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Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott Striving Toward an Enhanced On-Field Product

The Pac-12 has some issues that only winning can truly solve, but commissioner Larry Scott is making a valiant effort to improve the conference's product both on and off the field.

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Larry Scott is not in denial. His conference has a problem. In fact, it has—plural—problems. The Pac-12 is operating at a financial disadvantage to most of its Power 5 peers. The Pac-12’s TV network does not reach enough households, both because of the structure of the deal and a thing called time zones. The Pac-12 is selling parts of itself for upwards of $500 million. The Pac-12 last season had a high-ranking administrator (who is still employed) muck up its officiating review process. 

But the worst of the Pac-12’s problems? That’s on the field. The Pac-12 has missed the College Football Playoff in three of the last four years. The Pac-12’s leader knows that fixing the latter problem will not only help the perception of his conference but will assist in fixing its off-the-field issues, too. The Pac-12 needs to win, and the Pac-12 has opportunities to do so, chances aplenty early this season to knock off those clubs from richer Power 5 leagues. In the biggest of them all, Oregon duels Auburn in Arlington, Texas. Stanford meets Northwestern on the Farm, and UCLA welcomes in Oklahoma. Arizona State travels to Michigan State, and Arizona is at home against Texas Tech. Oregon State faces Oklahoma State at home, and Colorado hosts Nebraska.

“The first three or four weeks are going to dictate the narrative for our conference. We’ve got some huge matchups early on,” Scott said on Wednesday after addressing a hoard of reporters to open his league’s annual football media day. “We’re going to have to win a good amount of those games if the narrative about our league is going to turn and people are going to say, ‘The Pac-12 is coming back!’”

Win a few of those games and maybe attendance rises, interest builds and revenue soars. Win those games and the Pac-12 Network is a more enticing option. Win the games and maybe some rich investors will buy off pieces of your conference. Win and maybe people will start forgetting about one of the conference’s senior vice presidents, Woodie Dixon, inserting himself into a controversial video review. Just win, baby, just win. And if you don’t win enough? “If we lose most of those games,” Scott said, “I expect we’re going to have to endure the same discussion about the league.” He knows about that discussion. He described Wednesday his teams’ on-field woes with phrases like “fallen short” and “we’ve got to acknowledge criticisms.” 

Admitting you have a problem(s) is the first step in finding the solution(s). The solution isn’t only in the hands of coaches and players. There is more to this than results in a few non-conference games. Some believe the solution is to get rid of Scott, a man who made more than $5 million last year, reportedly stayed in a $7,500-per-night suite in Las Vegas during one trip this spring and relocated the conference’s headquarters to a $7-million-a-year place in San Francisco. As one official from a Pac-12 school says, “That’s a problem.” Said a former Pac-12 administrator of Scott’s future, “They’re going to be going through a new TV negotiation. They’ve got to have a new leader to do that.” An online petition to have Scott fired has garnered more than 5,000 signatures, and he’s often in the crosshairs of dogged Oregonian columnist John Canzano, who first reported Scott’s Vegas trip and the league’s rent.

Criticism of Scott even stretches to on-record statements from former Pac-12 athletic directors. Chris Hill (Utah), Bill Moos (Washington State) and Greg Byrne (Arizona) went public late last year with critical remarks of the Pac-12 commissioner. For sharper comments, other former conference administrators speak off the record, about how there are trust issues between Scott and his ADs, specifically with a lack of transparency over budgets. “He’s done a great job insulating himself where he only reports to university presidents,” one says. Scott says the criticism makes him “uncomfortable,” but he stopped short of calling it unfair. “I don’t want to be the center of tension,” he said, “but I also think it’s part of the role.”

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His role is, as well, finding fixes for all these problems, and he revealed on Wednesday a usual course of action to get more central and east coast eyes on his product: kicking off some Pac-12 games at 9 a.m. local time, or noon on the east coast. He’s having on-going discussions with Fox on the potential move, which he calls a trade-off for the grumbling about Pac-12 games kicking so late, sometimes as late as 10 p.m. on the east coast.

“Kickoff times have been a real strain for many of our fans,” he said. “I had a conversation with (Fox) yesterday. I’ve always been willing to think outside the box. Why not the occasional Pac-12 game in that window? I’m hoping we’ll experiment with a 12 noon kick (Eastern).” So… breakfast at The Coliseum? Brunch at The Farm? “I’m sure that would catch some fans by surprise,” Scott said, “but you’re able to make your kids soccer game in the afternoon.” Scott believes he has another solution to draw attention to Pac-12 football. He’s moving the championship game out of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara and into the Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas, in 2020 and 2021.

He’s got solutions, too, for the officiating debacle in last year’s Washington State-USC game, wherein which Dixon overruled trained replay officials’ ruling of an impactful targeting call, information Yahoo! Sports originally reported. An independent, comprehensive review from the consulting firm Sibson produced recommendations that the Pac-12 will immediately adopt. The biggest one: Dixon remains on the payroll, but he’s no longer overseeing officiating, replaced by Scott. The league has also overhauled its manual for a collaborative replay review, and it will enhance the officiating training program. Lastly, the conference plans to give more public comment on significant calls, especially controversial or wrong ones, something the SEC is doing as well. 

Voila! Everything is fixed.

Not quite. The television deal still remains and will for another five years. There is no getting out of it, Scott says. The league is handcuffed by a $3 billion TV contract it made in 2011 with ESPN and Fox that doesn’t expire until 2024. If Scott could wave a magic wand, he says, he wouldn’t have made the deal at such a length. While the Pac-12 waits for a somewhat antiquated contract to expire, other Power 5 conferences have made splashy new deals that dwarf Scott’s conference. Big Ten schools, for example, were distributed from the conference about $25 million more and SEC schools $13 million more. If that rate holds over the next four years, a school like Wisconsin will get $100 million more in distributed revenue than one of college football’s thoroughbreds, USC.

“They set the market,” a college football administrator said, “and the market changed.” The Pac-12 has passed on overtures from ESPN to extend the TV deal, Scott confirmed, but the league passed. “We’re willing to wait,” he said. He calls it “strategic patience.” The Pac-12 is essentially betting on itself, hoping digital outlets join traditional networks for a bidding war in 2024. “I’m really confident in 2024 it’s going to look very different,” he said. “We’re going to look good. Five years feels like a long time these days.” That’s because it is. Five minutes in this age of Twitter is long. Five years is an eternity. There are other solutions, those familiar with the conference say. Some believe expansion east is necessary. Get in bigger football-centric markets and into more easterly time zones. The league is examining expansion, Scott said, but is unlikely to pursue that until after the new TV deal.

As the day wound down here in Hollywood Wednesday, Scott completed this event with a few radio interviews and a television spot, at times speaking about how the Pac-12 is for the 14th consecutive season the best conference in the nation. How’s that? Because the Pac-12 has won, across the board with Olympic sports included, the most national championships, he says. That is true. That is also hiding yet another problem. “Our conference,” says one school staff member, “hasn’t been good in anything that matters in a while.”