New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff hadn’t even been in office a month when the college football world was roiled with cataclysmic upheaval: Texas and Oklahoma bolting the Big 12 to join the SEC.
“Just when I thought my first month on the job could not get more interesting,’’ tweeted Kliavkoff on July 21.
Almost exactly one month later, with Kliavkoff at the forefront of the behind-the-scenes machinations, the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten this week announced an alliance (aka, The Alliance) primarily designed as a strength-in-numbers answer to the SEC’s blatant attempt at world domination.
“Just when I thought my second month on the job could not get more interesting,’’ Kliavkoff cheekily tweeted on Tuesday.
Kliavkoff certainly wasn’t gifted with a soft landing as he eased into the commissioner’s chair he inherited from Larry Scott. Nothing less than the long-term future of the Pac-12 as a Power 5 mainstay is at stake. No biggie.
Never mind that Kliavkoff doesn’t have prior experience in college administration. Nor in football, which is driving the entire enterprise. University of Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, a member of the search committee for Scott’s replacement, told me in an interview after Kliavkoff’s hiring that his vision and creativity is what swayed them to the former MGM executive.
Those qualities will be called upon in copious quantities as Kliavkoff navigates the most treacherous waters that collegiate sports have ever seen.
He already knew he was going to have to wade through the fallout of the Supreme Court’s Allston Decision, which threatens to blow up the NCAA’s attempts to limit the financial opportunities of athletes and all sorts of other monopolistic practices. Relatedly, there’s the advent of the Name, Image and Likeness revolution. And looming over everything is the pending renegotiation of the Pac-12’s media rights package, which has fallen light years behind the SEC and other conferences.
Now, lumbering threateningly into that already murky and treacherous world, is the beast known as conference realignment. When Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 high and dry, it didn’t just throw that conference into disarray at the same time that the SEC became an even more formidable behemoth. It put the three other conferences in full-blown “eat or be eaten” mode.
Would the Pac-12 try to poach the remaining members of the Big 12, who are in full self-preservation mode, desperate not to be left without a viable conference? Or would other conferences try to poach members of the Pac-12, particularly USC, in an attempt to win an arms race with the SEC? It appeared that a high-stakes game of musical chairs was about to commence, with every school petrified it would be among those left standings.
So far, I’m impressed with the way Kliavkoff is handling matters (and shudder to think where the Pac-12 would be with Scott in charge of this existential crisis).
The Alliance is quite a shrewd move. To keep the SEC’s hegemony from swallowing up everyone else, there is strength in numbers. And as a strategic gambit to increase the visibility and revenue streams of the Pac-12, this three-headed monster has a chance to do just that.
Kliavkoff, in consultation with his athletic directors and university presidents, came to the conclusion that there was no need to expand the conference (ie, to accommodate the eight remaining members of the Big 12 that have presumably been begging the Pac-12 to let them in). They believe that The Alliance itself accomplishes all the goals they are seeking — especially enhanced revenue opportunities and an expansion of the Pac-12 geographic footprint for recruiting purposes. The scheduling opportunities among these three conferences in football and men’s and women’s basketball are enticing, and will be to networks as well. No need to share with pie with a couple of new members who don’t offer commensurate sex appeal.
The three-conference voting bloc should also allow them to thwart — for now — the SEC’s grand plan of expanding the College Football Playoffs to 12 teams. Oh, Kliavkoff desperately wants that, too; he made it a bedrock of his stated game plan during his introductory news conference.
He just doesn’t want it quite yet, it seems. The Alliance wants to push the expansion decision back beyond 2026, when ESPN will no longer have the opportunity to be the sole rights-holder for the CFP. This is another cornerstone goal of The Alliance — to weaken the death grip that the SEC and ESPN, working in tandem, have on college football.
Yet how The Alliance will play out in real life remains vague and mostly theoretical. Perhaps to avoid an antitrust lawsuit, the three conferences didn’t come to a formal, signed agreement. Instead, there was a lot of high-minded talk of “trust” and “gentlemen’s agreements” and “looking each other in the eye.” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said, “It signifies there’s still a lot of goodness in college athletics.”
Ask Texas Tech or West Virginia or Baylor about trust and goodness. Or Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who thought he could trust the ADs of Texas and Oklahoma until they blindsided him.
“It’s difficult to be betrayed by people that you call friends,” Bowlsby said last month. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this, and OU and Texas did it as deceptively as they possibly could.”
But that doesn’t mean the Pac-12 or ACC or Big Ten should get too high on their horse. After all, the Pac-12 tried desperately to wrest Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 in 2011, and poached Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West instead. And if Texas and/or Oklahoma had come to Kliavkoff first instead of the SEC’s Greg Sankey, well, it’s likely we’d be talking about the Pac-14.
The challenge now for Kliavkoff and his peers in the ACC and Big Ten is to hold this alliance together through the inevitable turbulence still to come. The college sports world has turned into a giant reality show, “Conference Survivor.” And just as we’ve seen on innumerable such shows, the best way to keep from being sent packing is to form the right partnerships. The Big 12, alas, was voted off the Power Five island. The Pac-12 believes it has found its immunity talisman by joining forces with two equally terrified partners.
It’s a marriage of convenience, sure. The Alliance members could be betrayed just as suddenly as the Big-12 was. But it also has a chance to work. And it sure beats the alternative.