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Will The Pac-12’s Next TV Deal Be Enough To Save It?

  • In the past year, the Pac-12 has lost three top brands and has failed to deliver a media rights deal.
  • The media negotiating landscape is rough, and there’s no guarantee a replacement school will save it.
Nov 26, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; The Pac-12 Conference logo at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the Pac-12, the hits just keep coming.

On Thursday, the University of Colorado announced it would ditch the Pac-12 for the Big 12 in 2024. One Colorado regent said she wished the Pac-12 well, “whatever it is in the future.” 

As long as it exists, the Pac-12 will maintain its voting power as an NCAA “autonomy” conference. But it’s looking less and less like a Power 5 by the day.

The Pac-12 has now lost three big football brands. It has no media rights deal after more than 11 months of negotiations. There’s no signed grant of rights — the contract that would keep the schools together. 

“The Pac-12 is in never-never land,” one industry source told Front Office Sports.

In 2021, Commissioner George Kliavkoff inherited a difficult media rights position. His predecessor, Larry Scott, had taken a gamble on launching the Pac-12 Networks without selling them to a major linear broadcaster. So the network’s reach declined — and therefore, so did its value.

Kliavkoff was tasked with inking a new deal to pull the Pac-12 out of its last-place spot in the Power 5. Right off the bat, he lost two of his most valuable brands in, USC and UCLA, which announced they would jump to the Big Ten.

Even then, it perhaps made sense for Kliavkoff to go through a more measured, traditional media rights negotiation process, former Fox Sports executive and media rights consultant Patrick Crakes told FOS.

But in hindsight, that wait-and-see approach was a mistake.

While Kliavkoff was researching, the Big 12 then leapfrogged the Pac-12 in securing a media deal at least a year, if not two, early. It took value and TV slots that the Pac-12 could have had. 

Meanwhile, major changes to the broadcast industry left fewer media dollars to go around,  sources agreed. With fewer dollars to spend, broadcasters were forced to narrow their focus to a few top properties, which the Pac-12 was not.

“Before you know it, the sand shifts under your feet,” Crakes said. “By the time you realize the problem you’ve got, you’re up against this changing economic landscape.”

The lack of a media deal and grant of rights is a major reason Colorado left. On Thursday, school officials noted a promise of stability and exposure in the Big 12 was extremely enticing.

The Pac-12 has been tight-lipped about its negotiations, but Kliavkoff has said a couple of things publicly about his process. First, the conference will sign a media deal before expanding. Second, he claimed, “the longer we wait for a media deal, the better our options get.” 

But if the rumor mill is any indication, the quality of potential broadcasters has only declined. 

By now, there’s not much interest from linear broadcasters. Their money is tied up, and their inventory is set. Fox is interested in filling a 10 p.m. ET window but not interested in buying a large amount of content, industry sources told FOS. But with USC, UCLA, and Colorado in different conferences, it’s unclear how much they’d want. 

Kliavkoff was previously bullish about a streamer that could have signed a big check. At this point, industry sources indicated that the conference is much more likely to ink a deal with a company like Scripps or ION than Apple or Amazon.

Regardless of who’s interested, “a streamer has never won a bid for anything,” Crakes said. “They’ve only taken what the established system has let go.” 

A source predicted several months ago that the Pac-12 would be lucky to strike a deal with the same media value as its current one. But even that looks unlikely now.

The Expansion Question

The conference is hoping to stabilize by replacing USC, UCLA, and Colorado with other schools eager to enter the Power 5 landscape. Reports have suggested that San Diego State is the most likely school for the Pac-12 to grab to replace Colorado. 

The school has its upside: It could replace some of the homes lost without Colorado and would keep the Pac-12 in the coveted market of Southern California, one source with significant experience negotiating collegiate rights agreements told FOS. 

But another source noted that its value isn’t enough to really move the needle. 

There’s also no guarantee that other schools won’t leave the conference. Could the ACC grab a school? Could the Big 12 entice another member of the “four corners,” like Arizona, Arizona State, or Utah?

One of the sources believes the Colorado exodus isn’t a guarantee that the Pac-12 will cease to exist. But “they can’t afford more defections. And they better show the remaining members a TV deal soon.”

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