A decade into his tenure, I’ve graded Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott’s performance on specific topics using a tweaked version of the baseball metric WAR (Wins Above Replacement).
WAR attempts to value an individual player by determining how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level option from the minor leagues or available free agent.
Scott was hired in the spring of 2009. As the president of the Women’s Tennis Association — and possessing no professional background in college sports — he was an outside-the-box choice by the presidents and chancellors.
An unconventional evaluation seems like the best means of providing context on his performance.
To that end, we’ll use Commissioner Above Replacement (CAR) to determine how he has performed compared to a “replacement-level” (i.e., traditional) commissioner.
In contrast to the WAR metric, the Hotline doesn’t have an established formula to set the baseline value for ‘replacement’ commissioner.
So excuse the subjectivity applied below.
Were we to give Scott an overall grade, something in the C range feels accurate — some might argue he deserves a D, and many fans would undoubtedly make the case for an F — but an overall grade poorly accounts for the nuances of his job.
(It also brings little insight to the established public narrative, and this series attempts to avoid plowed ground.)
So much of a commissioner’s performance — not just Scott’s, but any commissioner — is dictated by directives from the presidents/chancellors … by forces in the media marketplace … by the performance of the teams … that specific grades are the best means of assessment.
Also, it helps us mitigate the impact of recency bias:
We’re much more likely to be influenced by Pac-12 developments over the past two or three years (so many missteps) than by those in 2009-12 (several big wins).
Here we go …
On this front, it’s clear Scott benefited from being an outsider. With no emotional ties to the major college machinery, he was willing to blow it up.
He knew the conference needed to get bigger — that it needed more TV homes, more teams for the game inventory and two divisions for a football championship.
The 16-team super conference (with Texas and Oklahoma) was creative — and would establish Scott’s early reputation as a visionary — and his attempted raid very nearly changed everything.
Once that fizzled, Scott went to Plan B: the addition of Colorado and Utah.
The move was right at the time and has been an unqualified success, in our opinion.
Would a replacement commissioner have done the same? We’re not convinced of the execution or the end game under a commissioner who had come from the college sports world.
The Tier 1 media deal
The Hotline has written, and continues to believe, that the $3 billion partnership with ESPN and Fox was the best deal Scott could have gotten and the best deal the Pac-12 could have asked for.
His positioning of the conference in the 12-month run-up to the negotiations — that includes expansion, to boost TV homes and game inventory, and his choice of advisers — was well executed.
That said, the timing was fortuitous (and Scott has acknowledged as much over the years).
At the time, in the spring of 2011, rights fees for live sports were soaring, and the Pac-12 was the first conference to the negotiating table in the cycle. (Even Comcast was willing to bid for the rights.)
It stands to reason that a replacement commissioner would have done well at the table — perhaps not as well as Scott, but well nonetheless.
But there’s another piece to our assessment:
In an attempt to maximize dollars, the conference gave away maximum scheduling flexibility to ESPN and Fox in the form of the Thursday and Friday games, the six- and 12-day selection windows and the night kickoffs — all issues that have generated so much frustration among fans and placed so much stress on the campuses.
In other words, Scott was directed to maximize dollars, but the deal cannot be evaluated on that component alone.
The Pac-12 Networks
It’s reasonable to assume that our replacement commissioner would have gone the traditional route and taken a partner (as the Big Ten had done with Fox) — or not created a network in the first place (the Big 12 model).
Instead, Scott went off-road and formed a media company that was wholly owned by the schools, with the network as its jewel.
At that point, the conference was headed down a road to nowhere: The cable companies (Comcast, Cox, TimeWarner, Bright House) pushed for the regional networks to superserve viewers in each state.
The end result was a sprawling, seven-feed structure that is incredibly costly, overshot its audience and failed to gain widespread distribution — not only with DirecTV but on systems across the country.
The Pac-12 Networks have worked wonders for the Olympics sports, especially women’s basketball. But the modest revenue and limited reach have proved the greatest miscalculation of Scott’s tenure.
Will the decision to retain 100% ownership in the networks be rewarded with a massive windfall from the next media deal?
Scott is convinced, but that’s all guesswork — not to mention five years away.
We’re judging the Pac-12 Networks on their existence to date, compared to what could reasonably have been expected under a replacement commissioner.
Or put it this way: Had the schools been told how the revenue and reach would play out over eight or nine years, they would surely have ordered Scott to take a partner.
Scott receives high marks for two key hires: Deputy commissioners Kevin Weiberg (2010-14) and Jamie Zaninovich (2014-present) have provided steady hands and a crucial understanding of collegiate sports administration.
But in several crucial areas, Scott has missed the mark:
1) Giving oversight of football — the conference’s greatest marketing tool and revenue generator — to general counsel Woodie Dixon, a former salary cap specialist in the NFL with no background in the functional aspects of major college football.
2) His handling of the athletic directors, who could have lent expertise on numerous levels but were excluded from the decision-making process for most of Scott’s tenure.
