The Pac-12 Conference, which started in 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference and donned a bunch of names over a successful century of Western teams playing games with one another, is dead.
After USC and UCLA exited for the Big Ten last summer, and after Colorado headed for the Big 12 last month, the conference took on additional water on Friday: Oregon and Washington, the Pac-12’s biggest remaining fish, joined their Los Angeles counterparts in the Big Ten. The Big 12 Conference is now also adding Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah, news that broke just minutes after the Pacific Northwest schools decided to join the Midwest. The future is deeply murky for the biggest schools left in the Pac-12 now, Stanford and Cal in the Bay Area. And it looks only grim for two of the quirkiest and most fun programs in college football: Oregon State and Washington State, who are losing their blood rivals (Oregon and Washington) to another league but aren’t getting the call to decamp themselves. The specifics will fall into place in the days ahead. The big picture is already a bleak one.
The degradation of the Pac-12, and now its imminent outright death as anything like what it has always been, is a college sports tragedy. In some part, this moment is a natural destination for a train that left the station decades ago and will run over more of college sports’ nice old things in the years to come. But what has happened to the Pac-12 wasn’t inevitable and certainly didn’t need to unfold as quickly as it did. What college sports fans know as the Conference of Champions is at death’s door because of cold, hard capitalism, yes, but also because the people in charge of stewarding the Pac-12 were the wrong mix of arrogant and incompetent.
College sports has been transmogrifying into a made-for-TV product since the mid-1980s, when the Supreme Court stripped the NCAA of its top-down control of football television rights and left teams and conferences to make their own agreements. As one cycle of gigantic TV deals has given way to the next, the Pac-12 has slid into a more pronounced disadvantage against its peers in the South and Midwest. College football is a religion in the Southeastern Conference’s footprint and in much of the Big Ten’s, though the latter now covers both the parts of the country obsessed with football and the parts that are not. The Big Ten and SEC have lucrative TV networks of their own that they run in partnership with ESPN and Fox, and the leagues sell the rights to broadcast their games—their inventory, in industry parlance—for hundreds of millions of dollars. The financial edge of the big two leagues cost the Pac-12 both UCLA and USC in a realignment move to the Big Ten last summer, and the same edge has now cost them Oregon and Washington to render the Pac-12 unrecognizable. When those schools left, three others fled in response to the Big 12, and suddenly, it was all over. The Northwestern Big Ten entrants might only get half the money of a normal Big Ten member, but that will be more than they were likely to get if they had stayed in the outgunned Pac-12. Someone might look at the TV cash disparity and conclude the Pac-12 never had a chance to survive.
But the Pac-12’s predicament is worse than simply not being able to compete financially with the Big Ten and SEC. The world was big enough for the league to survive in a reasonably strong form anyway, as a secondary but still powerful conference with a distinct Western identity. The reason the Pac-12 is instead finished is that its leaders messed up repeatedly and gruesomely until they couldn’t blow it anymore.
The presidents of the Pac-12 schools committed their original sin when they hired Larry Scott, a pro tennis executive, as commissioner in 2009. Scott was a college sports outsider whose value proposition was that he understood the intersection of sports and media and would steward the league through a complex business environment. Scott was severely Silicon Valley–brained. He wastefully moved the league’s headquarters to the Bay Area. He called the league’s presidential board “the Pac-12 CEO Group,” because business. And most critically, he launched a collection of conference TV channels, the Pac-12 Networks, that became a commercial flop as Scott failed to secure adequate distribution deals. The failure was the Pac-12 schools’ to bear alone, because an overconfident Scott did not partner with an established media company like Disney or Fox. Worse, the conference channels had absorbed valuable football game rights that the league could’ve sold to other media companies for lots of money. Over a bit more than a decade running the Pac-12, Scott pocketed more than $50 million himself, and it’s not clear for what. On his way out the door in 2021 (not exactly a firing, but maybe a gentle pushing out), Scott blamed turnover among the league’s presidents for the league’s struggles in his 11-year tenure. Maybe that was fair. The presidents, at least, were the ones who empowered Scott as he steered the Pac-12 toward the rocks.
