George Kliavkoff had already won over Kirk Schulz by the time he arrived at a Zoom podium to discuss his new role as the Pac-12 Commissioner. Then he collected some extra brownie points from the Washington State University president.
In an introductory news conference on May 13, Kliavkoff revealed he had one daughter who was attending the University of Georgia and a son who recently committed to the basketball team at Whitman College in Walla Walla. Representatives of the 11 other schools in the conference may have brushed that off, but for the obvious reasons, it grabbed the attention of Schulz, who’s seldom seen without a crimson lapel pin attached to his suit jacket.
“If I spend a disproportionate amount of time in Pullman compared to the old commissioner, you know why,” Kliavkoff said.
Schulz, after all, was one of the three Pac-12 presidents – along with Washington’s Ana Marie Cauce and Oregon’s Michael Schill – tasked with identifying the conference’s next commissioner, an arduous task that was bound to come with criticism one way or the other.
Schulz should know. He went through the same thing in 2016 when Washington State hired a 54-year-old from Portsmouth, Virginia, whose last stop was at Kansas State and who’d spent practically no time in the Inland Northwest’s footprint, let alone the West Coast at large.
“When I was hired, they wanted somebody in the West Coast and they wanted somebody who was a strong academic and a great fundraiser and understands athletics,” Schulz said. “You add it all together and there’s like one person in the world who would fit all that stuff. And I think that’s a little bit of the same challenge with a commissioner.”
Once Schulz learned Kliavkoff’s name – like most fans and media members, Schulz also hadn’t heard of the MGM Resorts’ President of Entertainment & Sports – he began to listen to what the 54-year-old was saying. As important as anything else, he realized Kliavkoff, with limited experience in collegiate athletics, was also willing to listen – perhaps the same way Schulz did four years ago as an outsider from the Midwest.
“If somebody comes in and doesn’t have the experience and sort of has some swagger about it and says I know all this stuff, you’ve got to question, ‘Is that it?’ ” Schulz said, as opposed to “if somebody comes in and says, ‘I don’t know about this, but here’s the approach I’m going to take. I’m going to hire a staff that know that area to provide advice.’ ”
Kliavkoff will also have to do much of the legwork himself. Criticism of outgoing commissioner Larry Scott was multifaceted, but one complaint is that he seldom made campus appearances. Kliavkoff has vowed to take a “listening tour” once he officially steps into his new role – something Schulz believes will help him gain a better understanding of the successes and struggles of the various member institutions.
“Larry was not in Pullman that frequently. He’d be here occasionally but kind of was here for a few hours and then kind of left,” Schulz said. “To get to know a place, you’ve got to come and spend a couple days. To me, and I’m not just trying to play to my audience right now, but the commissioner’s got to come in and know the local sports media people. He needs to talk to some of our donors and some of our fans and see what people think of the conference and things like that. Meet with our coaches.
“You could spend two days in Pullman and walk away and go down and say spend two days at USC. You’re going to hear very different things. But both schools have got some issues and the commissioner needs to understand those issues to really lead us.”
WSU’s needs are somewhat obvious. The athletic department has continued to dig itself into a bigger financial hole, and it’s possible the school still hasn’t realized the full repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Cougars aren’t the only small-market school facing revenue issues, and Schulz believes Kliavkoff will aid in the recovery process.
“I think it’s the recognition that we need to push revenue to the schools,” Schulz said. “To me, if you can do nothing else and really get some of that revenue gap closed, I think that’s really important to small-market schools.”
Kliavkoff will also make a push to promote the conference’s biggest football games on a national level, Schulz said. Fans on the East Coast may know of the Apple Cup, but it and many of the Pac-12’s other rivalry games aren’t appointment viewing in the same way that SEC rivalry games such as the Iron Bowl are for consumers on the West Coast.
“He said those can be sort of premier events for the conference, and the conference office’s job is to go out and brand those type of things, not just to go out and tell the schools to do it,” Schulz said. “And you think about that a little bit and you go, ‘Well, we haven’t really done much of that.’ We know about the Apple Cup and a couple years ago we were both ranked and some of those kind of things and we got a little bit of exposure. But if we had the conference office backing those type of things, all the sudden it gives our teams a little bit of exposure, and that’ll help in the playoffs and so on.”
The new commissioner will also be aggressive in efforts to expand the College Football Playoff and give Pac-12 athletes the best opportunities to capitalize on the increasingly popular subject of NIL (Name Image Likeness).
“To me, it’s no longer an if. It’s here, so let’s embrace it and let’s just do it really, really well,” Schulz said of NIL. “The Pullman market isn’t going to attract any five-star athletes who want to come to our place, but on the other hand, you’re going to be playing and be showcased in the L.A. market and the Bay Area market and Seattle and those types of things. For all of us, we need that ability to make sure we can showcase our student-athletes in these big media markets as we compete and play.”
Another subject Kliavkoff touched on while meeting with the Pac-12’s search committee was perception. Not the perception of the conference, necessarily, but the perception of the person running it. Scott’s damaged reputation continued to take hits as his lavish spending habits were exposed – including a weeklong stay at a two-bedroom sky villa at the Aria Resort in Las Vegas during the conference basketball tournaments.
“You’ve got to be out there. You’ve got to be visible,” Schulz said. “(Kliavkoff) was also really up front about perception and the way you do things makes a big difference. Do you fly a private jet around and talk about, ‘Gee, we don’t have money for this?’ Everybody kind of goes, ‘You had money for what you wanted it for.’ The commissioner has got to just keep that in mind that everyone’s kind of watching how he or she would operate, how they travel, how they go and there’s just some things like that he brought forward.
“… So to me, like a president or anything else, you’ve got to avoid some of those lightning-rod things that all the sudden you’ve got all types of scrutiny over every move. Just be a little smarter about how you do things, and when people are scrutinizing they’re scrutinizing the things they need to, which is performance, what’s happening and not lifestyle choices.”
Kliavkoff’s tenure will be measured by whether he can move the needle in the right direction for the revenue sports, secure a lucrative media rights deal that matches those in the other Power Five conferences and represent the conference in a positive light when it comes to broader topics like NIL, sports betting and CFP expansion.
Understandably, many are skeptical as to whether a former Boston University rower is the person who can handle all that.
“We also knew if it wasn’t somebody from a very traditional viewpoint, there was going to be some skepticism,” Schulz said. “Like, ‘Who is this guy? Once again, the Pac-12 decides to go a different direction from everybody else. Look how well that worked.’ I think we anticipated all that out there, but as you have seen I think people are willing to give him a chance. And that’s all you can ask for in any hire, whether it’s a president, AD, whatever.
“Two years from now, people will say, ‘You guys did great,’ or once again, ‘the Pac-12’s just not really doing what it needs to do,’ and we’re confident people are going to look back in a couple years and say, ‘He’s come in and done the right things and moved the conference in the right direction.’ ”