LOS ANGELES — Pac-12 Media Day took place in Hollywood on Wednesday, and several off-the-field talking points were just as prevalent as those surrounding the upcoming college football season. Sports Illustrated sat down with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to discuss the conference falling behind in revenue compared to other members of the Power 5, the future of Pac-12 Networks, his goals for a stronger football presence in Las Vegas and more.
Max Meyer: There are several new Pac-12 coaches like Chip Kelly, Herm Edwards and Kevin Sumlin. What impact do you think this will have on the league?
Larry Scott: I think a big impact. Those are three of the biggest names in coaching. Chip and Kevin Sumlin have recent track records and had big-time success. Herm has got a long career, a lot of believers in what he’s going to do. But those are big names that are going to attract a lot of attention, I can just tell by today and national buzz. People are excited about what’s going to happen with the trajectory of those programs.
There’s also a lot of buzz about [new Oregon coach] Mario [Cristobal] and [new Oregon State coach] Jonathan Smith. Mario’s killing it on the recruiting trail already. There’s a lot of optimism and energy and excitement with the new guys. The coaches, the seven that were in the league, they’re really strong, guys like David Shaw, Chris Petersen, Clay [Helton], Kyle Whittingham, Mike MacIntyre, Justin Wilcox, are very highly regarded. I’d say this is as strong a group of coaches as we’ve had since I’m here, top to bottom.
MM:USC was a two-loss Power 5 conference champion, yet it didn’t come close to making the College Football Playoff. Do you think that’s a marketing issue within the conference?
LS: No, I mean there hasn’t been a two-loss champion that’s made the playoff in its four-year history. I thought the way they lost, the games they lost, I don’t think they had a strong case given the other teams they’re compared to nationally. So it wasn’t really a big debate, based on the performance, I don’t think you’ll hear Clay Helton worrying about USC and feeling like they deserved to be in there. It was pretty non-controversial.
MM:There doesn’t appear to be any headway with DirecTV regarding Pac-12 Networks, what other platforms are you trying to work with to get more visibility for the channel?
LS: Short-term, we have 70 distributors for the network. DirecTV’s the only big one we don’t have. There are all these new over-the-top subscribers like Sling, fuboTV that we’re on. I think over the next few years you’ll see some progress with some of those. But I think the big changes to look for when our rights expire in 2024 with ESPN, FOX on one end and all of our distribution agreements, that’s going to be a very different landscape at that stage in terms of who we license our rights to. We are doing some testing with Facebook, Amazon, we’ve done some with Twitter, YouTube. I believe as I look into, I call it, a crystal ball, that I believe these technology companies are going to be important players in the sports TV rights. In the meantime, even though we’re pretty much locked into our model through 2024, we’re trying to experiment and develop relationships with a lot of these new tech players.
MM:Are there any key takeaways you learned from negotiating your first Pac-12 Networks TV deal that will you try and incorporate into the one in 2024?
LS: I think it’ll be a very different world. When we negotiated our last TV agreement, we had three big bidders: ESPN, Fox and NBC. It wouldn’t surprise me if we had twice as many come 2024. I think the traditional legacy players like ESPN, FOX, NBC will still be there and very focused on live sports. But the other players like Turner, which was recently bought by AT&T, there’ll be pockets to bid. And I think you’re going to have some of these new technology players, maybe not all of them, that frankly have bigger checkbooks than those traditional broadcasters that are bidding for some of these rights. So it wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve got a more robust set of bidders with different platforms, different monetization models, bidding for our rights. So how we slice and dice our rights we’ll have to pay attention to.
And what’s the role for the Pac-12 Networks, where we put our content, whether we stay with a bundle or go direct to consumer or distribute our content in other ways—those are all big questions that we’ll have to answer between now and then. There will be a lot of changes between now and then. So we’re not locking in on any particular strategy yet. I think the most important thing is that we control our rights, we have maximum flexibility. We’re the only conference that’s going to have its Tier I rights and Tier III rights [open for bidding] at the same time.
MM:There have been reports this offseason highlighting the discrepancy of the revenue between the Pac-12 and other conferences. How would you currently describe the conference’s revenue and how big of an issue do you see this as?
LS: I’d start at a macro level by saying that for our schools, the scorecard that matters in comparing us to other leagues is winning championships and all-around athletic success and good outcomes for student-athletes. The way our campuses look at it, we are coming off a great year having earned 12 NCAA championships. The next best conference won five. This is the 13th year in a row we’ve won more NCAA championships than any other conference. So we continue to be the winningest conference in the country. We’ve put the teams in the College Football Playoff, we’ve had Final Four teams. Our schools feel very good about our competitive situation.
The focus on money is natural, but it’s only one piece of a broader equation that leads to competitive success. Our conference has some significant non-financial advantages: the cities that we’re in, the universities, the academic excellence, the overall athletic excellence, California is our backyard from a recruiting standpoint. We’re a conference that’s never been at the top of the standings in terms of revenue, but we’ve always been at the top of the standings in terms of winning. That’s what we measure. Having the most money, we’ve never had. We don’t need the most money to be competitive. So that’s the first thing.
