LOS ANGELES — On Friday afternoon, from behind the buffet line at Pac-12 media day, an attendant watched as people in team-issued gear paraded through for two hours. A confused look crept across his face.
Finally, the attendant leaned over the dish of chicken fajitas and, in a low whisper meant for only one person, asked a question.
“What is the Pac-12?”
What actually is the Pac-12? After all, many here at Friday’s annual media day extravaganza referenced the league as the Pac-10.
The Pac-12 was a cohesive collection of like-minded West Coast universities, steeped in a century of history and tradition, home to America’s oldest bowl game, the nation’s Olympic sports kings, a league that dubbed itself the “conference of champions” whose central hub was right here, built around its two big brands, USC and UCLA.
The Pac-10 is a group of scattered colleges west of the Rockies, scrambling for solutions to patch itself together, publicly stable but privately restless, a league that feels victimized by its neighbors to the east, the Big Ten and Big 12, and a conference whose crown jewel of a city has transformed into a reminder of broken promises.
The fact that an employee working the conference’s own media day event was uncertain about the league itself speaks to the precarious situation in which commissioner George Kliavkoff finds himself.
So, what exactly is the Pac-12? Or, better yet, the Pac-10?
“The nomenclature doesn’t matter,” Kliavkoff quips. “There are bigger fires.”
The hottest of those is making sure his league even exists after 2024, the first season that UCLA and USC are expected to compete in the Big Ten and the same year in which the Pac-12’s current media rights agreement expires. To keep these 10 intact, he must negotiate a new media deal that provides his schools with enough annual revenue that they don’t figuratively leap over the Rockies and into the Big 12.
The league, under new commissioner Brett Yormark, is pursuing Pac-12 programs with such aggression that Big 12 presidents as recently as this week sent messages to Kliavkoff’s presidents coaxing them to make the jump. Kliavkoff knows this because those same presidents and their staff members sent the messages his way—a sign of trust at a time of unrest.
Basically, he’s got the receipts.
Kliavkoff refers to these as “grenades” from Big 12 territory, explosions that he has dodged, so far at least. The Big 12 is attempting to “destabilize” his conference, he says. In a fit of irony, it comes a year after Kliavkoff and his presidents decided against raiding the Big 12 after the announcement of the departure of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC.
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At the time, that seemed like the right move, he says. But if he had known USC and UCLA were planning to leave 11 months later, what then? “I may have come to a different decision,” he told Sports Illustrated in a wide-ranging interview Friday.
“I think it’s really good for college athletics if both the Big 12 and Pac-12 are healthy, strong Power 5 conferences,” he says. “Their vote in the CFP room and their vote in the FBS room is important.”
At least publicly, those here at Pac-12 media day brush off the Big 12 overtures. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan calls the Big 12’s attempts as a “calculated PR campaign.” Stanford coach David Shaw called the Big 12 buzz “comical.”
And the reports earlier this month of a failed Big 12 and Pac-12 merger? Those were overblown, says Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir. “We did not talk about merging with them,” he says. “It never came from us.”
On Kliavkoff’s spicy comments toward the Big 12, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens quipped, “Sometimes you just gotta punch back.” Plus, says Washington State athletic director Pat Chun, he and others within the conference believe the remaining 10 Pac-12 members are stronger and more valuable than those in the Big 12. “We’ve done the math,” Kliavkoff adds.
Soon, they’ll know for sure. While this simmering back-and-forth between the two leagues captivated media day, so much hinges on the Pac-12’s media rights negotiations. The league’s 30-day exclusive negotiating window ends next week, after which it expects to go to market, Muir says.
“Hopefully we’ll attract and garner the media attention that we think. We’ve heard overtures that this is valuable,” he says. “Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty about what the 10 of us can produce, and if we decide to expand, what does that [number] look like? From there, I think individual schools will make individual decisions on what’s the best for their programs.”
All of this is about TV money—the most significant revenue stream for college football’s Power 5. Will the Pac-12’s distribution number be higher than those projected by the Big 12? That’s the big question.
“The thing now with all the conferences, it’s television,” says Arizona State coach Herm Edwards. “That’s who is running it, quite honestly. That’s where you are going to get your funds—television. We can’t put our heads in the sand. It’s the networks and it is who you are affiliated with and what it looks like.”
