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Commentary: Why the Pac-12’s future is riding on its long-awaited media-rights deal

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, right, presents the championship trophy to Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, after Utah won against Oregon Ducks 38-10 during the Pac-12 championship football game at Allegiant Stadium, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Las Vegas.  (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – One of these days – theoretically – the Pac-12 will finally produce its long-awaited, crucially important media-rights package.

I say “theoretically” because this announcement has been deemed imminent for months, and we’re still waiting.

I say “crucially important” because the very future of the conference hinges on the deal Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff comes up with after nearly a year of negotiations.

Other than that, not much on the line.

When Kliavkoff was the Pac-12’s unexpected choice to replace Larry Scott in May 2021, his experience in the television industry as president of MGM Sports and Entertainment was a major selling point. Everyone knew the upcoming TV package was vital – but no one knew it would become far more crucial nearly a year ago to the day when USC and UCLA blindsided everyone by bolting to the Big Ten in late June 2022.

That was a dark day in the tenure of Kliavkoff, who was on vacation when the bombshell dropped. Now Kliavkoff must produce a media-rights deal prosperous enough to keep remaining Pac-12 members from joining the exodus, or a much darker day could be ahead.

That’s why there’s so much angst in Pac-12 circles these days among fans and administrators as everyone waits to see how close Kliavkoff comes to this key number: $31.7 million. That was the per-team payout negotiated by the Big 12 in October when it shrewdly leapfrogged the Pac-12 to negotiate a six-year media-rights package with Fox and ESPN two years before its current deal was due to expire.

At least, it appeared to have been shrewd, because in the current economic climate, there’s some real doubt among industry insiders about whether the Pac-12 can approach, match or (best-case scenario) exceed that number. And the Pac-12 has to at least come close, or it’s possible – some would say even probable – that the conference could crumble in response to a subpar deal.

When will we know? The latest prediction in a long line of them, all wrong so far, came recently from Washington State President Kirk Schulz two weeks ago at the WSU Board of Regents meeting. He said he expects a resolution “by the end of the month” – which is rapidly approaching.

Schulz also indicated that the deal won’t be a blockbuster – but it won’t be a bust, either.

“At least the projections (athletic director) Pat Chun and I and others have seen,” Schulz said, as reported by the Athletic, “I’m not sure that it will be a lot larger than we saw in the past, (and) it shouldn’t be smaller than in the past. It may be fairly flat.”

Predictions of where the ultimate deal will land have been all over the map, with some sources feeling the Pac-12 will come out well, and others predicting that it’s headed for disaster. The truth is, no one outside Kliavkoff’s inner circle knows how negotiations are going. But the longer the talks drag on, and the more that informal deadlines are missed, the more concerning it becomes.

Have no doubt about this, though: The vultures are waiting to pounce, chief among them the Big 12. Its commissioner, Brett Yormark, declared on the day he was hired last July that the Big 12 was “open for business.”

They’ve made little secret that they’d love to poach the Pac-12, particularly the so-called Four Corners schools: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah.

Colorado is believed to be particularly vulnerable to a defection back to the conference from whence it came to the Pac-12 in 2011. Its athletic director, Rick George, didn’t exactly give a ringing vote of confidence to the Pac-12 when he told BuffZone last month: “We’re members of the Pac-12, we’re proud members of the Pac-12, and we’ve got to see where our media-rights deal lands and where our conference goes. In a perfect world we’d love to be in the Pac-12, but we also have to do what’s right for Colorado at the end of the day. We’ll evaluate things as we move forward.”

The biggest fear is that if one school defects, it would start the dominoes dropping of others following suit. And in the doomsday scenario some have envisioned, if enough of the Four Corners schools defect, it would embolden the Big Ten to make a run at Washington and Oregon – and with a further fractured Pac-12, those schools would have ample motivation to listen. In this world, the Pac-12 would be in grave peril.

Of course, this might all be moot if Kliavkoff pulls off a solid deal, or at least one good enough to convince the remaining 10 schools to stick with the Pac-12 for at least this cycle. Last week, John Canzano reported that those 10 schools have finalized the terms of their Grant of Rights, which would be an agreement to remain together for the length of the media-rights contract. But that is contingent on Kliavkoff negotiating a media-rights deal they can live with – which gets us right back to the burning issue at hand.

I haven’t even mentioned the latest complicating factor – the June 30 deadline for Pac-12 expansion candidate San Diego State to inform the Mountain West of its intention to resign from the conference. If it doesn’t meet that deadline, its penalty for leaving doubles from $17 million to $34 million. Last week, San Diego State sent a letter to the conference ostensibly asking for an extension of the deadline, but according to ESPN and the San Diego Union-Tribune, the conference interpreted the letter as a formal notification for departure – which it accepted.

In other words, San Diego State is seemingly left in limbo, cast adrift from the Mountain West with no firm place to land yet. At least, not until the Pac-12 approves its media-rights deal, at which point it would address possible expansion. Until then, San Diego State is like Tom Hanks’ character in “The Terminal” – a school without jurisdiction.

So add San Diego State to the list of those desperately seeking a resolution of the Pac-12 media-rights package. One of these days – theoretically – we’ll get it.