Second thing is there tends to be a focus on what conferences distribute to the members. And that’s important income. But the irony of that is what’s more important to our schools is what they generate locally. I’ve got a school in my conference that had $140 million in overall athletic department revenue the last year and some that had $80 million. That’s a wide discrepancy. In other leagues, there’s schools with $200 million in revenue and others with $90 million in revenue. So it’s always a little ironic to our schools that the focus is on what conferences generate, because really what matters is what schools generate. We’ve got a wide variation within our conference of schools’ revenues and their ability to invest.
And the last thing I guess I’d say on the topic, when you look at football, the most high-profile [sport], our schools have been able to continue to make significant investments. You talked about the coaching changes, our schools made some big investments to make some of those coaching changes both in terms of terminating contracts early with existing coaches to being competitive to get the Chip Kellys of the world and the Kevin Sumlins of the world. Our schools have invested over $1.5 billion in new football facilities since I’ve been here. So that’s new stadiums, football training facilities and that’s not just in 2012 when we did our new TV deal. Even in just the last year, we have Arizona State that’s going to be moving into a brand-new stadium. We’ve got USC which is in the middle of a $300 million stadium renovation. We’ve got UCLA that is in the Wasserman high-performance training center for the first time.
Our schools have the money for the most important investments. Having more is great and important, and we’re not going to lose focus on that. But I don’t think any of schools will tell you that they don’t have the money they need to make the investments they need in football.
MM:With the legalization of sports gambling and the success of the Pac-12 tournament, do you see Las Vegas playing a bigger role by having the Vegas Bowl become a higher-profile game and moving the Pac-12 Football Championship there?
LS: I do. We’ve had a very positive experience in Las Vegas, both with the bowl game there and with our basketball tournament. Our fans love it. We’ve had good experiences with our partners in Las Vegas. I think the Raiders moving to Las Vegas and building what will be a state-of-the-art NFL venue will open up new opportunities for us to improve the existing bowl, the Las Vegas Bowl that we have. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see that move up in the lineup. We’re in discussions with the Raiders about possibly other games. So I think because of the reaction from our fans, to Las Vegas our positive experience there, our relationship with the Raiders and that new facility, I think you will see us do more in football.
MM:UCLA had the big shoplifting scandal in China this past basketball season. Will that affect how the Pac-12 approaches international games in football and basketball going forward?
LS: I think it will certainly cause the conference and the schools to be that much more vigilant on education and explaining the dos and don’ts. I think it was a great teaching moment for all of our campuses when they go overseas. It certainly was a major unwanted distraction, but the fundamental benefits for all the student-athletes that went doesn’t really change. So we continue to have a lot of interest in our campuses playing more basketball games and finding new opportunity for football overseas.
MM:How concerned are you about the FBI investigation into college basketball and the Pac-12 schools that were mentioned?
LS: I’ve been very concerned about it. The revelations have been very concerning. I was pleased to see our schools take big action and investigate themselves, and to see the focus they brought to it. There’s still some uncertainty around what’s next. I think we’re all eager to see if there’s more to the story, if there are others that are implicated and could deal with it and be able to learn and move forward. It’s a cloud that’s hanging over basketball. On a positive note, I think it spurred people to learn from the experiences and make some improvements. The Pac-12 commission made some significant recommendations in terms of rule changes, structural changes. The Rice commission supported a lot of those same themes and had some other ones they put in there. I’m confident that many of the recommendations from the Rice commission are going to get passed by the NCAA board within the next month or two.
MM:The NBA and NCAA implemented the rule that college players can test the draft waters and still be able to return to school if they don’t like their projected draft position. Would that be something you’d like to see with football as well?
LS: I don’t know what the exact analog should be for football, but I’m in favor of anything that gives student-athletes more credible information, and more credible and trustworthy evaluation on their prospects before they make one of the most important decisions of their life, whether they’re going to continue their education or go the professional route. So like in basketball, one of the things we’ve talked about is a player enters the draft, but goes undrafted and doesn’t sign, they can keep their eligibility and come back. That’s an example of something the Pac-12 supported.
MM:You mentioned Tyler Hilinski and the Pac-12’s focus on student-athletes’ well-being [Wednesday] morning. Was his suicide a wake-up call to the conference to explore more about mental health?
LS: It was incredibly tragic and shocking. But the topic of mental health and the concerns around that has really emerged over the last five years in discussions I’ve had with our athletic directors and doctors and others as a serious issue. So I think that wake-up call has been happening over a period of years. In fact, around the time of Tyler Hilinksi’s tragedy, Oregon State student-athletes were developing a campaign called “Dam Worth It” to bring awareness to mental health issues. I think there have been some ongoing discussions and efforts around awareness, changing the culture and it being O.K. to ask for help, removing some of the stigma like saying they’ve got a problem and more research in terms of understanding what are the drivers for mental health issues and how to treat them.
Our schools over the last few years have been putting more resources into there anyway. But as a result of the Oregon State student-athlete initiative, Tyler Hilinski, we’ve agreed as a conference to elevate mental health as one of the pillars of our student-athlete health and welfare board and give $3.6 million to invest in every year now.