Scott’s successor in the commissioner’s chair is George Kliavkoff, another outsider whom the league hired away from a job leading sports and entertainment for MGM Resorts. Kliavkoff inherited a hard job and did it poorly, and because of the timing, it was his errors that arguably sealed the conference’s fate. Kliavkoff may have never had a chance to prevent the defections of USC and UCLA, but he was jarringly aloof about the possibility of their exit within about a year of him taking the helm. In the summer of 2021, a few months into the gig, Kliavkoff got the Pac-12 into “the Alliance,” a three-way partnership with the Big Ten and the ACC that appeared, even at the time, to stand for nothing. A reporter asked if the partnership included a vow that one league wouldn’t take schools from the other, and if there was any paperwork associated with the deal. “We’re aligned in how we want to approach this, but there’s no contract, there’s no signed document, and there doesn’t need to be,” Kliavkoff answered. The Big Ten siphoned USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 less than a year later. We’ll never know if a slightly less credulous commissioner would’ve had any shot at retaining them. At any rate, the Alliance died young.
But Kliavkoff’s gravest bumble, one committed on a teamwide basis with his school presidents, came afterward. The Los Angeles–deprived Pac-12 still needed to sign a new set of media-rights agreements to keep itself together beyond 2023, when its current deals will expire. Kliavkoff’s job was to keep the league’s remaining schools united while he found and negotiated a deal. But the conference has been an organizational mess throughout that process. The Big 12 pushed forward its own renegotiations with ESPN and Fox, securing a new deal in the fall of 2022. The Pac-12 found itself as the only power league without one of those agreements to hold itself together, and the schools’ presidents spent basically all of this year offering mixed messages on when the league would have a resolution. Kliavkoff stressed patience, saying on July 21: “The longer we wait, the better our options get.”
That was not, apparently, a good read of the situation. An antsy Colorado left for the Big 12 less than a week later. Kliavkoff presented a low-dollar Apple streaming deal with incentives to his bosses after that, and now the conference has lost the plot entirely. The Pac-12 had been in a much better position than the Big 12 after that conference lost Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC in 2021. As the Big 12 began to lob leaks and innuendo in the Pac-12’s direction in the summer of 2022, hoping to shake loose a school or four who might help the Big 12’s recovery, Kliavkoff projected confidence. “We haven’t decided if we’re going shopping there yet or not.” Now the shopper is the guy having his storefront robbed.
Some businessmen doing bad business did not kill the league on their own. The demography was a challenge from the start, and the Big Ten always lurked as a destabilizing force that preferred to pretend that it was anything but. That league started the Pac-12’s crisis when it took the two L.A. schools, and it hastened things this week as it suddenly decided to open its arms to Oregon and Washington. It’s all just business, of course, but the Big Ten has tried to sell it as something else: a reluctant going-along with things outside its control. “We don’t want to be destructive,” someone in the league told ESPN on Thursday. But after dousing the Pac-12’s house with gasoline last year, the Big Ten did indeed light a torch and throw it on the ground this week. It was an especially sanctimonious way to reduce a smaller competitor to ash.
All of this adds up to something a little less severe than the death of Western college football, because the teams involved will keep playing games. Fans will keep tailgating, their lives mostly unaffected by how much TV money their alma maters are raking in. But the reduction or demise of the Pac-12 will have serious costs. It could end either the Washington–Washington State rivalry known as the Apple Cup or the Oregon–Oregon State game that they used to call the Civil War. (The departing schools say they’ll prioritize maintaining those games, and we can only hope that stays true forever.) It will weaken the geographic distinction in a sport that used to see provincialism as a feature, not a bug. And it will pit schools against teams they share no history or animus with, in an 18-team Big Ten (at least) where some teams will go years without playing one another. They’ll all be richer. There is no guarantee that they, or anyone else, will be happier.