Missing from the blame game surrounding the decay and eventual collapse of the Pac-12 Conference is the understanding that major universities are in the global entertainment business, a business currently convulsed. Universities fit in the entertainment business as former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville fits in Congress — too unqualified to even find the exit sign, much less take advantage of it.
Nevertheless, since the mid-1980s, major college athletic departments were awash in revenues from the innovation of cable TV and its ravenous need for content to fill the 500-channel universe (remember that trope?). But these days, cable TV is shriveling, thanks to the latest innovation, streaming. The big entertainment companies plunged so fast and deep into the new delivery system that they are swallowing water. Hence, the axing of many TV shows, movie projects and the subsequent arrival of strikes from writers and workers flailing to save their careers.
What has this to do with college football? The $10 million-plus annual coaching salaries of Nick Saban, Dabo Sweeney, et al, and colossal sports facilities are largely funded from rights fees paid by platforms such as ESPN and Fox Sports, who are busy slashing and burning their programming, staffs and ambitions.
As Bob Iger, recently reinstalled Disney president (the 80 percent owner of ESPN), put it, the launch of the Disney+ streaming service came with a belief that attracting subscribers was about “flooding the digital shelves as much as possible . . . We realized that we made a lot of content that is not necessarily driving sub growth, and we’re getting much more surgical about what it is we make.”
That surgery may include eventually selling off ESPN. For right now, it means cutting back what they pay in sports-rights fees. It’s a lousy time for Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkov to be begging for deals similar to what the other four Power 5 conferences received previously. In the past year, Kliavkoff has said so often that a new media rights deal is just right around the corner that many are convinced he’s dealing with a round building.
The meander has cost him, and the Pac-12, big.
The University of Colorado announced Thursday it is decamping the Pac-12, where it has resided since 2011, to become the 13th team in the Big 12, where they resided for 63 years previously. The Buffaloes join USC and UCLA, who are headed to the Big Ten, in abandoning the Pac-12 in time for the 2024 football season.
There’s an argument to be made that the Buffs are so drunk on the upside of their bombastic new coach, Deion Sanders, that they think any ambition is possible, even though the one-time NFL and MLB star has never coached a game at the FBS level. That’s how college-sports boosters roll — all hat, no cattle.
But there’s no doubt Colorado wants to be on the black side of the financial ledger, which seems more likely now. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 takes on the look of the sick man of big-time college football because of revenue disparities. In 2022, the Big Ten led Power 5 conferences with $845.6 million in revenue, followed by the SEC at $802 million, ACC at $617 million, Pac-12 at $580.9 million, and Big 12 at $480.6 million. The Pac-12 numbers included the soon-to-be-gone markets in LA and Denver. Since there’s no current expansion plan, Kliavkoff is further burdened in his pleas to the platforms because he doesn’t yet know what his markets will be in 2024.
What most college sports fans most want these days is big-brand teams playing each other more frequently. As in pro sports. Smaller schools in smaller markets, always an enjoyable aspect of college sports, have only marginal interest for the national platforms. Their games, to use Iger’s word, are likely to be targeted for surgery — too much content. Again. While the sports programs at Washington and Oregon will remain among the big boys, the fate of the rest of the Pac-12, especially the schools with the smallest budgets, Washington State and Oregon State, remain a mystery in a disrupted media landscape that no longer can afford streaming’s now-fleeting promise — something for everyone.
In an interview with NPR, Maureen Ryan, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair who has covered Hollywood for 30 years — her new book is called Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood — was talking about movies and TV. But her observation also applies to the sporting entertainments.
“What is the point of this golden streaming age if the creative people, the consumers, if they’re all kind of agitated about . . . not getting what they thought they were going to get? It’s a really rough moment.
“I think it’s basically Streamaggedon’s Reckoning. That would be the bad action movie I would make out of this.”
The bad action among the big-time sports conferences is they are realigning not based on geography or tradition or scholastic standards. They are chasing the money. It’s an old theme. Here’s how another entertainer put it precisely.
“It’s the one constant in life,” said Kevin Costner’s character, John Dutton, in Yellowstone. “You build something worth having, someone’s gonna try to take it.”