George Kliavkoff might not need a campus tour.
After all, the new Pac-12 commissioner has history with the Washington Huskies. From 1995 to 2005, he lived in Seattle — even owning season tickets to Husky hoops, while sharing a season-ticket plan for UW football as well.
“I love all my children equally,” the 54-year-old executive said with a smile Friday, during a media roundtable at the Jim Houston boardroom inside Husky Stadium. “But this is the only place where I’ve been a paying member of the supporters of the athletic department previously.”
But in the last 15 years, a few things have changed — and the Pac-12 has fallen behind its Power Five peers both financially and athletically (at least, in the revenue sports).
Kliavkoff was hired to address those issues, and to deliver results.
To do so, he began by embarking on an ongoing tour of each Pac-12 campus — which included, in this case, a presentation at an all-staff meeting Thursday, a session with Huskies athletes Friday morning, lunch with UW football coach Jimmy Lake on Friday afternoon, and plans to attend UW’s Pac-12 opener Saturday against California.
All told, this is not the same athletic department Kliavkoff contributed to in 2005.
The faces have changed. The challenges have changed.
But UW’s value to the Pac-12 is a relative constant.
“It’s an incredibly important member of the conference,” said Kliavkoff, who succeeded Larry Scott as Pac-12 commissioner July 1. “Seattle, as you know, is one of our major media markets in the conference. We have five of the top 20 media markets in the country. Being in this market is very important to us. Obviously with the long history UW has with the Pac-8, the Pac-10 and the Pac-12, they have a long, long history that I’m very proud of.
“I think the thing that is different about UW today than when I was here is the facilities are quite different. It’s been very, very impressive, what’s been built since I was here in the late ’90s and the early ’00s.”
Added UW athletic director Jen Cohen, sitting to Kliavkoff’s right, who has overseen many of the program’s improvements: “This is a guy with incredible experience, but he’s also transparent and collaborative. The ADs have been onboard with basically every idea and concept that he’s proposed to us, because he really cares passionately about the 12 schools and our students and our success. So when we’re all committed to the same things, it’s pretty easy to rally together.
“He’s been awesome here. Our coaches, our student-athletes, our staff, our donors … I can’t tell you how many texts and calls I’ve had over the last 24 hours about his willingness to listen and how smart and experienced he is, and most important, how committed he is and how much he cares about the things we care about, too. So it’s been awesome. We couldn’t have had his leadership come at a better time.”
Here are a few of the specific issues Kliavkoff addressed Friday.
The status of CFP expansion
On Wednesday, the College Football Playoff management committee — comprising the 10 FBS conference commissioners, plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick — met in Dallas to discuss the current status of CFP expansion. That’s after a four-man subcommittee (which included SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Swarbrick) previously proposed a 12-team playoff to replace the current four-team model.
The hope was that, should enough progress be made at Wednesday’s meeting, a proposal could be brought to next Tuesday’s meeting of the CFP Board of Managers — which will ultimately be tasked with voting through any playoff expansion plan.
But, according to Kliavkoff, there are “incremental issues” preventing any immediate proposals from being made.
“We’re all committed to do it (expanding the CFP), and we all want to do it sooner rather than later,” he said, referring to the members of the CFP management committee. “The issue is that the current 12-team proposal still has at the margins some parts of that proposal that are not great for everybody and need a re-look.”
Kliavkoff added that they did a disservice to college football fans by “setting expectations about how quickly we could get to expansion. It’s everyone’s hope that we get to expansion before the end of the current media term (at the end of the 2025 season), but that will require some more work.”
Per Kliavkoff, those “incremental issues” include media-rights queries, the involvement of bowl games (particularly the Rose Bowl) in an expanded CFP, potential player health issues related to an expanded season, logistical issues with hosting winter playoff games in cold weather territories, and more.
Most prominently, is a 12-team playoff even the Pac-12’s preferred model? When asked whether he endorses an eight-team or 12-team playoff, Kliavkoff said there are “benefits and drawbacks to both” and “I’m actively in conversation with our athletic directors and our football coaches about those two scenarios and where we fall.”
The future of the Pac-12’s media rights
The Pac-12’s current media-rights deal expires in 2024.
And, with streaming services emerging to challenge more traditional distributors for the conference’s rights, how does Kliavkoff expect said rights to eventually be divided?
“There’s a place for distributing our content on linear television,” he said. “There’s some of our content that probably belongs on digital platforms. And I think when we think about tier one, two, three, four of our media rights over the next couple years, when we start negotiating those deals, I think we’ll have multiple bidders from both sectors (streaming and traditional TV) for all of our rights.”
More to the point, Kliavkoff was asked — five years from now — whether the Washington-Oregon football game will stream on ESPN or Amazon.
“It depends on who I sell the rights to,” he said with a smile.
The Pac-12’s relationship with Las Vegas
Kliavkoff’s relationship with Las Vegas is impossible to ignore. Before being named Pac-12 commissioner, he served as the president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International. He oversaw the annual Pac-12 conference basketball tournaments at T-Mobile Arena and was involved with bringing the conference’s football championship game to Allegiant Stadium as well.
On Friday, Kliavkoff unsurprisingly said, “I do think Vegas is a unique market, and it benefits from having large-scale events in town. It attracts a lot of people. I think we’ll have more events in Vegas over time.”
But, when the conference’s lease in San Francisco expires in two years (though there’s an option for a third), would he consider moving the Pac-12’s headquarters to Las Vegas as well?
“What I would say is, it’s a very expensive lease (in San Francisco),” he said. “It’s in one of the most expensive ZIP codes in the country. We pay a lot of money for that lease that I would much rather be sending to the schools for them to use to support student-athletes. So I don’t know where the headquarters end up, but I will tell you we will be paying a lot less in rental than we pay today.”