Oregon-Stanford showcase the latest triumph for Pac-12's Larry Scott
Go ahead and Google Larry Scott, but don't be deceived. The oil-slicked bodybuilder who pops up -- the guy striking poses like "The Archer" and "The Side Chest" -- should not be confused with the subject of this column, although the latter Larry Scott, now in his fifth year as commissioner of the resurgent Pac-12, is certainly one of the strongest administrators in all of sport. Thursday night's clash between Oregon and Stanford -- of arguably greater national significance than LSU-Alabama, which kicks off two days later -- is more than just the Pac-12's game of the year, featuring the Heisman Trophy frontrunner and a pair of top-five teams with national title aspirations. It's also a victory lap for Scott, who in four and a half years has expanded, enriched and defibrillated a conference that had previously been static, self-satisfied and underachieving.
The Pac-10 had been sleepwalking for years when Scott was hired to replace Tom Hansen in 2009. In addition to being trapped in amber, the conference was also trapped in a bad TV deal that limited exposure for its football teams. The league was governed by complacent, backward-looking administrators who reflexively opposed changes such as a conference title game, or a playoff to determine the national champion. A Big 12 athletic director once lamented to me that the entire college football universe was "being held hostage by the Tournament of Roses parade."
The conference, which was sometimes referred to as "USC and the Nine Dwarves," was losing money and relevance. Athletic directors couldn't pay market value for coaches. (Whether it's wise for schools to pay college coaches 10 times what university presidents make is a discussion for another day.) Cash-strapped athletic departments were finding it more and more challenging to maintain old facilities, let alone build new ones. Wasn't it enough that schools in the league had great weather and beautiful sunsets? It had always seemed to be.
"One of the primary reasons I was brought in," said Scott, a Harvard alum and former CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, "is that our [university] presidents wanted some fresh thinking. There was a sense the conference was relying too much on its amazing heritage, a recognition that we were falling a step or two behind other conferences, that things needed to be shaken up a little bit. We needed to be a little more proactive."
Has Scott shaken things up? Let's see. So far he has:
• Negotiated a groundbreaking 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox. That comes out to $225 million per annum. The year before the deal kicked in, the conference brought in $60 million in TV money.
• Launched the Pac-12 Networks, one national and six regional HD networks that broadcast 1,200 live events during 2012-13 school year. Roughly half of those were streamed on Pac-12 Digital, so far-flung alumni, parents and fans could watch, for instance, Colorado women's volleyball on their smartphones at the Dubai airport.
• Signed a multi-year agreement with Fox International Sports Channels to distribute Pac-12 Networks' sports programming worldwide. Unlike the Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Networks is owned entirely by its member schools.
The rising tide of TV money is lifting all boats in the conference. Most member institutions are now building, renovating and/or upgrading facilities. As Bud Withers of the Seattle Times wrote last year, "In today's Pac-12, you need a general contractor as well as a gifted quarterback."
For his part, Scott seems more excited by the dramatically increased visibility of the conference. "We've got every one of our [college football] games available nationally," he said, "including 44 games split by ESPN and Fox." None of those games are regionalized, which was often to the fate of Pac-10 contests before Scott's arrival. "Used to be, ABC would show our game to 22 percent of the country, west of the Rockies," said Scott. "And usually it was our best game."
Compare that to two Saturdays ago, when ESPN's College GameDay brought its brand of hullabaloo to Autzen Stadium for Oregon-UCLA. That game was followed by Stanford-Oregon State on ESPN. It was a Pac-12 "blockbuster," effused Scott. It was also "a far cry from where we used to be."
From the get-go, Scott focused on "repositioning" the conference, repairing and buttressing its "regressive brand." With his marketing background, strategic thinking and obsession with "brand" -- he used the word a half-dozen times in a 15-minute interview -- Scott clicked immediately with Ducks benefactor and Nike chairman Phil Knight, whom he'd met during his days with the WTA. During the "listening tour" Scott undertook in his first year on the job, he enjoyed brainstorming with Knight. "I thought there was a lot of synergy between [the Pac-12] and Nike," said Scott. "They're West Coast, pioneering and have an affinity for excellence -- things I wanted the conference to stand for."
Oregon-Stanford will be a showcase of two programs that have taken drastically different routes to excellence. It will reflect well on Larry Scott, the commissioner, although Scott would be within his rights to walk out to midfield before the game, flex his biceps and strike a pose.