With each passing week absent a new media rights deal for the Pac-12 Conference, already draped in gloom over the final league seasons for UCLA and USC, the tension grows among the West Coast citadels of big-time college football.
The question: Is the Pac-12 too big to fail?
The answer: No.
Fans of University of Washington and Washington State football, as well as the athletes, administrators and coaching staffs for all sports at the state’s biggest campuses, do not want to hear this. None of the financial travails are their fault. (Well, ex-UW football coach Jimmy Lake could stop taking his $10 million in salary owed after his firing, and ex-WSU coach Nick Rolovich could stop suing for wrongful termination over refusing to vaccinate against COVID-19; neither is happening).
But the state’s college sports enterprises likely will be rocked hard if new-ish Commissioner George Kliavkoff, an astute operator in the world of sports and entertainment and a big upgrade over his predecessor, Larry Scott, cannot execute his complicated routine and stick the landing. In addition to the financial blows to all schools from pandemic-related shutdowns, the Pac-12 negotiations with current TV partners such as ESPN and Fox, as well as NBC, CBS and streaming services such as Apple and Amazon, come at a time when many media partners are handing out layoffs and cutbacks.
Additionally, numerous platforms are dealing with the consequences of the union strike by writers that has cancelled numerous live-TV programs and forced postponements on decisions such as sports rights fees and new projects. Then there’s the abrupt arrival of AI and its potential influence on just about everything. The permutations on outcomes for big-time college sports are many.
What is knowable is that the other four Power 5 conferences (SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12) concluded their latest rights extensions before much of this stuff hit the fan. It is a bad time to be last into a disrupted marketplace, particularly after the chaos of the new rules governing legal payments of private money to players (NIL) and the transfer portal. Two years into the job, the acumen of Kliavkoff, a former rower at Boston University who spent four years in Seattle in the ’90s as RealNetworks started up, is being sorely tested.
As media-rights dickering began the past winter, several university officials publicly anticipated a new deal would be struck around mid-March. Here it is mid-June, and nothing. The pending 2023 sports events, under the previous deal’s final year, will be unaffected. But all schools are deep into next year’s budget planning. If the new deal is only a little better than a wash with the previous terms — long deemed inadequate compared to the rest of the Power conferences — panic will be upon the western portion of the fruited plain.
Most worrisome is the fate of Colorado, which joined the Pac-12 in 2010 from the Big 12. Athletics department officials have acknowledged conversations with their old league about a return. In Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, the Buffs have one of pro sports’ greatest athletes as the new head football coach, meaning the local market there has gone as apoplectic as it did with the NFL Broncos’ acquisition last year of former Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.
We all saw how that worked out. But what if Sanders delivers? The transformation of woebegone Colorado suddenly would be the sort of eye candy likely to stand out more in the Big 12 than the Pac-12, which has several teams in big markets where college ball typically comes in as distant second to pro ball. If Colorado leaves, the Pac-12 is again destabilized following the abandonment by the Trojans and Bruins for the Big Ten.
Regardless of which schools the Pac-12 may poach from lesser conferences as replacements, the league undeniably would be diminished, and less attractive to in-house spectators and TV viewers. More immediately, the shrinking revenues already have caused UW athletics, according to Christian Caple of On Montlake, to seek approval from the Board of Regents to reduce the department’s $14 million annual payment on the 2014 stadium remodel to interest only (to $10.7 million).
Kicking the can of principal down the road, of course, has consequences. According to Mike Vorel of the Seattle Times, a variety of increased expenses and revenue shortfalls over the past several years have shrunk the department’s cash reserves from a pre-pandemic level in 2019 of $34.5 million to an estimated $9.5 million this year.
But at least UW has cash reserves. Over in Pullman, that’s as rare as an alcohol-free graduation party. Kip Hill of the Spokesman-Review reported that the athletics department requested $1.4 million from the institution to help cover an $11.5 million operating deficit in 2023, which will go up to $2.6 million in each of the next two years.
Operating deficits make the jock factory a bit of a ward of the state. Such situations prevail in many parts of the country, and are not new to Pullman. But the fact that UW, with much larger enrollment and athletics budget, is headed that way is a testament to the degree of difficulty in keeping a hot seat from becoming a four-alarm fire.
The Pac-12 chancellors and presidents recently agreed in principle to share all future media revenues equally, regardless of school size. Which is good, but since each joint has different debt loads and other revenue streams, nothing else is equal and thus hard to manage harmoniously. Never forget: Pro sports leagues are monopolies, college sports are not. The agreement remains unsigned, awaiting baker Kliavkoff’s pie before making slices.
Given the problems over time — refusal of the NCAA to engage in meaningful reform, courtroom decisions ending amateurism, increased business powers of conferences, the pandemic, abrupt innovations in technology and changing consumer tastes — there is little surprise the industry appears to be Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Too bad the 2022 Oscar winner for best picture got away with stealing the name. Seems that as far as the entertainment-industry game, big-time universities are a step slow.
Coming to a theater near you, sooner than you think: A 48-team super league, owned by a company that rents the team colors and fight songs.