When the name “George Kliavkoff” was revealed Thursday as the new Pac-12 commissioner following an exhaustive, four-month search, the nearly universal first reaction was, “Who???”
University of Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, who sat on the five-person executive search committee, acknowledged that she, too, wasn’t familiar with the name, or the credentials behind it, when Kliavkoff was first presented to them.
“He definitely wasn’t someone I knew before. He wasn’t on my radar,” Cauce said Tuesday in a phone interview. “But he rose to the top.”
A perusal of Kliavkoff’s expansive résumé and a viewing of his impressive introductory news conference were a good way to start whittling away skepticism. Cauce said another is to listen to the reaction of athletic directors and other Pac-12 staffers after their initial conversations with Kliavkoff when the cameras were off.
“Everyone is coming back saying, ‘Hey, you know, this just might work,’ ” Cauce said.
The stark truth is that it had better.
Kliavkoff’s predecessor, Larry Scott, started strong when he was hired in 2009, but his tenure devolved into disaster. The Pac-12 got left in the dust by the other Power Five conferences in revenue generation and on-field success — two realms that have proven to be inextricably linked. The Pac-12 Networks, a centerpiece of his strategic plan, lagged far behind expectations.
Compounding matters was Scott’s grating personal style, his penchant for extravagant spending, and a series of tone-deaf actions that alienated fans and staffers. It is clear that the Pac-12 was looking to replace him with a consensus-builder who could unite rather than alienate the disparate constituencies of the conference.
“There’s no question that different times require a different set of skills,” said Cauce, who was not involved in the hiring of Scott. “Larry did some incredibly positive things for the conference. You have to assume that he was the best match for what we were looking for at that point.
“Now we’re in a different situation, and there is absolutely no question that we were looking for someone that we felt would be very collaborative, someone that really could bring people together.”
It certainly raised eyebrows that Kliavkoff, like Scott, comes to the job as an outsider, without any experience in college administration or football. Considering that Kliavkoff was unequivocal in declaring that strengthening football and men’s basketball to the point of becoming perennial national championship contenders is his top priority, it’s valid to wonder how he will navigate that incredibly complex task.
But Cauce used words such as “vision” and “creativity” to explain why the search committee settled upon Kliavkoff. The committee’s chairman, Oregon president Michael Schill, said he feared Kliavkoff would be hired by another conference if they didn’t swoop him up. Washington State president Kirk Schulz was also on the search committee.
Cauce also liked the fact that Kliavkoff “knows what he knows, but he also knows what he doesn’t know.”
As such, Kliavkoff hinted broadly that he would hire someone with on-campus experience to serve as a liaison with the 12 universities comprising the conference to help build rapport and repair fractured relationships with athletic departments.
Cauce confirmed that Kliavkoff also plans to bring in a consultant to help with the upcoming negotiations for a new media-rights contract. Kliavkoff’s success in pulling off that deal and exponentially increasing television revenue, an area in which the Pac-12 lags far behind the SEC and ACC, especially, will go a long way toward determining the success of his tenure.
This is where Kliavkoff’s résumé begins to make sense. He helped build the hugely successful MLB Advanced Media, was involved in the launching of Hulu while serving as chief digital officer of NBC Universal and was co-president of entertainment and syndication at Hearst, where he managed the purchase of a 50 percent stake in the production company that developed Survivor, Shark Tank and The Voice.
He knows this world, and, as Cauce said, he knows what he doesn’t know and is willing to call upon people who do. Kliavkoff, who begins his job July 1, will soon embark on what he called “a listening tour” to connect with athletic directors and students.
“I’ll be honest, we didn’t see any candidates that knew absolutely everything,” Cauce said. “And that’s not unusual. I mean, at this point, sports has become a very complicated landscape with a lot of moving parts. It’s very much like running a university. I often say, because it’s the truth, that on any given topic, if I’m the smartest person in the room, I probably picked the wrong people.
“We didn’t find that person that walks on water. Having said that, if you look at his résumé, he’s come into situations where he’s had to learn very much on the job. And I think we have a lot of confidence that not only does he know what he doesn’t know, but that he can learn quickly.”
Cauce believes an expanded College Football Playoff, which Kliavkoff strongly advocated for, is “incredibly realistic.” At his news conference, Kliavkoff also declared, “We know where our bread is buttered. We’re focused on the revenue sports and winning in football and men’s basketball.”
Cauce is confident that the Pac-12 can pull that off and maintain its academic excellence, its support of student-athletes, and its vast success in women’s and Olympic sports.
“Right now football is front and center, because it hasn’t been an area where we have been front and center,” she said. “So it’s an area that really needs some digging deeper. We haven’t won a title in a while. That is an area where we need to be putting a lot of emphasis. Football does generate revenue that allows us to keep our entire program stronger.
“Being very clear about the fact that’s it’s an area that right now needs special attention is absolutely fine, too. Am I look forward to the time when we are set in that area so another one can be our top priority? Sure.”
Also on Kliavkoff’s hit-the-ground-running agenda:
- Navigating the new world of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) and trying to turn that into a Pac-12 strength.
- Figuring out how to proceed in the lucrative yet delicate realm of sports gambling.
- Enhancing recruiting, which Kliavkoff stated will involve making recruits aware of the conference’s academic prowess — but which probably hinges more on his preeminent goal of bolstering football success.
Obviously, the two work hand in hand, but Kliavkoff can (and must) give football a jump start via more television visibility — which dovetails into another area he needs to tweak: scheduling.
It’s a vast network of interconnected threads that one man will have to tie together. Oregon’s Schill called Kliavkoff “the new prototype of a sports commissioner.” Cauce put it another way: “I see him as the right person for us.”
Not much is riding on the outcome, except for the long-term viability of the Pac-12 Conference.