A few days after USC and UCLA forever altered the college sports landscape with their move to the Big Ten Conference last summer, the Pac-12 announced that it would begin its exclusive 90-day negotiating window with ESPN and Fox for its long-awaited next media rights agreement.
The move by Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff to begin that process early was meant to quickly gather information that, at least theoretically, could calm the nerves of the remaining 10 schools and keep them from looking to follow the Los Angeles schools out the door to surer footing.
But nine months have passed, and the Pac-12 remains without an agreement.
Meanwhile in October, just weeks after the Pac-12's exclusivity window closed, the Big 12 jumped the Pac-12 in line, negotiating a new six-year deal with ESPN and Fox worth $2.3 billion. Remember, in the summer of 2021 the Big 12 had been left for dead by many after Texas and Oklahoma sneaked away to the Southeastern Conference, but it expanded with four new schools and stabilized.
A side-by-side comparison of how the two disregarded Power Five leagues handled their existential crises does not paint a pretty picture for Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors, who could have had their pick of the Big 12 leftovers to guarantee the survival of the West Coast's premier conference. Of course, USC was the ringleader against Pac-12 expansion and then bolted for greener Midwestern pastures when the opportunity arose.
Kliavkoff could not have stopped the L.A. schools from pursuing the chance to double their revenues. Now he is stuck trying to assuage the 10 disgruntled remaining members and hold off increasing pressure from Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, who seems to have the better hand to play all of a sudden and doesn't mind being the aggressor.
This is the backdrop for men's basketball conference tournament week, when Kliavkoff will be working in Las Vegas to convince his athletic directors and presidents that he has a viable plan that can help them thrive, not simply survive.
Here are five things to know about the Pac-12's mess:
1. Are USC and UCLA to blame?
In the most literal terms, yes. One person I spoke with last week who is plugged into the media rights world thought the Pac-12 could have gotten a deal for a half-billion dollars if the L.A. schools were still around. Without USC and UCLA, it appears to be a struggle for Kliavkoff to negotiate an attractive package for the $300 million or so it would take to stay in the ballpark of the Big 12's deal.
With the Trojans and Bruins in tow, the Pac-12's deal could have placed the league an easy third behind the Big Ten and SEC. But here's the thing: USC in particular was not feeling like letting its massive football brand be used to dole out charity payments to the rest of West Coast programs any longer.
One of the most obvious takeaways from the L.A. crosstown rivals' bold move to the Big Ten is just how much only the big brands are going to matter going forward in college sports. That may not be collegial, but it's the new reality.
Adding USC and UCLA made the Big Ten a rumored $250 million extra annually to be distributed among the other 14 schools. The Big Ten and SEC are now so far ahead of the lesser three Power Fives that the excluded big football brands — other than Notre Dame, of course — are frothing at the mouth to get their due.
There's a reason Florida State athletic director Michael Alford told the university's board of trustees recently that "something has to change" in regard to the revenue gap between the Seminoles and their desired peers at the top of the sport. Florida State and Clemson could demand unequal revenue sharing from the Atlantic Coast Conference, but that's just a recipe for unanimous unhappiness.
It could be argued Washington and Oregon are the most attractive available brands after FSU and Clemson, but they've already been told no — at least at this time — by the Big Ten.
USC and UCLA could have made a decision to preserve the college sports map for the greater good, but that would have been bad business — at least, if the L.A. schools want to be in the business of competing for football national championships in the modern era.
2. What is the Pac-12's best option?
Conversations with two well-placed sources in the media industry not authorized to speak publicly about negotiations chalked up some of the Pac-12's struggles to strike gold as unfortunate timing. There are much bigger issues at play than the lack of buzz about Pac-12 football when you remove Lincoln Riley and the train of five-star quarterbacks he will bring to L.A. from the equation.
For one, the country's greater economic situation has even the biggest spenders examining their margins a little more. In the media space, that's true, too, with Disney telling ESPN that it has to be more selective than it's been in the past. The expanded College Football Playoff, for instance, is going to be up for grabs in the coming years. Getting a piece of the marquee events is paramount, and saving up for those just means there's less to offer for one Pac-12 "After Dark" game per week. As one person said, the Pac-12 is a "nice-to-have," not a must-have.
Fox can fill its Saturday late slot with Mountain West games on FS1 and not have to spend any extra on the Pac-12.
Kliavkoff has said from the time he took over as commissioner that the Pac-12 would consider streaming platforms such as Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video, but streamers are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year right now and aren't going to overpay for the Pac-12. Even if Prime Video or Apple did come through with favorable financials, either would lead to an extreme drop in exposure compared to the Pac-12's peers whose best games are all over the air.
What good is a couple extra million per year if recruits and fans aren't able to easily access your product?
There are no easy answers for Kliavkoff, which is why his schools have no choice but to keep an open mind about their future conference affiliation.
In the short-term, Kliavkoff has to make sure whatever final offer he brings forward keeps the Pac-12's top football programs relevant, even if the money isn't what he or his predecessor, Larry Scott, promised. That means ESPN or Fox has to remain a partner.
3. Will the Pac-12 expand?
Reports have linked the Pac-12 to San Diego State and Southern Methodist as expansion candidates, and Kliavkoff gave the world confirmation of his interest in the latter by attending a SMU basketball game last month.
Sure, the Aztecs would keep the league in Southern California, and the Mustangs would open up the Dallas market. But let's not act for a second like the Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors want to share a penny of whatever their distributions are with fresh blood from the Mountain West and American Athletic.
The only reason it would make sense to consider adding these schools is if the Pac-12 is preparing for the possible departure of more schools. In that case, out of desperation, the league would have no choice but to strategically raid the Group of Five.
4. How should Washington and Oregon feel?
When USC and UCLA left for the Big Ten, many assumed Washington and Oregon would be next, forming a Western pod, of sorts. But the Big Ten decided to stop at 16 teams with the L.A. schools. The Huskies and Ducks could still end up on the Big Ten ark in the future, though, so there's incentive for them to not box themselves into anything too strict in the coming years. More consolidation of top brands is likely to occur.
As long as they can still play on national TV, Washington and Oregon's best option is to stay in the Pac-12 and ride it out for a bit longer, gunning for one of the automatic conference champion berths in the expanded 12-team playoff.
But the calculus could be different for Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah.
5. How should the 'Four Corners' schools feel?
The "Four Corners" schools — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah — don't have to waste time thinking about the carrot of a Big Ten invite down the line. They could be enticed by the Big 12's newfound stability, which comes from the fact that the league members already have accepted they aren't likely to draw interest from the Power Two — the SEC and Big Ten — at any point in the future. The Big 12 is as good as it gets, and they're all working together to make it better.
Arizona surely would be drawn by the Big 12's identity as one of the nation's top basketball conferences, especially now that it's without UCLA as its top historic rival in the Pac-12.
It's hard to know which way the desert winds would blow Arizona State.
Utah, given the current strength of its football program, could see the benefit of staying in the Pac-12 and pushing for playoff berths in the short- term. But it also might not risk being left behind, given how hard it has worked to gain national respect.
If Colorado has any buyer's remorse from its Big 12 defection, this could be the time to make it right again.