With Pac-12 Falling Behind, Schools Decide Larry Scott Won’t Dig Them Out
22nd January 2021

It was always about the presentation for Larry Scott.

The rebranding of the Pac-12 Conference (they’re not university presidents, but C.E.O.s). The media days held at a Hollywood movie studio lot. Moving the headquarters from a sleepy Bay Area suburb to a downtown San Francisco office that cost $6.9 million in rent in 2019 (and nearly twice that in deferred rent), according to The Oregonian. And for good measure, the comped $7,500-per-night Las Vegas hotel suite during the Pac-12 basketball tournament with the marble hot tub, private elevator and 24-hour butler service.

There was a time — far closer to when Scott was hired to lead the conference in 2009 and the money was rolling in — when such opulence might have been justified as the cost of doing business.

Instead, it increasingly became a punchline throughout Scott’s tenure as commissioner.

With the Pac-12’s television revenues now lagging far behind the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference, and the negotiating window for a new deal on the horizon, the university presidents decided they could not afford to let Scott try to dig the conference out of the mess he had helped create.

So, late Wednesday night, Scott — who at $5.3 million last year was the highest paid conference commissioner — was informed that his contract would not be renewed. He will leave in June, a year before his contract was set to expire and when negotiations should begin in earnest for the conference’s TV contracts, which expire in 2024.

As it stands, the Pac-12 generated $250 million less than the Big Ten in 2018-19 — meaning that while Purdue got $54 million, Southern California got just $32 million, a gap between the schools that should reach $100 million by the time a new Pac-12 television deal takes effect.

The gap between the SEC and the Pac-12 schools is less — about $12 million per year — but the SEC will begin a new $300 million-per-year contract with ESPN in 2024 that is nearly six times more than its current deal with CBS.

College football may be more popular in the Deep South and the Midwest than along the West Coast. But the Pac-12 does have five of the nation’s 17 largest television markets: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Phoenix.

Scott, previously a tennis executive, was hired to transform the Pac-12 conference, which some athletic directors and university presidents believed was run too much like a mom-and-pop operation. What it needed, they felt, was a more business-savvy leader who could generate more revenue and put its teams in prime TV spots.

Scott quickly showed he could be decisive, moving during a flurry of conference realignment to add Utah and Colorado. He vigorously pursued Texas and Oklahoma as well, and they eventually stayed put in a reconstituted Big 12. He followed that up with two gambits: He reached a 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox in 2011 and when the Pac-12 Network debuted a year later, he decided to not take on a broadcast partner.

The contract was the most lucrative in college sports, but its length meant the Pac-12 was locked in until 2024. The Big Ten zoomed past the Pac-12 with a new deal in 2017 that will expire just when the Pac-12’s deal does, setting it up for another bump. The SEC has done likewise.

The Pac-12 Network, though, has become a fiasco.

By forgoing a network partner, the Pac-12 took on the added expenses of setting up the channel’s infrastructure without the leverage to negotiate contracts with television carriers like Comcast or AT&T. As a result, the Pac-12 Network is in less than 20 million homes, a figure that is dwarfed by the Big Ten Network, the SEC Network and even the year-old ACC Network, which almost immediately was in 57 million homes because of a partnership with ESPN.

Scott’s only play was to sit back and wait for 2024. He suggested that because the media landscape was so volatile with cord-cutting and streaming services, a tech company — Google, Apple, Hulu or Amazon — might offer a jackpot if it had an interest in sports programming.

He tried, without success, to lure a private equity partner for the Pac-12 Network.

As the Pac-12's football fortunes have continued to sink — a team from the conference hasn’t made the four-team College Football Playoff in the last four seasons — and the revenue gap has grown, a new group of university presidents and athletic directors became ever less patient.

“There is frustration that the money isn’t flowing as quickly as it was originally promised,” Arizona State Athletic Director Ray Anderson said in an interview with The New York Times at the start of the 2019 season.

An argument can be made that a handsome TV contract can cover up a multitude of other shortcomings in a commissioner. In Scott’s case, the deficiencies of the Pac-12’s contract only seemed to accentuate other complaints.

A group of Pac-12 football players described him as condescending after meeting with him in August to push for uniform health and safety standards during the pandemic. The conference’s problems with football referees not measuring up, which Scott was charged with cleaning up when he was hired, continue to persist. Though Scott lined up a key deal with a coronavirus testing company to help the Pac-12 play football this fall, he waffled, waiting three weeks before gathering the presidents to overturn their previous decision to postpone the season.

And when Washington, the conference’s North Division champion, could not play in the Pac-12 championship game because of an outbreak, the Pac-12 slotted in the second-place team, Oregon, instead of postponing or canceling the game. Oregon went on to upset unbeaten U.S.C., the South Division winner, sending a conference champion that had not won its division to the Fiesta Bowl.

The trophy ceremony after the conference championship game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — chaotic, haphazard and ill-considered — now seems a fitting coda not just for the game and the season, but for Scott’s tenure.

In the end, the university presidents, whose usual headaches might include teacher’s assistants striking or rising tuition costs decided they could do without another one.

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