The Pac-12 Puts Its Lagging Reputation—and Its Future—in Unexpected Hands

The conference opted for a true outsider to replace Larry Scott, and it could be boom-or-bust.
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The Pac-12 Conference didn’t just go outside the box in hiring its new commissioner. It essentially left the solar system.

Few people in college sports knew who George Kliavkoff was before his announcement and introductory press conference Thursday. The first impression was favorable—he’s a smart, thoughtful and confident guy. Ultimately, he may be just what the Pac-12 needs. But this has a boom-or-bust quality about it, and there are familiar gaping holes in the résumé.

The concept of “natural fit” was thrown in doubt almost immediately, when Oregon president Michael Schill introduced Kliavkoff as someone the league’s search committee was drawn to due to "his ability to see where the hockey puck was going to go.” Maybe try another analogy, since the “Conference of Champions” doesn’t do hockey pucks.

More substantially, Kliavkoff takes on the most challenging of Power 5 commissioner roles from a place only loosely tied to college athletics. His work with MGM Resorts International included hosting the Pac-12 men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. He also was a rower at Boston University in the 1980s. That’s about it.

From the standpoint of on-campus experience, Kliavkoff is Larry Scott all over again. And that went poorly. Scott’s disconnect from athletic leadership at the schools in the league was a chronic sore point that cost him support. Some of the university presidents had his back, but very few athletic directors. They had no relationship with Scott, and no belief that he understood their day-to-day reality.

In the college sports space, the abiding rule is to hire someone who doesn’t have the same limitations as the person you just got rid of. That does not apply to the Pac-12 here, at least in terms of experience and expertise at the campus level. If the league’s ADs didn’t think the conference office cared about them before, this hire doesn’t immediately alleviate that concern.

Scott’s outsider status lost its luster quickly. Kevin Warren got off to a wobbly start at the Big Ten as a similar outsider, lacking relationships at individual schools while trying to navigate a crushing set of pandemic-related problems. Kliavkoff can learn from their mistakes—but there is a learning curve for him that would have been lesser for other rumored candidates such as former athletic director and NCAA executive Oliver Luck, Ohio State AD Gene Smith, or West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez.

This isn’t to say that someone from a different professional background is incapable of parachuting into the college sports realm and doing great work. Scott’s failings were probably more personality-driven and related to his leadership style than what he didn’t know walking into the job. Kliavkoff may well check many of the interpersonal boxes Scott did not.

But college sports is an esoteric world with a set of attendant quirks, complications and layers that simply don’t exist in the pros or in event management and production. It’s big business awkwardly coexisting with academic institutions that operate in their own ecosystem. Building rapport with everyone from athletes to coaches to administrators is a key part of being a commissioner, while also understanding the inherent conflicts that have created problems on campuses for time immemorial.

And there is the splintered conference leadership of college sports, wherein the power leagues often are behaving like gas hoarders in the Southeast these days: just give me mine, and screw everyone else. Beyond that is the chaos and intractability of the NCAA.

In order to improve knowledge at the campus level, Kliavkoff said he will embark on a “listening tour” of the league. But perhaps more substantially, he hinted that the league will hire a “senior-level person” with an on-campus background. “Stay tuned,” he said.

Fact is, Kliavkoff was hired to do the job Scott started on but failed to perfect: media-rights distribution, revenue production and profile enhancement that elevates the Pac-12 above second-fiddle status within the Power 5. That fits his wheelhouse as a sports businessman, and he talked a good game in those areas Thursday.

There will be media-rights renegotiations at the earliest opportunity. There will be explorations of new revenue-producing broadcast platforms. There will be efforts made in marketing and exposure that help schools keep the recruits in their talent-rich geographic footprint. There will be at least an openness to align with the sports wagering world, which Kliavkoff knows well and knows will only become a bigger player across the landscape.

Most of all, for a conference that wins championships in everything but the glam sports that rake in the dough, there will be an emphasis on changing that. Kliavkoff’s parting thought Thursday, after a question on how he expects to elevate the sport of women’s basketball: “I want to be clear. We know where the bread is buttered. We’re focused on revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”

That includes championing expansion of the College Football Playoff, an obvious stance for the Pac-12 that Scott was late to champion. Kliavkoff smartly declined to discuss specifics of what he’d like to see in terms of expansion beyond the four-team model that consistently leaves out the Pac-12, because he hasn’t studied it yet. But he seemingly will be an early adopter of Bigger Is Better For Us thinking, because it makes no sense to approach it any other way.

Ultimately, Kliavkoff has the imperative to improve the Pac-12’s standing as we approach what could be another spasm of major change in college athletics. As some major media-rights deals edge toward expiration and NIL legislation arrives and the playoff ponders expansion, what will happen to the status quo? Will the power structure change? Will realignment shake the landscape again?

Kliavkoff’s task is to position the Pac-12 as a long-term power player, not as an entity vulnerable to being raided and reduced in the next iteration of major college sports. Part of that is within his control, but not all of it. The least-ardent (or, alternatively, most-grounded) football fans in the Power 5 firmament are in the Pac-12, and they may dictate terms more than anything else.

If they don’t care as much as the rest of the country, even an outside-the-solar-system hire billed as a visionary dealmaker may not be able to alter the course of the Pac-12’s future.

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