3) The perception on the campuses, for many years, that the conference was directing policy based on its preferences (as the Hotline has written, it sometimes has seemed like the schools served the conference office, rather than the other way around.)
4) Too often over the years, Scott has made more headlines than the players, coaches and teams that are supposed to be at the heart of the conference.
Sometimes, that has stemmed from a poor grasp of optics: Words and actions are perceived differently on the front lines than in the cozy confines of Pac-12 HQ.
Publicly criticizing UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero for a vote on NCAA legislation, for example, might not have been the best moves for conference harmony.
And how could anyone on Third Street have thought that staying in a $7,500-per-night suite in Las Vegas — whether it was comped or not — was a good idea for a conference immersed in angst over revenue and expenses?
A replacement commissioner likely would have avoided most, if not all of those pitfalls.
In 2013, the conference announced it would plow $3.6 million annually (in College Football Playoff revenue) to fund research projects into ways to better the student-athlete experience.
(The move was approved by the presidents and requires a $300,000-per-school annual diversion of funds.)
Most of the projects have focused on head trauma, mental health and injury prevent/treatment. It’s one of the best moves Scott has made. The Pac-12 is ahead of its peers on this front.
Early on, Scott made improvement on this issue a pillar of his tenure. The results have been, at best, mixed.
The Hotline believes football officiating on a play-by-play, game-by-game basis, has improved significantly over the decade.
But two momentous scandals in the majors sports have overshadowed all else: The Ed Rush/Sean Miller BountyGate, and Dixon’s meddling in the replay process during the Washington State-USC game last fall.
Both were colossal embarrassments. The latter was the greatest crisis of Scott’s tenure and created entirely by the conference office: The system approved by Scott himself allowed an untrained official (Dixon) to involve himself in the replay review process.
(As we wrote at the time: Anybody who knows anything about football officiating knows that’s a bad idea.)
The conference hasn’t fully recovered.
We’re not sure of a replacement commissioner could have escaped BountyGate — that was a Rush operation all the way — but the Hotline is quite confident that a replacement would have known the replay-review process is sacred (trained officials only) and avoided that dumpster fire.
That Scott didn’t immediately order an independent review of officiating and didn’t immediately remove Dixon from his oversight post — the first came at the insistence of the athletic directors; the second came at the recommendation of the outside consultant — were at the time, and remain, deeply disturbing.
The creation of the football championship game was interconnected to expansion — 12 teams were required in order to split into divisions.
The event has gone through several iterations: the home-host model, then Levi’s Stadium and, starting in 2020, Las Vegas. Each step was the right move at the time.
Meanwhile, the decision to move the basketball tournament out of Staples Center was spot-on. Scott could have opted for a rotation model (Portland one year, Phoenix the next, etc.) but instead went all-in with Las Vegas — first to MGM Grand Garden Arena, then T-Mobile.
It went so well, the women’s tournament moved there, too.
We’re not sure a replacement commissioner would have been as willing to make all the changes.
The Alamo Bowl partnership in the summer of 2009 — it became No. 2 in the postseason lineup, after the Rose Bowl — traces its roots to Scott’s predecessor, Tom Hansen.
The decisions made wholly by Scott and his lieutenants, not only through this decade but also for the cycle of games starting next season, have been sound.
Fans complain about the matchups and the lack of access to games in Florida, but the options are limited: The Pac-12 cannot align with a bowl that isn’t interested in the partnership, and geography dictates bowl alliances.
We see only one misstep over Scott’s tenure: Agreeing in 2016 to extend its deal with the Alamo Bowl through 2025, which prevented the upgraded Las Vegas Bowl from assuming the No. 2 position (and therefore increasing the chances of a better Big Ten/SEC opponent).
At the time, the Raiders’ move was gaining clarity and seemed likely to result in an upgraded Las Vegas Bowl. In fact, that’s the reason the Alamo moved to extend its deals with the Big 12 and Pac-12 — to box out Las Vegas.
A topic not easily assessed in a few sentences, but let’s make the attempt:
Yes, the conference distributions have been limited by the performance of the Pac-12 Networks; that’s indisputable.
Also indisputable: The revenue gap adversely impacts the athletic department budgets and the ability to hire/fire coaches, build facilities and manipulate football and basketball schedules to maximize success.
But it’s also incorrect to assume the Pac-12 would be generating the same media dollars as the SEC and Big Ten in a world in which the Pac-12 Networks is a raging success.
The conference simply doesn’t have the population or fan affinity within its footprint to demand the same Tier 1 dollars from Fox and ESPN.
Scott’s decisions, in other words, are responsible for only part of the gap.
The expenses are, shall we say, significant — whether it’s rent in San Francisco, Scott’s contract, executive staff compensation or Scott’s methods of travel.
And all of it was approved, or tolerated, by his bosses.
It’s a failure, yes; but it’s a failure that starts with the presidents and chancellors.
How might a replacement commissioner have handled the fiscal aspects of the conference?
It’s reasonable to conclude a traditional hire — someone who worked on campuses, or had deep experience working with the campuses — would have been loath to spend as Scott has spent.