Pac-12 collapse: Tracing 12 strategic blunders that led to Doomsday

Devastation the next morning.

“Heartbreaking stuff,” one Pac-12 official said.

“So damn sad,” another said.

The 108-year-old conference, which produced athletes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Elway, as well as Annika Sörenstam, Phil Mickelson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Reggie Bush, Karch Kiraly, Sabrina Ionescu, and Barry Bonds — not to mention a second baseman named Jack Roosevelt Robinson — will cease to exist next summer.

Following a mass exodus on a surreal Friday that changed the college sports landscape forever, eight of the existing schools will join other conferences.

The Big Ten will include USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington.

Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado are heading to the Big 12 Conference.

Only Stanford, California, Washington State, and Oregon State remain — if they choose to stay.

The Pac-4 is not possible. To meet the NCAA’s membership requirements, the conference would need at least two more schools. Plans will change over the next few days and weeks. Eulogies will be delivered throughout the spring, in preparation for a full season of competition for all 12 schools.

For the time being, let’s address the T-Rex in the room: How in the world did this happen, Bill Walton?

The collapse occurred over a 12-hour period on Friday, but it was the result of 12 years of strategic miscalculations, presidential arrogance, missed opportunities, and wounds that were both self-inflicted and thrust upon the conference from afar.

Commissioner George Kliavkoff bears a large portion of the blame for the collapse, but not entirely. Not even close to everything.

Here’s a 12-step plan for annihilation that began early last decade and will end with the extinction event this week.

1. the Tier 1 contract

In the spring of 2011, then-Commissioner Larry Scott signed a landmark $3 billion contract with Fox and ESPN to broadcast the Pac-12’s top football and men’s basketball games (i.e., Tier 1 broadcast rights). There was only one problem: the contract lasted 12 years and had no early termination clause, according to a source. The Pac-12 was committed until 2024, which turned out to be two years too late.

2. Pac-12 Networks

Scott received approval after signing with ESPN and Fox to establish a media company entirely owned by the schools, complete with first-rate production, one national network, and six regional feeds. However, in terms of size and cost, the Pac-12 Networks far outweighed the value of the content they provided. As a result, the schools faced an ongoing distribution and revenue struggle for the next 12 years. The biggest stumbling block, of course, was the lack of distribution on DirecTV — a fatal flaw rooted in the business model: DTV was willing to partner with the Pac-12, but at a lower cost than other carriers. Because of the ‘Most Favored Nations’ clause in the distribution contracts, Scott would have been forced to lower the subscription price for every partner if he lowered the number with DTV, destroying any slim profits that existed.

3. The Big Ten gets caught off guard

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany finalized a new media rights contract in the spring of 2016 that was surprisingly short in duration. It expired after only six years, in the summer of 2023, one year before the Pac-12’s deal with ESPN and Fox expired. This allowed the Big Ten to re-enter the market before the Pac-12 and eventually dangle an offer in front of USC and UCLA.

4. Scott’s failing grade

Scott addressed reporters in July 2018, following the Pac-12’s disastrous bowl season, and dismissed the results on the field. “The scorecard that we believe is important… is academic and athletic success across all sports,” he said. The remark exemplifies Scott’s and the presidents’ belief that Olympic sports were just as important as football. The approach, however inspiring and lofty, had no basis in reality on the front lines of college athletics. Scott should have been obsessed with football all of the time.

5. Turning down ESPN’s offer

According to a report in the Sports Business Journal several months later, ESPN approached Scott in late 2018 and offered to take over distribution of the Pac-12 Networks and sign the conference to a long-term Tier 1 media deal. Scott and the presidents turned down the lifeboat, preferring to keep full control of the failing networks in the hope that they would be worth a fortune when the distribution contract cycle expired in 2024. If the conference had partnered with ESPN at the time, the resulting long-term contract would not have provided USC and UCLA with an escape route from the Big Ten.

