speed matters. The ACC, whose new commissioner, Jim Phillips, spent more than a decade in the Big Ten, could be considering the very same thing.
Step 4: Pursue a deal with CBS.
The network is losing its college football cornerstone, the SEC’s ‘Game of the Week’ package, at the end of the 2023 season, if not sooner.
The Pac-12’s deals with Fox and ESPN also expire at the end of the 2023 season.
The conference should aggressively seek a partnership with CBS for a weekly primetime game starting in the fall of 2024.
Because it might want to maintain a foothold in the college football marketplace.
Because it would provide the Pac-12 with weekly national TV exposure.
And because there won’t be as many over-the-air broadcast windows available in 2024 as you might think:
ABC will be wall-to-wall with the SEC.
FOX will assuredly feature the Big Ten.
NBC has Notre Dame and, it appears, little interest in expanding its college football inventory.
That leaves CBS, with wide-open time slots and access to 110 million households.
However the Pac-12 slices its football inventory in the next contract cycle, it cannot shun network TV entirely. Go ahead and sell a package of games to the pay-TV industry. Sell a package to the digital world. But it must have national over-the-air exposure.
And here’s the problem:
The Big Ten’s media contracts expire one year before the Pac-12’s deals (after the 2022 football season).
It, too, could have an eye on CBS’ vacant Saturday window.
And it already has a contractual relationship with CBS (albeit basketball-only).
The Pac-12 should beat the Big Ten to the punch.
If it doesn’t grab that CBS lifeline, the options for premium network TV broadcasts may well be limited – it could be forced into accepting bad time slots and limited dollars.
There are paths to future relevance and success for the Pac-12 that don’t require it to add members that don’t fit.
The conference can’t panic, but it must be creative and it must be bold.
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