Big 12 looks west, Pac-12 looks for TV deal: What we’re hearing about realignment

Last July, weeks after USC and UCLA’s stunning Big Ten announcement, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff made a bold realignment prediction: “No Pac-12 school is going to the Big 12.”

Eight months later, we may finally know whether his confidence was justified or false bravado.

Kliavkoff is facing pressure to deliver a new media rights deal to members by the end of the month. If the dollar figures or details are underwhelming, March could be the moment when the Big 12 finally strikes. Sources briefed on the discussions say the conference has recently been in contact with the so-called Four Corners schools – Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah – who have renewed optimism that it is possible to convince them to join.

Brett Yormark has been eyeing westward expansion since the day he was hired as the Big 12’s new commissioner last summer. Yormark has never been shy about his interest in expanding the Big 12 into the “fourth time zone” to establish a truly national conference and increase the value of the league’s media rights. The arrival of BYU this summer will bring the Big 12 into the Mountain Time Zone. Yormark wants more, although he has always said that any additions must be additive and not dilutive.

“I don’t think any of us are trying to dismantle the Pac-12,” Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades told SicEm365 on Tuesday. “If there’s an opportunity, and when their TV media deal comes to fruition and if those institutions decide it’s not good for them, the Big 12 will be ready. And that’s probably as simple as I can put it.”

Yormark is also deep in discussions with Gonzaga, but sources involved in the process indicated he wants clarity on the Pac-12’s situation before making that move.

Since those expansion courtships began last summer, Yormark has been confident he can convince his targets that the future is brighter in the Big 12. He upped the ante by jumping the Pac-12 queue and reaching an early extension with ESPN and Fox in October which will make his members more money than they do now with Oklahoma or Texas. That deal will bring in a reported $31.7 million annually for each Big 12 member, setting a benchmark for the Pac-12’s deal.

As The Athletic reported last month, Kliavkoff has been met with lukewarm interest in the market. ESPN, Amazon and Apple are the only known suitors, and any deal would likely put the majority of the league’s events on an over-the-top streaming service. The AthleticRichard Deitsch reported that there is interest from Amazon in a weekly Pac-12 Friday night game, but that the two sides were “far apart” in February. And the Pac-12’s timing couldn’t be worse. Since last summer, networks have committed billions in future rights fees to the Big Ten and Big 12, and Disney’s cost-cutting CEO Bob Iger said in February that “we simply have to become more selective” in sports bidding.

Still, sports consulting firm Navigate’s modeling puts the Pac-12’s average annual value at $31 million per school, barely less than the Big 12’s new deal. Although the Big 12 has larger fan bases, Pac-12 games on ABC, Fox, NBC and CBS averaged 20 percent higher ratings than comparable Big 12 games (excluding both of the league’s departing members) from 2014 to 2021, according to data provided to The Athletic.

Several people familiar with Pac-12 board members expressed doubt that their schools would switch conferences unless it is for a significantly better deal. School presidents, not ADs, authorize transfer decisions, and the Pac-12 prioritizes academic and cultural fit more than most. Washington State President Kirk Schultz and Oregon State President Jayathi Murthy have both attempted to defuse the various rumors in recent interviews.

“There are many reasons for us to stick together. The various members of the Pac-12 understand that, Murthy told John Canzano. “All this talk about people running away and joining the Big Ten and Big 12 or whatever is just talk.”

Motivating these presidents to expand the Pac-12 has also been a challenge. They have not yet reached an agreement to invite San Diego State, SMU or other expansion candidates, said sources briefed on the discussions. Two summers ago, in the wake of the SEC adding Oklahoma and Texas, the Pac-12 board had a chance to welcome any number of current Big 12 schools — and passed on them all.

But circumstances have changed. Those sources believe that if Yormark can convince the leadership of two Pac-12 schools to join the Big 12, that could be all it takes to land all four and pull the conference apart.

Yormark must make Fox an equal partner in expansion. CBS Sports previously reported that the Big 12’s new rights contract includes an agreement with ESPN on a pro rata clause, but that Fox has not committed to one. ESPN got 63 percent of the new TV deal with the Big 12, sources briefed on the deal confirmed. Fox had to opt out of the Big 12 and add Pac-12 schools as full-share members.

Yormark strongly believes that basketball is undervalued in these TV rights negotiations. He has hinted at interest in separating it from football and selling those rights separately when the Big 12 hits the market in 2030-31. That’s one motivation behind the Big 12’s continued talks with hoops powerhouse Gonzaga. Joining as a non-football member would mean a smaller revenue share for the Bulldogs, but they would undoubtedly be a valuable addition. Arizona, a top-10 program with more Pac-12 titles than any school except for Big Ten-bound UCLA, will similarly boost the best conference in men’s college basketball and its long-term aspirations.

“I think we have an opportunity to monetize basketball in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Yormark said in an appearance on the Wilner & Canzano podcast last month. “It’s certainly something I think about. So if the opportunity ever exists where, within the construction of what makes sense for expansion, as part of that, we could double basketball and further cement our leadership position, that’s certainly something I’m willing to consider.”

On the Pac-12 side, a critical moment in that process could come next week, at the conference’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Las Vegas. The advertisers in attendance want clarity and hard numbers. Kliavkoff took those rights to the open market in October. Almost five months have passed. On February 13, Pac-12 presidents issued a joint statement emphasizing their unity and promising that an agreement would be completed “in the near future.”

There is no official deadline, but every day this negotiation process increases anxiety and perhaps vulnerability. As the saying goes in the sales world: Time kills all deals. What ultimately matters is the deal Kliavkoff can deliver for his members in the weeks ahead. If that’s insufficient, Yormark and the Big 12 are ready to pounce.

(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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