On July 1, 2021, former MGM Entertainment executive George Kliavkoff officially took over the position of Pac-12 Commissioner. After more than a decade under Larry Scott, Kliavkoff seemed like a breath of fresh air for a conference in dire need of change, but he was a newcomer to the world of college sports who inherited a to-do list a mile long. From a struggling conference network to a lack of success in major revenue sports, declining national relevance and sagging revenues, Kliavkoff had his work cut out for him. But that’s exactly where Kliavkoff feels the most comfortable.
“I’ve made a career of parachuting into difficult, tumultuous situations,” Kliavkoff told John Canzano in a recent interview. “Different times in my career I’ve been in the middle of chaos. I’ve been successful in those.”
It’s been less than a year since he took the position, but Kliavkoff has already made a couple of major moves. Last August, the Pac-12 joined the ACC and Big Ten in an alliance, partly to combat the growing national influence of the SEC. In March, the conference announced plans to forego permanent headquarters, planning to leave their current location in San Francisco by next year. In May, he announced that the conference would do away with their current division format for their championship game, instead pitting the two best teams regardless of location against each other.
While those are all important steps, Kliavkoff is also laying the groundwork to help navigate one of the most chaotic times in college sports. Kliavkoff has been a vocal supporter of playoff expansion and helped lead the conference into the NIL era by meeting with congress to find consistent federal regulations. But he knows there is more change on the horizon. With the gap between the have’s and the have not’s only getting wider, there is even more uncharted water to wade through in the near future.
“At the end of the day,” Kliavkoff continued in his interview with Canzano, “we’re running into free-market tensions that we’ve not seen before. I think you have this natural tension. Should college athletics operate as a free market? Or operate as a subsidization model? We’re going to have to find some happy middle ground.”
But, of course, Kliavkoff’s most public test comes in year two. As I talked about last week, the Pac-12 is in the process of re-negotiating their media rights deal. The new contract won’t start until 2024, but the deal should be announced sometime within the next year. Current partners ESPN and Fox are obviously going to be contenders, but streaming platforms are more willing to buy TV rights than ever. Apple’s $250 million deal for full MLS rights is the perfect example of that.
Will the Kliavkoff keep the status quo on linear TV? Will he change the game and go all-in on a direct-to-consumer model? Will we see a mixture of both? What will happen to the inventory of games on the Pac-12 Network? These are all big questions that will determine whether the Pac-12 changes course or continues its downhill slide.
We’ll have to wait for a final answer to all of there questions, but Kliavkoff gave us a hint during his interview with Canzano.
“All of the direct to consumer services — Apple being one of the dozens — are potential bidders,” Kliavkoff said. “It’s more likely than not that our Tier 1 rights, the biggest of our football games, will continue to be distributed on linear television. The balance of our rights, the content that often sits on the Pac-12 Network, is likely to be distributed on a combination of linear and digital players.”
Kliavkoff has done a lot right during his first year as the Pac-12’s leader, but the conference still finds itself in a hole. Things seem to be trending up, but his first big test is right around the corner, with plenty of other tests following close behind. Only time will tell if Kliavkoff can answer those calls and help the Conference of Champions find its footing once again.
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