Last July, weeks after the astonishing Big Ten announcement of USC and UCLA, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff made a bold realignment prediction: “No Pac-12 schools will go to the Big 12.”
Eight months later, we can finally know if his confidence was justified or false bravado.
Kliavkoff faces pressure to deliver a new media rights deal to its members by the end of the month. If the dollar numbers or details are disappointing, March may be when the Big 12 finally hits. Sources familiar with the talks say the conference has recently been in contact with the so-called Four Corners schools – Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah – who have renewed optimism that it is possible to convince them to join.
Brett Yormark has been eyeing a westward expansion since the day he was hired as the new Big 12 commissioner last summer. Yormark never shied away from expanding the Big 12 into the “fourth time zone” to establish a true national conference and increase the value of his league’s media rights. BYU’s arrival this summer will bring the Big 12 into the Rocky Mountain time zone. Yormark wants more, though he’s always said any additions should be additive, not dilutive.
“I don’t think any of us are trying to dismantle the Pac-12,” Baylor sporting director Mack Rhoades told SicEm365 on Tuesday. “If there’s an opportunity, and whenever their TV media deal comes through and if those institutions decide it’s not good for them, then the Big 12 will be ready. And it’s probably as simple as I can tell.
Yormark is also in the midst of discussions with Gonzaga, but sources involved in the process have said he wants clarification on the Pac-12 situation before making that decision.
Since those expansion parades began last summer, Yormark has been confident he can convince his targets that the future is brighter in the Big 12. He’s upped the pressure by skipping the Pac-12 online and reaching an early expansion with ESPN and Fox in October that will make more money for its members than they currently do with Oklahoma or Texas. This deal will bring in $31.7 million a year for each member of the Big 12, setting a yardstick for the Pac-12 deal.
As Athleticism reported last month, Kliavkoff has received mixed market interest. ESPN, Amazon and Apple are the only known suitors, and any deal will likely put the majority of league events on an over-the-top streaming service. Athleticism‘s Richard Deitsch reported that Amazon was interested in a weekly Pac-12 game on Friday nights, but the two teams were “far apart” in February. And the timing of the Pac-12 couldn’t be worse. Since last summer, the networks have incurred billions of dollars in future rights fees for the Big Ten and Big 12, and Disney CEO Bob Iger said in February that “we’re just going to have to be more selective.” in sports auctions.
Still, modeling from sports consulting firm Navigate projects the Pac-12’s average annual value at $31 million per school, only slightly less than the Big 12’s new contract. significant, Pac-12 games on ABC, Fox, NBC and CBS averaged 20% higher ratings than comparable Big 12 games (excluding outgoing members of both leagues) from 2014 to 2021, according to data provided to Athleticism.
Several people familiar with Pac-12 board members expressed doubts that their schools would switch conferences unless it was for a significantly better deal. School presidents, not ADs, authorize realignment decisions, and Pac-12s prioritize academic and cultural adjustments more than most. Washington State President Kirk Schultz and Oregon State President Jayathi Murthy have both tried to defuse the various rumors in recent interviews.
“We have many reasons to stick together. The various members of the Pac-12 understand that,” Murthy told John Canzano. “All this talk about people running away and joining the Big Ten and Big 12 or whatever is just talk.”
Motivating these presidents to expand the Pac-12 has also been a challenge. They have not yet reached a consensus on whether to invite San Diego State, SMU or other expansion candidates, people familiar with the discussions said. Two summers ago, following the SEC’s addition of Oklahoma and Texas, the Pac-12 board was fortunate to welcome a number of current Big 12 schools – and pass them all on.
But circumstances have changed. These sources believe that if Yormark can convince the leaders of two Pac-12 schools to join the Big 12, that might be all it takes to land all four and tear the conference apart.
Yormark would need Fox to be an equal partner in the expansion. CBS Sports previously reported that the Big 12’s new rights deal includes an agreement with ESPN on a pro-rata clause, but that Fox has not committed to it. ESPN has secured 63% of the new Big 12 TV deal, sources familiar with the deal have confirmed. Fox should endorse the Big 12 by adding Pac-12 schools as full members.
Yormark strongly believes that basketball is undervalued in these television rights discussions. He has hinted that he is interested in unbundling it from football and selling those rights separately when the Big 12 hits the market in 2030-31. This is one of the motivations behind the Big 12’s ongoing talks with the Gonzaga Powerhouse. Joining as a non-football member would mean a smaller revenue share for the Bulldogs, but they would be an unquestionably valuable addition. Arizona, a top-10 program with more Pac-12 titles than any school but Big Ten-tie UCLA, would similarly boost men’s college basketball’s top conference and long-term ambitions. term.
“I think we have an opportunity to monetize basketball in a way that’s never been done before,” Yormark said during an appearance on the Wilner & Canzano podcast last month. “It’s definitely something I’m thinking about. So if ever the opportunity exists where in building what makes sense for expansion, as part of that, we could double down on basketball and further cement our leadership position, that’s certainly something something I’m willing to consider.
On the Pac-12 side, a critical moment in that process could come next week at the conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Las Vegas. The ADs present will want clarity and specific numbers. Kliavkoff put those rights on the open market in October. Almost five months have passed. On February 13, the Pac-12 presidents issued a joint statement underscoring their unity and vowing that a deal would be reached “in the very near future.”
There is no official deadline, but every day this negotiation process drags on and increases anxiety and, perhaps, vulnerability. As the saying goes in the sales world: time kills all business. What ultimately matters is the deal Kliavkoff can offer its members in the coming weeks. If that’s insufficient, Yormark and the Big 12 are ready to pounce.
(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)