This past year, the Pac-12 distributed about $33 million to its schools while the Big 12 doled out $43 million. The Pac-12 loses USC and UCLA. The Big 12 loses Oklahoma and Texas, replacing them with Cincinnati, UCF, BYU and Houston.
Projections and predictions of future revenue distribution are dangerous, especially with the Big Ten’s deal yet to be done. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham believes that a “baseline” for the Pac-12’s new distribution should be around $40 million.
Kliavkoff declined to discuss specific dollar amounts, but said, “We think when all of this is done in the next couple of years, we will solidly be in the middle of the Power 5 conferences.”
That’s still a ways behind the Big Ten and SEC, whose new TV deals places their revenue distribution at more than $70 million a school. The separation is clear, but there are ways to offset such differences.
For instance, the Pac-12 is in discussions with the ACC about a scheduling and network partnership that involves ESPN, something SI reported earlier this summer and an agreement that is still very much alive, Pac-12 and ACC officials say. Many have their doubts if such a move is worthwhile.
Others are behind it.
“It’s got merit,” Harlan says. “Maybe we do a scheduling doubleheader in Vegas. We could raise their value as well as our own.”
Would this be a new Alliance? Who knows, but the old one is dead, Kliavkoff says. The three-league Alliance of the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten crumbled when Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren made his chess move this summer, poaching the Trojans and the Bruins.
Those here refer to the move as a broken promise, not just from Warren but the presidents at UCLA and USC as well. Kliavkoff declined to get into specifics about his future relationship with Warren but tells SI, “The way I live my life is I give people respect and trust until they prove to me that they don’t deserve it.”
Kliavkoff was on the offensive Friday. In fact, he claims that most of UCLA’s constituents are angered by the move to the Big Ten. That includes recruits, current UCLA athletes, their parents, faculty and even coaching staff members. “Who is happy at UCLA except the president and AD?” he deadpans.
Politicians are angry, too. The University of California board of regents and Gov. Gavin Newsom have called for a review of UCLA’s Big Ten move. A meeting is set for next week. One of the biggest ripple effects to the Bruins’ decision is leaving behind Cal, its fellow UC member and Pac-12 partner.
Few believe the regents can stop UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, but could the board require UCLA to distribute revenue to the Bears? Some believe so. Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton politely declined when asked such a question.
Knowlton refers to UCLA as the Bears’ “sister school.” Officials from each program communicate daily and have worked together under the UC umbrella for 98 years, he says. What of their relationship now? “It’s going to change significantly,” he says.
Four years ago, Cal faced similar financial issues as UCLA is battling now, Knowlton says. Cal officials have spent the last several months helping guide the Bruins through the budgetary problems. That work is now on “pause,” he says.
Maybe most concerning of all with the L.A. schools’ move is that the Pac-12 loses its membership presence in southern California, a prime recruiting ground for many of its programs. That’s why league administrators have discussed playing conference neutral site games here. “The idea we would abdicate Los Angeles because USC and UCLA aren’t in the conference makes no sense to me,” Kliavkoff says.
Kliavkoff bopped with confidence on Friday despite the stark reality before him and the steep hill to climb. It’s been a long month. On June 30, when the USC and UCLA news broke, he was in Montana on Day 2 of his first true vacation in his 13 months as commissioner of the conference.
That first week was the worst. His members were acting “irrationally” and were “scared,” he says. A week later things got better. Now, there is a calm.
On Thursday in L.A., the athletic directors held a meeting with Kliavkoff, about half of them here in person and a few more on Zoom. It was described as transparent and honest discussion about the future. Absent from the room: administrators from USC and UCLA.
“There is a real belief that we are better together,” Harlan says. “We wanted George to know he has our support.”
And, so, the question begs: What is the Pac-12?
Many believe it is dead or eventually will be dead, buried deep underground, its remaining members poached by the Big Ten and Big 12. In fact, one person suggested that an SI reporter should wear black to Pac-12 media day “for the funeral.”
Told this, Muir bellies a laugh.
“It hasn’t come to that!” he exclaims. “This isn’t signaling the end!”
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