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Sports >  NCAA basketball

New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff talks realignment (if the Big 12 folds), CFP expansion, media strategy

UPDATED: Fri., July 23, 2021

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff chose his words carefully but made his point clear after a new realignment wave formed in the middle of the Power Five.

The conference could be open for business if the right opportunity surfaces.

“I consider the Pac-12 an exclusive club with a high barrier to entry,’’ Kliavkoff said Thursday when asked about a Houston Chronicle report indicating that Big 12 anchors Texas and Oklahoma are interested in joining the SEC.

“I love the schools and the teams we have today. We are not actively seeking to poach any teams from any conferences. But we’d be foolish not to listen if schools call us.”

If Texas and Oklahoma were to join the SEC (or become Independents), it’s unclear which Big 12 schools would be attractive to the Pac-12 given its desire for universities that fit culturally and competitively, bring significant media value, and meet the conference’s academic standards.

(Of the eight schools potentially left behind, only Kansas and Iowa State are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities.)

But Kliavkoff’s open-minded stance on Pac-12 membership mirrors his position on so many other matters:

Everything is under consideration for the conference, which has new leadership during a transformative time in college athletics.

— Days before Kliavkoff’s tenure began, the Supreme Court issued a momentous ruling on the college sports economic model (Alston vs. the NCAA) and university presidents approved the next step in the College Football Playoff expansion process.

— His first day on the job, July 1, coincided with the start of the Name, Image and Likeness era (NIL), in which athletes are allowed to sign endorsement and marketing deals.

— Then, just three weeks into Kliavkoff’s tenure, the fault line under the Power Five ruptured.

Not only have Texas and Oklahoma approached the SEC but, according to reports, their announced exit from the Big 12 could unfold in a matter of weeks.

Hours after the news broke, Kliavkoff issued the following comment on his Twitter feed: “Just when I thought my first month on the job could not get more interesting…”

He marveled at the barrage of recent news during a wide-ranging interview Thursday. But when asked about the tasks atop his to-do list, Kliavkoff sketched a much bigger picture.

“There are one or two things that could be considered ongoing, and then others that are longer term,’’ he said. “But our top priority, not only for me but for our schools, is to be the No. 1 conference in supporting student-athletes.”

(The day NIL became the law of the land in college sports, Kliavkoff issued a statement supporting the “leading-edge and comprehensive NIL programs” implemented by Pac-12 schools.)

Kliavkoff on Thursday also reiterated his commitment to breaking the Pac-12’s national championship droughts in men’s basketball (24 years) and football (17 years).

“(The No. 2 priority) is to put in place all the mechanisms at the conference level that are needed for us to win championships in football and men’s basketball,” he said.

“But having said that, despite the focus on football and basketball, we aren’t going to step away from our heritage of producing dominating Olympic sports. I think you can do both those things. In fact, I think one feeds on the other.

“And longer-term, we’re going to spend the next few years working on ways to optimize the distribution of our media rights.”

The Pac-12’s contracts with ESPN and Fox expire in the spring of 2024 — one year after the Big Ten’s current deals conclude and one year before the Big 12’s agreements are up.

If the conference sought new contracts prior to that point, its options would be limited to ESPN and Fox.

Only by waiting for the current rights cycle to expire could the Pac-12 take its full inventory to the open market and accept bids from all interested media companies.

“There is no rush to renegotiate the media rights deals,’’ Kliavkoff said. “The macro trends are all in our favor, and I think they will continue to be in our favor for years to come. Waiting doesn’t hurt us.

“But there’s a delicate balance to strike when you think about revenue and national exposure and a competitive advantage. And like all the other big decisions, this one won’t get decided in a vacuum. The presidents, the athletic directors and the coaches will be involved.

“It will be a collaborative effort.”

He plans a similar approach for evaluating the CFP expansion proposal.

The 12-team model under consideration is the offspring of a subcommittee that featured the commissioners of the SEC (Greg Sankey), the Big 12 (Bob Bowlsby) and the Mountain West (Craig Thompson), plus Notre Dame’s athletic director (Jack Swarbrick).

“I am strongly in favor of expansion,” Kliavkoff said. “More opportunities for our athletes to compete for championships is good. Right now, only three percent of (all FBS) teams have a chance to play for the national championship. The system is not working as well as it can and should.

“We’re very appreciative of all the work put in by the subcommittee. But the Pac-12 and many other conferences weren’t part of that two-year process. We need a few months to digest it all, to discuss what works, what doesn’t work and what are the difficult pieces that can maybe be solved.

“I plan to have conversations with our head coaches, our faculty athletic representatives, our athletic directors and the student-athletes. There is an expectation that it has all been decided, but it’s complicated.”

In addition to conference realignment, media rights, and playoff expansion, Kliavkoff offered his thoughts on several other topics, including:

The Rose Bowl’s future in an expanded playoff:

“I think there’s a solution in which the Rose Bowl is part of the CFP but is able to maintain its traditions of a 2 p.m. kickoff on New Year’s Day and, at the same time, enjoy the economic benefits that come with it. There are creative solutions where the Rose Bowl can be part of it. I hope all the six New Year’s games are part of it.”

(Those six are the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach bowls.)

Whether Pac-12 favors automatic berths to the CFP for the champions of the Power Five:

“The idea that we need an automatic bid, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

The future of the Pac-12 Networks:

“Either we have to produce lots and lots of content, or our partners will have to do it. Everybody who works at the Pac-12 Network is an expert in producing live content. We’ll be a part of that.”

The future location of Pac-12 office:

“It’s an expensive office space, and the world is changing. I’m not predisposed to a notion of how much square footage we need or where we need to be.

“But every dollar we make is a dollar that can be distributed to the schools. Any amount we can save at the conference level, without sacrificing the integrity of our operation, I plan to save. And I can tell you this: Wherever we are, we won’t be paying the same rate.”

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