SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone that has paid even remote attention to the Pac-12 the last few years knows it's been in need of a serious rebrand.
The multitude of problems — whether it's a lack of viable broadcast solutions or a lack in showcasing and promoting its revenue-generating sports like football and men's basketball — under current commissioner Larry Scott have been well documented in his 11-year tenure. In short, the conference needed a new face to head up the fight.
On Thursday, the conference signaled to its many fans and supporters that it was ready to take the next step necessary to bring the conference out of the depths of obscurity to that of a forward-thinking entity ready to compete with the rest of the Power Five conferences. And it all starts with George Kliavkoff, the newly hired commissioner who is currently the president of sports and entertainment at MGM Resorts until July 1.
Kliavkoff was seemingly pulled out of nowhere — an uncharacteristic hire to most — but his resume shows a sports-adjacent career path that could spell good things for the conference as it navigates the turbulent waters of an ever-changing collegiate landscape. University of Oregon President Michael Schill called the hire "a new prototype."
"I understand that I was not on any of the media's shortlist for this role, and that my name will be new to many of you," Kliavkoff said during an introductory video conference Thursday. "But I believe my personal style and work experience line up well with the enormous opportunities immediately in front of the Pac-12."
While it's difficult to predict the future success of an individual that has never been directly tied to collegiate athletics, other than as a rower at Boston University in his undergraduate years, there are signs of optimism and hope for the so-called Conference of Champions. Here's a look at a few ways Kliavkoff's tenure as commissioner could be a good thing for the conference.
Football is king, and it was rarely, if ever, treated as such in the Pac-12 under Scott. Clear and simple, the highest revenue-generating sport needs to be treated as such to give the conference relevance among its Power Five counterparts. It's a message Scott never seemed to figure out in his 11 years as the commissioner.
All sports are important in the makeup of the conference, but the commissioner has to market the most popular sport. The conference's greatest weakness "if we're being honest with ourselves," Kliavkoff said, is "the number of years it's been since we won a football or men's basketball championship. We're going to do everything we can at the conference level to fix that.
"I want to be clear, we know where the bread is buttered," he later added when speaking about his emphasis on other sports. "We're focused on the revenue sports and winning in men's basketball and football."
Over the years, Scott tried to paint a rosy picture of where the conference was in relation to being competitive in football, despite the Pac-12 being left out of the College Football Playoff since 2016. He even hedged his answer when speaking about the potential for an expansion of the playoff or his role as a commissioner in advocating for a change.
Kliavkoff, though, made it clear — unequivocally even — from Day 1 that football and his immediate desire to expand the postseason opportunities was one of his biggest issues he hoped to address when he took over as commissioner.
"I believe that it's not good for college football, and for the vast majority of college football fans, when 20 of the 28 CFP bids — 71% — go to just four schools," he said. "Think about the fact that in almost any NCAA sport, an athlete has an 18% to 25% chance of participating in their sports postseason every year. In football, that number is 3% because of the current structure."
He proposed a look into the entire structure of the sport and how his conference moving forward fits into the grand scheme of it all, including "nonconference and conference scheduling, game times, and any other competitive decisions made at the conference level."
"Everything is up for review to make us more competitive — I want to be clear about that."
The Pac-12 Network and media rights
From the beginning, the institution-owned Pac-12 Network failed to make a splash with Scott's failure to secure distribution with DIRECTV and other available services. That, mixed in with the contracts negotiated with ESPN and FOX, and the Pac-12 got less visibility than any other Power Five conference in the country.
Kliavkoff said the conference has years to work out its media rights, but recognized that the Pac-12 Network "has far fewer subscribers than any other comparable network, and we have to fix that." He said the network remains a "part of the future of our media distribution strategy" but that it needs restructuring.
"I think there's a way to fix that through structuring and relationships, but we have to get the Pac-12 Network distributed every place on every platform that our fans want to be able to consume that content," he said. "I also think about the media rights in the Pac-12 Network as being a small slice of the media rights that we can create and distribute.
"There are some very obvious and perhaps not so obvious ideas to optimize the revenue from distribution of our content and slicing and dicing that content. It's, candidly, what I've done in many of my previous roles with great success. But just to be clear, I'm not going to get into those ideas before doing the work to validate them."
Everything is up for review to make us more competitive — I want to be clear about that.
Betting on sports and NIL legislation
The sports landscape is changing rapidly as gambling on sports has been legalized in numerous states following a Supreme Court decision years ago, and with NIL legislation that is taking the forefront of conversation this offseason to help athletes profit off their name, image and likeness while still maintaining the amateur status championed by the NCAA.
Gambling, specifically, remains a somewhat taboo topic in collegiate sports among conference commissioners, though Kliavkoff isn't afraid to tackle it head-on, or at least speak to its importance as it relates to the conference moving forward. Kliavkoff said it's a "very fine line and one that we'll walk carefully."
"I want to just be very clear that anything we do in that space will start with a focus on two things: the integrity of the game and protecting the student-athletes," he said. "The experts say that's going to be a $20 (billion) to $25 billion market by 2025. We do know that the legal sports betting market is $150 billion today. So to be clear, people are betting in our states on our sports.
"But what the commissioner's office will do in this particular respect is do the work necessary to make the recommendations to each of the member institutions, and then leave it to the member institutions to decide how to navigate this opportunity."
In terms of NIL legislation, Kliavkoff believes it goes hand-in-hand with how the conference navigates recruiting. It starts with showing prospective athletes the "lifetime value of a Pac-12 education."
"At the conference level, we will invest to give Pac-12 athletes, football players and others, an opportunity to create a bigger social platform," he added. "We believe video creation and other tools help the athletes, and once an NIL comes into effect, that will help the athletes substantially. Finally, we will be a proponent of consistent and fair approach to name, image and likeness legislation, and we believe that's a competitive advantage for the Pac-12 because of the markets we play in and the opportunity that some athletes will have to start immediately."