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What could Apple’s deal with MLS mean for the Pac-12?

Apple took another major step into the sports world on Tuesday. Could the Pac-12 be next in line?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 17 Rider at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

$250 million dollars a year. That’s the base of what Apple is reportedly paying Major League Soccer to broadcast every game the league plays between 2023 and 2033 on a dedicated channel within Apple TV. No regional TV broadcasts, no blackouts. Fans won’t need an Apple TV+ subscription, instead they’ll pay a separate fee for the MLS package.

While the MLS is reportedly still negotiating non-exclusive national TV rights with traditional cable networks such as ESPN and Fox, this is a big deal in the sports media landscape. With the agreement, MLS becomes the largest sports organization in the US to award nearly all of their rights to a digital outlet.

Now the question is: What does this mean for the Pac-12?

The conference is currently locked into a 12-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox that, at the time, was seen as a major victory. The contract was the largest ever struck by any NCAA conference when it was signed in 2011 and, when you consider that the league also stockpiled rights for their own privately owned network, it seemed like nothing could go wrong for the conference of champions.

Fast forward another decade, and the league is struggling to say the least. The once promising Pac-12 Networks have failed to find proper distribution and the other power five conferences have leapfrogged the league. One report says the Pac-12 makes $34.4 million per school per year for their media rights package, slightly ahead of the ACC and just more than $20 million shy of the figure pulled in by the SEC and Big Ten.

But the news isn’t all bad for the Pac-12. The league is preparing to negotiate new deals with their media partners. Their current deals expire in the summer of 2024, which means the windows to negotiate new deals are right around the corner. To help lead those discussions, the conference made a change at the top last year, bringing in former MGM sports entertainment executive George Kliavkoff to lead the way.

With so much of the conference’s inventory currently locked away on the Pac-12 Networks, an outlet hampered by well known distribution issues, it’s clear one of the major focuses during the next round of negotiations will be more exposure for the league. Kliavkoff seems to think that nothing is off the table to reach that goal.

“We’ll be able to take all that content and significantly increase the distribution of all that content. And I’m focused on that,” Kliavkoff said in a press conference last fall.

While national interest in the Pac-12 has seemingly waned, analysts believe the conference is sitting pretty entering their negotiation window. Jon Wilner of the Pac-12 Hotline projects that the league could bring in $600 million per season with their new deal, or $50 million per school. That figure would be more than double what they bring in now, putting them on par with the SEC and Big Ten.

John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal agrees with that assessment. Ourand points out that the Big Ten will be renegotiating their media rights just before the Pac-12, a schedule that could be beneficial to Kliavkoff and company.

“What’s especially working for the Pac-12 right now is all the interest in the Big Ten,” Ourand said on his podcast. “All of these people that don’t get that are going to turn their attention to the next big one up and that is the Pac-12, which comes up a year before the Big 12. Things are setting up nicely for the Pac-12.”

More good news for the Pac-12 is that there isn’t expected to be any lack of competition for their rights. As mentioned, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 are all entering the market within a three-year stretch. Of course, all three conference are going to be linked with their usual business partners, including current rights-holders ESPN and Fox, but other TV networks will be in on the fun as well. CBS (who is looking to replace the SEC game of the week after losing that to ESPN), NBC and Discovery (who recently completed a merger to take control of Turner networks, including TNT and TBS) have all been reported to be in the market for a deal ... and it doesn’t end there.

The past few years have seen digital outlets throw some big money to enter the sports media club as well and Apple’s $250 million per year MLS deal is just the tip of the iceberg. Apple is also giving MLB $85 million per year for exclusive Friday night baseball games. Peacock joined the MLB club with a $30 million per year deal to air exclusive Sunday games. The Universal-owned outlet is also home to Premier League soccer, NASCAR and other rights that overflow from NBC. Of course, Amazon Prime made a major splash last year landing a $1 billion per year deal to be the exclusive home of NFL Thursday Night Football. Netflix is also reportedly in discussion to enter the sports landscape as they compete with ESPN and NBC for rights to air F1 races.

Needless to say, the arms race is in full swing, and Apple could be the perfect partner for Pac-12.

The tech giant, and Silicon Valley neighbor of the Pac-12, has been connected to the conference of champions before. Back in 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two were in preliminary discussions for some kind of media right deal. Just a year later, our Michael Preston broke down another report liking Apple to the Pac-12.

A deal with Apple, or any other streaming giant, could mean big money for the conference of champions. But, would a move online be a good one for the Pac-12?

For a conference that already struggles with visibility, a move away from traditional powers like ESPN and Fox could make that issue worse. While more and more people are moving away from cable, there are still major advantages to getting coverage, and cross promotion, on the major networks. Making the move to Apple or Amazon could put the Pac-12 on an island of their own putting them even further out of sight and out of mind.

But while an exclusive deal might worsen their visibility issue, there’s always room for middle ground. Wilner says he can see the two sides making something happen.

How would you like to see these negotiations play out? Would you want the conference to move exclusively to a streaming platform like Apple TV+? Would you be willing to pay for the subscription, even if it had just one or two games per week? Which Apple TV+/WSU crossover would you rather see: Jake Dickert on Ted Lasso, Kyle Smith on Severance or Glenn Johnson on The Morning Show? Let us know in the comments below.

We should find out sometime within the next 18 months what the conference has decided. In the meantime, we play the waiting game.

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