Twenty-nine minutes into his virtual introduction as the Pac-12 Conference’s seventh commissioner on Thursday, George Kliavkoff was asked an open-ended two-part question:
What is the Pac-12’s greatest strength and weakness?
Its greatest strength, the 54-year-old president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International said, is its 12 member institutions and the athletes they support. He lauded “some of the greatest institutions not just in the country, but in the world,” and emphasized the immense value of a Pac-12 education.
But it’s the second part of his answer that he was hired to address.
“The greatest weakness, if we’re honest with ourselves, is the number of years it’s been since we won a football and men’s basketball championship,” Kliavkoff said flatly. “We’re going to do everything we can at the conference level to fix that.”
Technically, the Pac-12 has never won a national championship in football or men’s basketball. The last time the conference accomplished those feats — USC football in 2004 and Arizona men’s hoops in 1997 — it touted just 10 total members.
And though current commissioner Larry Scott oversaw the additions of Utah and Colorado in 2011, the “Conference of Champions” has fallen behind its Power Five contemporaries in football and men’s basketball in the decade since.
So, what will it take to effectively fix the Pac-12’s greatest weakness?
“I believe personally the solution to elevating football is a combination of addressing structural issues and a more focused approach on recruiting,” said Kliavkoff, whom the Pac-12’s presidents and chancellors unanimously chose from a list of more than 200 applicants.
According to the former collegiate rower at Boston University, whose five-year contract officially begins July 1, those structural issues are not exclusively rooted at the conference level. On Thursday morning, Kliavkoff stated in no uncertain terms that the Pac-12 supports the expansion of the College Football Playoff.
“I take a lesson from this year’s men’s basketball tournament,” he said. “Elite Eight teams included six-seed USC, 11-seed UCLA and 12-seed Oregon State. We just need chances.
“Structurally, we also need to review and address non-conference and conference scheduling, game times and any other competitive decisions made at the conference level. Everything is up for review to make us more competitive. I want to be clear about that.”
As for the recruiting issue, Kliavkoff emphasized that “the implementation of consistent guidelines for name, image and likeness” should provide a significant competitive advantage for Pac-12 programs “because of the markets we play in and the opportunities that some athletes will have to star immediately.”
“We need to make sure that high-school athletes understand the lifetime value of a Pac-12 education. We need to be more aggressive about teaching the legacy of the Pac-12 as the ‘Conference of Champions,’” he said. “At the conference level, we will invest to give Pac-12 athletes, football players and others, an opportunity to create a bigger social platform. We believe video creation and other tools help the athletes, and once NIL comes into effect (we will) help the athletes substantially.”
Of course, Kliavkoff — whose resume features significant stints at A+E Networks, Hearst Entertainment and Syndication, Hulu, NBC Universal Media and MLB Advanced Media — has also been hired to secure the Pac-12’s next media rights deal, with negotiations expected to commence late in 2022. The conference’s current 12-year, $3 billion deal with Fox and ESPN was once the most lucrative in college sports, but has since been lapped by its Power Five foes.
On Thursday, Kliavkoff confirmed that the fledgling Pac-12 Network remains part of the conference’s comprehensive plans.
“With respect to the Pac-12 Network, I believe it’s part of the future of our media distribution strategy,” he said. “Today the Pac-12 Network has far fewer subscribers than any other comparable network, and we have to fix that. I think there’s a way to fix that through structuring and relationships.
“But we have to get the Pac-12 Network distributed every place, on every platform where our fans want to consume that content. I also think the media rights of the Pac-12 Network is a small slice of the media rights that we can create and distribute.”
And though media rights represent a massive slice of any conference’s revenue, Kliavkoff acknowledged the possible emergence of sports betting as well. He added that “it’s a very fine line, and one we’ll walk carefully. We’ll do it in partnership with all the member institutions. I want to just be very clear that anything we do in that space will start with a focus on two things: the integrity of the game, and protecting the student-athletes.”
Ultimately, Kliavkoff said the implementation of any sports betting practices would be decided by the institutions and not the conference office.
But the tie between the Pac-12 Conference and Las Vegas, which hosts its championship games in both football and basketball, is already evident — and its possible the conference offices could eventually move there as well.
“I want to be clear: I am, with my family, relocating to San Francisco and will be working full-time in San Francisco,” Kliavkoff said, when asked about the relationship between the conference and the city where he currently resides. “I think the emergence of Las Vegas as a sports capitol of the world is significant. I think having our two major championships there is a good first step.”
As for next steps, Kliavkoff plans to embark on a “listening tour” once his tenure officially begins in July. Still, like Scott, his lack of experience in college athletics could present some significant complications. And to address those, he hinted at the possible hire of a senior-level position to serve as a liaison between the campuses and the conference office.
“I think conference operations and working in an academic environment are certainly new challenges for me,” Kliavkoff admitted. “But I have to think that almost every job I’ve taken, if you go back through my CV, has involved jumping into unknown structures … and I’ve had success at each of those. For me, historically, not coming in with preconceived notions about how things should operate or should be has always played to my advantage.
“With that said, I’ll need my colleagues at the conference and input from the ADs and the coaches and the student-athletes to help guide me through some of the nuances. And it may make sense to bring in a senior-level person to focus on that part of the job. Stay tuned.”
At the outset of Thursday’s news conference, Kliavkoff highlighted three immediate priorities as Pac-12 commissioner: the protection and support of student-athletes, the optimization of revenue, and the conference’s competitiveness “in revenue-generating sports, especially football.”
Though the Pac-12 has a mountain to climb in that regard, actually acknowledging the mountain seems like an essential first step.
And after being asked about ways to elevate women’s basketball in the wake of Stanford’s 2020-21 national title, Kliavkoff closed Thursday’s session by returning to the theme.
“I think elevating the sport is about giving it more immediate exposure,” said Kliavkoff, a member of the WNBA’s Board of Governors. “Women’s basketball is one of those things where, when people get to see it, particularly in person but also on television, they fall in love with it. So I think it’s just about elevating the exposure for that sport and many of the other sports.
“But again, I want to be clear here: we know where the bread is buttered. We’re focused on revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”