Rooney: George Kliavkoff tenure in Pac-12 to be dictated by media rights negotiations

New commissioner needs to get new deal right above all else

New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff
New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff

Give new Pac-12 Conference commissioner George Kliavkoff credit for this much already. He knows how to work a room, even a virtual room, far better than his predecessor.

When word began circulating Thursday morning the Pac-12 was set to name a Las Vegas media mogul as its new leader, there was a consensus “Who’s that?” from fans and media alike, along with much hand-wringing about the league making the same mistake it made with the departing Larry Scott, whose non-existent on-campus experience was being repeated with the choice of Kliavkoff.

By the end of his virtual introductory press conference Kliavkoff — who came across as engaging, forward-thinking, and personable — had sufficiently snuffed those initial doubts. Greeting a commissioner spouting fresh ideas and to-the-point mannerisms no doubt is a refreshing change for Pac-12 followers as the Scott era fizzles to an end. How Kliavkoff, to cop a Vegas term, parlays those initial good vibes into a win as the league preps for the negotiations for its next media rights package likely will be the defining hurdle of Kliavkoff’s tenure.

All the other talking points touched on by Kliavkoff were encouraging, but success in any of those areas depends almost entirely on Kliavkoff’s ability to hit a home run in those upcoming media negotiations.

Supporting the inevitable changes to name, image and likeness legislation is a no-brainer that will only further attract prospects to the Pac-12. Calling for the expansion of the College Football Playoff also is an obvious podium to stand upon for a league that hasn’t reached the football Final Four since 2016. (I’ve always been keen on a 16-team tournament, allowing for 10 automatic bids from each FBS conference plus six at-large berths in an attempt to replicate the everyone-gets-a-shot charm of the NCAA basketball tournaments. I’d rather watch a No. 16-seeded team take on Alabama or Clemson than two 6-6 teams squaring off in the Shreveport Bowl, but that perhaps is fodder for a column another day.)

In the end, though, those goals, along with other hurdles like retooling the Pac-12 Network and getting the league to be an annual player in the national title picture in both football and men’s basketball, begins with sweetening the league’s pot in the next media rights package. The Pac-12 has lagged sorely behind its power conference peers in the 12-year deal Scott agreed to with ESPN and FOX that finally expires ahead of the 2024 football season.

For the 2020 fiscal year, the Pac-12 collected $32.6 million in conference distribution. That lags well behind the Big Ten (around $54 million), SEC ($45.5 million), and even the Big 12 ($37.7 million), which features two fewer member institutions in mostly mid-to-small market locales when compared to the Pac-12 footprint.

Follow the money. A more favorable media rights deal means more money and more exposure for the Pac-12. Which, in turn, creates more opportunities for collegiate athletes from the top down. Kliavkoff rankled a few feathers when he admitted “we know where the bread is buttered” in regard to football and men’s basketball. Brutal honesty won’t suddenly change the Pac-12’s status as one of the premier women’s basketball, soccer, and volleyball leagues in the nation. Success in the media rights plan can only aid the fight in becoming a consistent national title challenger in revenue sports. More revenue and exposure will only aid the Olympic sports that have allowed the Pac-12 to cling to its nickname as the Conference of Champions.

Winning the room on your first day might be an easy victory. Of course the chancellors and presidents that hired you will sing your praises, as will athletic directors now tasked with working alongside the new commissioner. Yet the future of the league depends on Kliavkoff doing the same at the negotiation table.