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Sports >  NCAA basketball

John Blanchette: New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff quick to brush off any comparisons to his predecessor

UPDATED: Thu., May 13, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

The Pac-12’s deep, dark and radio silent search for a commissioner came to a sudden conclusion Thursday with the appointment of Not Larry Scott. Which is all anyone wanted to hear.

Except it appeared to be closer to Larry Scott II when the name first dropped.

George Kliavkoff’s résumé in college sports administration, like his predecessor’s at the time of hiring, is thinner than the Steptoe phone book. He’s not a sitting athletic director. He wasn’t poached from another conference office. He’s been running the show as president of entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts International.

He was a college athlete, however. At Boston University. A rower.

If you’re getting the Larry Scott I-played-tennis-at-Harvard heebie jeebies, relax.

Just before time ran out on the Zoom call introducing Kliavkoff, the new commish pivoted from an innocuous answer about growing women’s basketball to say this:

“I want to be clear. We know where the bread is buttered. We’re focused on the revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”

If Larry Scott ever said anything like this during his 12 years on the job, no one can seem to remember it – and in any case, the bread being buttered would be $120-a-loaf Spanish Gold Leaf, with salted Echire, charged to his expense account.

Here’s something else Kliavkoff volunteered on Thursday, after noting the conference’s greatest strength is the repute of its schools and the value of a Pac-12 education:

“The greatest weakness, if we’re honest with ourselves, is the number of years it’s been since we’ve won a football or men’s basketball championship. And we’re going to do everything we can at the conference level to fix that.”

One question we didn’t get to ask: Was the sodium thiopental he was administered from Moderna or Pfizer?

And while on the subject of truth …

The truth is, many around college athletics and Pac-12 fandom wanted to hate this hire. An easy target is to be treasured and that’s pretty much what the conference has been in the Power 5 milieu, and a misstep by the presidents would have made another punch line. And having the conference leadership as a villain makes it easier to rationalize your own school’s athletic shortcomings.

But people wanted to love this hire, too. College football and hoops are better places if the Pac-12 is living up to its less recent history, and the success in the recent NCAA basketball tournaments was a tonic for beleaguered believers. Over time, the right leader can effect real and positive change.

For the moment, all anyone got was a “trust us” wink from the purported smartest guys in the room – the presidents – and nobody wanted that.

Kliavkoff’s business particulars set off Roman candles and bottle rockets. In stops at Major League Baseball Advanced Media, NBC Universal, Hearst Corporation, Hulu, NBC Universal and MGM Resorts, he’s carved out a mighty reputation as a media fixer and moneymaker in times of upheaval with an easy, collaborative manner. He even ran the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces for MGM and served on the league’s board of governors.

“George is the new prototype for a sports commissioner,” insisted Oregon president Michael Schill, who led the search group.

But that was more or less what was said about Scott when he came aboard from the pro tennis world. After a much-lauded media rights deal early in his tenure that turned out to be much ado about too little, Scott proved ill-equipped for the daily aspects of his gig and condescending to athletic directors and coaches – with the presidents either too snowed or disinterested to fix the disconnect.

Now they’ve made another outside-the-jock hire when a number of noteworthy leaders with college athletic backgrounds were available, and likely championed by Pac-12 ADs.

Kliavkoff has been a quick study on this history. On Thursday, he made forthright forays on several topics to bridge any perceived credibility gap.

He stumped vigorously for an expansion of the College Football Playoff and name, image and likeness rights legislation – noting that embracing the latter “can be a significant competitive advantage.” He sees opportunities in sports betting, and will do the homework to educate the schools on their options. And he recognizes Pac-12 Network, as currently constituted, as a failure with “far fewer subscribers than any comparable network.

“I think there’s a way to fix that through structuring and relationships, but we have to get the Pac-12 Network distributed every place on every platform that our fans want to be able to consume that content.”

Rainmaking when the Pac-12’s media rights come up for bargaining is, of course, Kliavkoff’s first job in closing the gap with more moneyed conferences. But he also acknowledged that “conference operations and working in an academic environment are new challenges for me … and it may make sense to bring in a senior level person to focus on that part of the job. Stay tuned.”

Hmm. Someone might wonder why the presidents couldn’t have just hired one of those inside-the-box candidates and let him bring on a media consultant for the haggling.

That would have been Not Larry Scott, too.

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