LOS ANGELES – Speaking publicly for the first time since USC and UCLA defected, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff acknowledged that relationships between opposing power-conference leaders have soured over the past month.
“Up until very, very recently, I thought the discussions were very collegial,” he said. “In the last month that has changed, unfortunately.”
The Pac-12 is trying to stabilize itself. The Big 12 is looking to poach.
Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark said last week that his conference is “open for business” – a not-so-subtle admission that the Big 12 is pursuing West Coast additions in this round of conference realignment, which began when the Trojans and Bruins announced June 30 that they’ll be dumping the Pac-12 in 2024 and joining the Big Ten.
During his wide-ranging address Friday morning at the Pac-12’s media day, Kliavkoff fired back.
“As for the Big 12 being open for business, I appreciate that,” he said in front of a sizable gathering of reporters at The Novo Theater. “We haven’t decided if we’re going shopping there or not yet.”
It’s every league for itself in this race to remain relevant on the national stage. Cordial discussions between conference leaders have expired, but Kliavkoff is hoping they’re not over for good.
“They are certainly harmed,” he said, then backtracked and explained his frustrations.
“That (shopping) remark was a reflection of the fact I’ve been spending four weeks trying to defend against grenades that have been lobbed in from every corner of the Big 12, trying to destabilize our remaining conference.
“I understand why they’re doing it,” he continued. “When you look at the relative media value between the two conferences, I get it – I get why they’re scared — I get why they’re trying to destabilize it. I was just tired of that. That’s probably not the most collegial thing I’ve ever said. … I hope we regain that collegiality because I actually think that’s the way you solve problems.”
The Big 12 is aggressively pursuing at least three Pac-12 schools, per multiple reports. But the Pac isn’t standing pat.
Its 10 members are keeping unified and the conference is “actively exploring expansion opportunities,” Kliavkoff said, declining to specify when asked about potential Pac-12 newcomers. He outlined the Pac-12’s criteria for new members: “Media value, athletic strength, academic and cultural fit, and geography from a recruiting and student-athlete-experience standpoint.”
For the most part, the second-year commish struck an optimistic tone while delivering his annual state-of-the-conference speech. There is a path forward for the Pac-12, he ensured.
“I’m bullish about the Pac-12’s future and opportunities for growth, stability and success,” he said, later adding: “Looking my colleagues in the eyes and understanding their commitment, their first priority is to make sure the Pac-12 survives and thrives and grows.”
The conference is in the midst of an exclusive 30-day negotiating window with ESPN and FOX, but Kliavkoff doesn’t expect a media-rights agreement to be reached for months. Still, he believes the Pac-12 will be “well-positioned in the Power Five from a revenue-per-school standpoint” after negotiations eventually end. He said it’s “highly likely” that the conference partners with a nontraditional digital service for “some of our rights,” which will be distributed “in a way that’s unique and different.”
Washington State president Kirk Schulz predicted recently that the Pac-12’s new media-rights agreement will be worth “substantially more than we’re getting right now.”
Schulz, a respected voice in college athletics and a member of the Pac-12 CEO Group’s executive committee, emphasized the importance of the student-athlete experience during a lengthy conversation with The Spokesman-Review last week.
“What’s best for (WSU and the Pac-12) is what’s best for our student-athletes,” he said. “That student-athlete lens is one people aren’t looking at. Flying from L.A. to Piscataway (New Jersey) for a golf match, I’m not sure that’s a great experience for student-athletes, to be honest.”
On Friday, Kliavkoff echoed that notion.
“When I look at what is taking place in college sports, I believe we have collectively lost sight of the student-athlete,” he said.
“We think about travel and what we’re going to put our student-athletes through if we expand geographically too far away.”
Kliavkoff figures the Pac-12’s remaining schools will “significantly benefit in recruiting” as a result of USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten “in every sport other than football.
“For UCLA and USC, it will probably be neutral. They’ll probably lose some people who don’t want to play across the country and pick up some people who want to play in the Big Ten,” Kliavkoff said.
Kliavkoff addresses L.A. schools’ defections
The Pac-12 boss didn’t mention USC and UCLA until about seven minutes into his near-40-minute talk. When he did, Kliavkoff kept it relatively short and sweet.
“As a conference we are of course very disappointed by the decisions of USC and UCLA to leave the Pac-12 and a century of traditions and rivalries,” he said.
“That said, USC and UCLA have been proud members of the Pac-12 for almost a century. Despite their decision, we cherish our relationship with their student-athletes, coaches, staff, faculty, alumni and fans. For that reason, I personally have instructed everyone at our conference to make sure USC and UCLA student-athletes are given every opportunity to compete and succeed for as long as they remain in the Pac-12.”
Kliavkoff made it clear that the Pac-12 is rooting for the Trojans and Bruins while they remain affiliated with the conference.
“Why?” a reporter asked.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Kliavkoff responded.
Another journalist wondered whether Kliavkoff felt he’d been misled by USC, in particular.
“We’re going to take the high road and not talk about what happened in the past,” he said. “We’re very, very focused on the future.”
One of the final questions Kliavkoff fielded: Is there a chance the L.A. schools reconsider and stick with the Pac-12?
“I think it’s unlikely, but if they want to come back, we’d welcome them back,” he said.
UCLA, a member of the UC system, finds itself in a difficult position and will soon have to defend its move to the Big Ten in front of the UC board of regents.
“There are a lot of constituents related to UCLA who are very, very, very unhappy with the decision,” Kliavkoff said.
Kliavkoff stressed the need for “guardrails” on name, image and likeness agreements. NIL deals shouldn’t be an “inducement,” he said – college athletics must avoid a “pay-for-play” model.
“We are at a critical juncture, and the decisions we make in the near future will determine whether we head toward a world in which a small handful of conferences are playing professional sports at the expense of tens of thousands of academic opportunities,” Kliavkoff said.
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