Ask any Pac-12 fan about the league’s TV contracts over the last decade and you will invariably hear some or all of the following complaints:
- Late kickoff times
- Six day windows
- The Pac-12 Network is impossible to find
- The schools are falling further and further behind in revenue.
Well, pretty much everything.
Second-year commissioner George Kliavkoff is facing immense pressure to improve the situation with the league’s new contracts beginning in 2024, especially after U.S.C‘sand UCLA‘s announced exits for the Big Ten. With the Big 12 openly pining to add Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah, he needs to land something that will pay more—preferably much more—than the Big 12’s new ESPN/Fox deal reportedly worth $31.6 million a year per school starting in 2025.
Multiple people with knowledge of the discussions have told The Athletic they believe the dollar range Kliavkoff has been seeking — believed to be north of $40 million per school — is unrealistic. But now, we may have a hint at his strategy.
And it’s a risky one.
Sports Business Journal reporter John Ourand, the most plugged-in reporter out there when it comes to sports TV deals, recently put out his annual predictions for 2023. Here’s what he had to say about the Pac-12 (emphasis mine):
“ESPN will be prepared to split the Pac-12’s media rights with Amazon, but will not offer the conference significantly more than it pays for the Big 12. That will lead the Pac-12 to sell almost its entire media package to Amazon for a price that is slightly higher than what the Big 12 gets from ESPN and Fox. The Pac-12 will carve out a handful of prime-time football games that it then will sell to CBS.”
It’s long been reported that Kliavkoff has been talking with Amazon, but putting nearly all its games on a streaming service — and none on ESPN — would be unprecedented in college sports. Though Amazon now has a weekly Thursday night NFL game, and the Big Ten starting next year will have a small package on Peacock, both leagues still air all their biggest weekend games on broadcast networks.
Are fans prepared to subscribe and tune into a Saturday afternoon Oregon-Washington game on Amazon? Will the league regret ditching ESPN over money if that day truly comes? There would be numerous pros and cons to such a deal.
Pro: No more 10:30 pm ET kickoffs?
Fans on the West Coast hate night games. Coaches do, too, both because they get home in the middle of the night from away games and because they know most of the East Coast isn’t watching them. shaper Stanford coach David Shaw believed 10:30 pm kicks cost Christian McCaffrey the 2015 Heisman.
There’s no conceivable reason Amazon would need to show games late at night, because there are no “windows” in streaming, and they could probably announce kickoff times further in advance. It’s long been believed ESPN would want to keep its Pac-12 After Dark package because those games do get good ratings (they averaged 1.62 million viewers this season), but not if ESPN isn’t willing to pay a premium for them.
Con: No more casual viewers?
People have found their way to Amazon’s Thursday night NFL games so far, for an average 9.7 million a game, per Nielsen, more than double anything on “regular” TV on Thursday nights. But it’s also the only NFL game on Thursdays. If you’re someone looking to watch pro football, Amazon’s game is your only opportunity that night.
Whereas there are 30-40 college games on broadcast and cable networks on a typical Saturday. If No 10 Washington is playing no. 17 Colorado on Amazon on a Saturday, fans of those teams will make a point to tune in, as might other Pac-12 fans — but it could be out of sight, out of mind for the rest of the country. Fans who might have otherwise tuned in for a bit while flipping between games on ESPN, ESPN2, etc., might not bother logging on to a separate app for the Pac-12 game.
Pro: A prime-time game on CBS? Sounds great
Ourand’s story is the first suggestion I’ve seen about possible Pac-12 interest from CBS, whose only college football properties come 2024 will be a weekly 3:30 pm ET Big Ten game, Army–Navy and a few Mountain West games. A 7:30 pm ET Pac-12 game coming out of that 3:30 pm Big Ten window would be a great exposure opportunity for the conference and makes sense for CBS given ABC (SEC, ACC or Big 12), NBC (Big Ten or Notre-Dame) and possibly Fox (Big Ten) will have their own prime-time Power 5 games.
Con: No more Chris Fowler/Kirk Herbstreit? Sounds less than ideal
the Big Ten’s decision to split from ESPN After four decades together led to questions about whether the conference might receive the network’s “NHL treatment” in the form of fewer SportsCenter highlights and GameDay visits. Time will tell, but it seems highly unlikely ESPN would ever stop caring about chronicling huge brands like Ohio State, Michigan other Penn State.
The Pac-12 is another story. GameDay doesn’t take many trips west as it is; what if it no longer has rights to the games? Also, this season, ABC featured Pac-12 teams in its marquee prime-time package three times, which means it spent the whole week promoting those games during other broadcasts. There that would go as well.
Pros: A much wider universe than Pac-12 Networks
It’s been a source of endless frustration for Pac-12 fans that many of their teams’ games air on a conference network that is available in fewer than 15 million homes — far less than SEC Network (51 million), Big Ten Network (48 million ) or the ACC Network (42 million).
Amazon blows them all away. The company said more than 200 million Amazon Prime subscribers streamed a movie or TV show on the service in 2021. Anyone, anywhere in the world could watch an Oregon State–Washington State football game or a StanfordOregon State baseball game. It’s hard to say who would be more thrilled: a Washington State fan who lives in Zurich, or a Pac-12 softball coach with a recruit in Iowa.
Con: A much smaller viewing universe for basketball
Though this column mostly focuses on where the conference’s five football games a week will air, there are hundreds more men’s and women’s basketball games, many of them currently on an ESPN network. Last weekend alone, ABC aired a Stanford-Tennessee women’s game, and ESPN or ESPN2 aired five Pac-12 men’s and women’s games.
If the Pac-12 actually cuts ties with ESPN, it could be devastating for this sport in particular. Perhaps most of the schools won’t care so long as the checks clear, but hoops powerhouse Arizona for one would be incredible.
Pros: More money, more money, more money
Since day one, Kliavkoff has acknowledged the central tradeoff at the root of these negotiations: money vs. exposure. But money may have jumped a couple of steps ahead on the priority list with the two Los Angeles schools leaving. Estimates suggest the conference’s TV value dropped by as much as 40 percent without them.
But Kliavkoff has not backed down from saying the next deal will “close the gap between us and the Big Ten and the SEC.” As of today, that gap could be massive — the Big Ten’s new deal with Fox, CBS and NBC has been valued at north of $70 million a year per school. If ESPN isn’t offering much more than $30 million, then he may feel it’s imperative the league take a richer deal from Amazon.
Con: … It’s not that much more?
Notice that Ourand’s exact wording for the Amazon piece is “a price that is slightly higher than what the Big 12 gets from ESPN and Fox.” Slightly higher. Though an athletic director trying to balance his budget is not going to thumb his nose at an extra, say, $4 million a year, it’s not exactly game-changing. TV money is hardly the only revenue source for schools, and in fact the bump they will receive when the new 12-team College Football Playoff takes effect could be considerably more than that.
But … this is a negotiation. Ourand is making his prediction based on his current intel, but a month or two from now perhaps ESPN comes back to the table with a more palatable offer. Perhaps Fox carves out a piece, too.
Or perhaps Kliavkoff has overestimated the value of his league’s properties and is about to sign a deal that’s marginally more lucrative than the Big 12’s but comes at the cost of several million fewer Oregon-Washington viewers.
(Photo of George Kliavkoff: Kirby Lee / USA Today)