6. Refusing to expand

The summer of 2021 was instructive. If Pac-12 presidents had agreed to expand as desperate Big 12 schools begged for help, the conference would have been fortified against the L.A. lightning strike a year later. (From the American conference, Houston was also available.) However, the presidents decided that none of the available schools were a good fit competitively, financially, or institutionally. With new life, the Big 12 stabilized, grew, and positioned itself for long-term survival — at the expense of the Pac-12.

7. The piece from USC

Kliavkoff asked USC president Carol Folt several times during his first year on the job if the Trojans were committed to the conference and always received an affirmative response, according to multiple sources. But did he go to any length to keep them happy? Should the presidents’ revenue splits have been unequal? And, even if the conference office had rented space in Heritage Hall, would it have prevented USC from leaving the Big Ten given the money and platform available?

8. The Fox saga

Kliavkoff entered the media talks last summer with a leverage problem: one of the Pac-12’s longtime partners, Fox, was unwilling to take a significant stake in the conference. Why? Because it owns the media rights to the Big Ten and has gained access to the massive L.A. market by acquiring USC and UCLA. (At the same time, Fox was forced to renew its agreement with the Big 12 to maintain access to the state of Texas.) Fox finished the job a year later, raising enough money to take Oregon and Washington. No external entity, in our opinion, played a greater role in the Pac-12’s demise.

9. Messages Unreceived

Kliavkoff lost the narrative long before he lost the conference. His decision to remain radio silent for months on end in the face of so much negative messaging, much of it coming from Big 12 country, allowed the noise to spread across the Pac-12 footprint. Public trust and confidence eventually eroded. University presidents and athletic directors are not confined to their offices at all times. They are constantly in contact with fans and donors and are vulnerable to public outrage. Internal faith in Kliavkoff’s process shriveled as the months passed and the noise increased. The public relations issue was less important than many others on this list, but it should not be overlooked.

10. Missing in Action

In January, The Hotline dedicated an entire column to the risks associated with Kliavkoff’s belief that there was “no need for a rush” to complete the media rights deal. His entire strategy was based on the president’s patience and keeping external forces at bay. “In realignment, presumptions are the kindling for crisis; confidence is the agent of destruction,” we wrote. Kliavkoff needs to close the deal as soon as possible. ‘If you slow-play it, you become vulnerable to the unknowns,’ the source said. What if Fox changes its mind and decides ‘Big Ten West’ sounds good? What if Arizona and the Mountain schools become concerned and choose security in the Big 12?” Kliavkoff was unable to close the deal during his extended period of solitude in the Big Ten. When he finally attempted to finish the process, the Pac-12’s greatest existential threat awoke.

11. Gaffes from the Past, Part I

The Pac-12 appears to be repeating its failed strategy from the early 2010s, when Scott overestimated the value of his content and led the charge to own 100 percent of the Pac-12 Networks rather than partnering with an established company. Kliavkoff and his adviser, Doug Perlman, set a high initial bar at the negotiating table this time. How high is it? We don’t know the specifics of their offer, how that asking price affected relationships, or what role UCLA’s reputation played. (At the time, the UC regents had not approved the move.) But we know that a deal didn’t happen until many, many months later.

12. Gaffes from the Past, Part II

Let me preface this section with a warning: The specifics of the incentive clauses in Apple’s contract proposal are unknown, but they exist. And if you’re familiar with Scott’s original sin, you can probably guess there was some trepidation when Kliavkoff announced the official deal this week. Scott sold the schools on a Pac-12 Networks revenue model that was dependent on meeting distribution targets a dozen years ago. Kliavkoff was now on the scene, presenting an Apple deal in which a portion of the revenue was tied to subscription goals.

Was that the deciding factor, the singular force that destroyed the Pac-12? Nope.

A storied, 108-year-old conference cannot be destroyed by a single issue.

Instead, destruction took many forms over many years. It’s as complicated as the ending was quick.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply