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Pac-12 fans were understandably distraught during the tense weeks in the summer of 2020 when the conference appeared to take its COVID response cues directly from the Big Ten — first to eliminate noconference games, then to postpone the football season and, finally, to return to competition.
To many, it appeared the conference was hesitant to move without cover from big brother.
Eighteen months later, the Pac-12 remains in the shadow of its Rose Bowl partner on key strategic initiatives vital to its football future.
Let's start with the most immediate, palpable area of dependence: the football schedule.
The Pac-12 is considering a reduction in the number of conference games, from nine to eight. But the additional (fourth) nonconference game for each team cannot be less valuable to the Pac-12's media partners (ESPN and Fox) than a conference game. It cannot, in other words, be a creampuff opponent.
The simplest solution would be for the Big Ten to reduce its conference schedule to eight games for the 2023 season. The leagues would create a series of intersectional matchups throughout the fall and sell them to TV partners.
But the Big Ten isn't ready to commit to an eight-game league schedule. Why? It wants to determine the best course of action financially and competitively. And that calculation will be based, in part, on feedback from its TV partners.
Which brings us to the second level of dependence: the media strategy.
One of the Big Ten's many advantages over the Pac-12 is the timing of its media contract cycle.
The Big Ten signed its current media deals in 2017, six years after the Pac-12 agreed to terms with ESPN and Fox, and it will sign the new deals one year before the Pac-12.
While the Pac-12 was locked into a 12-year partnership — it feels like 20 years on the cash-starved campuses — the Big Ten agreed to a shorter cycle that allows it to feed at the media trough first.
According to a recent report in the Sports Business Journal, the Big Ten has entered its exclusive negotiating window with ESPN. No agreement is expected, allowing the conference to take the broadcast inventory held by ESPN (until the summer of '23) to the open market.
And it's a sizzling market for live sports, as we saw last spring when the NFL reached a $110 billion deal with a slew of partners.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12's media rights expire in the summer of '24. Being first to the negotiating table will allow the Big Ten to gobble up not only cash but the highly valuable, and somewhat limited, Saturday broadcast windows.
Commissioner George Kliavkoff, who inherited the situation from Larry Scott, is stuck.
"We have 30 months left, and I'm counting every hour,'' Kliavkoff told the Hotline earlier this year. "I'm exploring every avenue possible (to make changes before the 2024 football season). I guarantee it will be fixed in 30 months, but I'm trying my hardest to do it quicker."
CBS lost the SEC's 'Game of the Week' package to ESPN (starting in 2024) and is expected to pursue a deal with the Big Ten. So, too, is NBC.
The Sports Business Journal reported NBC is interested in pairing a Big Ten game with its weekly Notre Dame broadcast to create a Saturday doubleheader that would dominate the massive Midwest TV market and carry coast-to-coast appeal.
How much cash would remain for the Pac-12, which could be third in college football's feeding line behind not only the Big Ten but also an expanded College Football Playoff?
(Other sports rights contracts set to expire prior to, or in the same year as the Pac-12's deal include NASCAR and UFC, which currently command $1 billion in annual value.)
The Pac-12 is guaranteed to receive a hefty bump from its current deals with ESPN and Fox, which average $250 million per year over the life of the agreement.
But will the conference max out? And crucially, will it max out with the most desirable broadcast windows?
ESPN's all-in deal with the SEC creates the very real possibility of Saturday doubleheaders on ABC, swallowing whole one of four pathways to more than 100 million homes.
The SBJ report said nothing about NBC pursuing a rights deal with the Pac-12, and any pairing of Notre Dame home games with a Big Ten broadcast would assuredly consume seven hours of Saturday programming, leaving little for the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, FOX is expected to deepen a longtime relationship with the Big Ten built via its ownership of the Big Ten Network and strengthened by the success of the 'Big Noon Kickoff' broadcast.
The best bet for the Pac-12's 'Game of the Week' could be a split package on CBS and FOX. But in each case, the Big Ten will have already taken a turn through the buffet line.
"When our media rights were renegotiated nine years ago, we leapfrogged everyone (in revenue), and our conference basically accelerated into first place," Kliavkoff said recently on a podcast with Navigate CEO AJ Maestas.
"The problem, which at the time probably seemed like a good idea, but the tradeoff for moving into first place was instead of agreeing to a five- or six-year deal, we agreed to a 12-year deal that has two-and-a-half years left …
"When the original (Pac-12) deal was done, the assumption was there would be a 10-to-12 percent (increase) in the value of media rights and as long as we're on that trajectory, we'll be ahead of the curve. What's happened is media rights in the last five, six, seven years have tripled in value."
The Pac-12 will have options on pay-TV and perhaps digital platforms. Maybe Amazon, which is part of the NFL's new deal, swoops in with a lucrative offer.
But Kliavkoff must strike a balance between revenue collection and product access.
It does the Pac-12 little good to lean heavily into access if the resulting revenue is a trickle relative to its Power Five peers.
That said, it cannot hoard cash if the football inventory isn't easily available for fans and recruits (and the recruits' parents).
"Whatever deal we do," Kliavkoff told Maestas, "it's my goal to have our content available on any piece of glass connected to the internet. Period, full stop."
The Pac-12 needs a multi-tiered media plan roughly equivalent to the following (admittedly rudimentary) approach:
— Access over revenue: At least one standing 'Game of the Week' on broadcast TV in a primetime East Coast window, plus a second game in an early or late window.
(FOX showed the USC-Stanford game last season at 7:30 p.m. PT to capture the West Coast's primetime window. So there is precedent.)
— Access and revenue: Several games on cable (ESPN and FS1), including a weekly 7:30 p.m. (Pacific) kickoff on ESPN.
(Say what you will about all the night games, but the 7:30 window is a valuable slot on ESPN. It just cannot ever be the home of the Pac-12's marquee matchup.)
— Revenue over access: A package of games, perhaps one per week, on direct-to-consumer platforms, likely in partnership with the Tier 1 deals.
(In other words: Games on Paramount Plus if the conference signs with CBS.)
The Big Ten negotiations — first with ESPN, then on the open market — likely will last several months. At some point this spring, we'll have a better sense of the valuation and the broadcast windows.
And the options remaining for the Pac-12.
Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.
Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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