A lucrative TV deal, CFP invites and the rest of the to-do list for George Kliavkoff's Pac-12

by Ricardo Gutierrez - As George Kliavkoff approaches his first anniversary as Pac-12 commissioner, ESPN spoke to university presidents, athletic directors and coaches about the past year and the most critical goals remaining for the conference.

Where the Pac-12 stands after one year under commissioner George Kliavkoff, and what's next 7:00 AM ET Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer Close College football reporter Joined ESPN.com in 2007 Graduate of Indiana University Last June, less than a month before his first official day as Pac-12 commissioner, George Kliavkoff was shadowing outgoing commissioner Larry Scott at the Big Ten offices in Chicago during one of the most significant discussions about expanding the College Football Playoff. The former media guru with no prior collegiate experience posed for a photo with the 10 acting FBS commissioners -- what he later called the #CFPClassPhoto . Scott was the only person in the picture he had met before. Optimism ran high. "Over the next month," Kliavkoff told ESPN this week, "I think there was a general assumption that everything would be approved as recommended." It would be his first real exposure to the inner workings of the sport. "It seemed extremely collegial," he said, "but of course I had not yet become aware of all of the machinations about how the CFP works." One year and over a dozen CFP meetings later, playoff expansion remains on hold, leaving the Pac-12 in an all-too-familiar place as it braces for four more years in a four-team field. But under Kliavkoff's leadership, decision-makers throughout the Pac-12 are bullish about the future of their conference. A new and improved television deal looms, a critical component as the Big Ten and SEC take steps that are sure to separate them as the wealthiest in all of college athletics. Earning more CFP berths and attracting the most lucrative television contract possible are the long-term goals, but Kliavkoff's first year has been focused on how the conference office can better position its teams more immediately. The Pac-12 is scrapping divisions and building new scheduling models that reinforce traditional rivalries and ensure all players face every team in the league -- home and away -- with more frequency. Editor's Picks Pac-12 preview: USC, Utah bring plenty of intrigue 37d Bill Connelly Pac-12 preview: Can anyone make a run at Oregon in the North? 30d Bill Connelly 2 Related Kliavkoff has also made a public and private push for university presidents to invest in their football programs -- as USC did when it ponied up to hire Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma in late November. And behind the scenes, Kliavkoff is working to find more ways beyond the media rights deal to generate revenue while also trimming millions in expenses at league headquarters. And of course, there's the matter of making the CFP. The Pac-12 champion has been excluded from the playoff six times in eight seasons, posting a 1-2 record and no national titles. "We're trying to pull all the levers we can to optimize CFP invitations in the four years that we're going to be stuck at four teams in the CFP," Kliavkoff said, "and then we'll reevaluate all of those decisions once the CFP expands." Kliavkoff, a longtime media executive who had no college sports experience when he was hired, inherited a mediocre league as college athletics faced unprecedented change. His approach is often blunt, and his business savvy stands in stark contrast to Scott, who was criticized not just for the underwhelming performance of the Pac-12 Network, but also for his exorbitant salary and corporate expenses as the competitive gap between the Pac-12 and the college football elite grew. "I think George has done an outstanding job in the first year," Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. "When you step back and look at all the things we're talking about -- a unique time in college athletics with all that's going on -- and he stepped into it right as it was all beginning." Ultimately, Kliavkoff will be judged on how lucrative a television deal he can secure and if he can keep the Pac-12 with a respectable range to the Big Ten and SEC. As he approaches his first anniversary as commissioner on July 1, ESPN spoke to university presidents, athletic directors and coaches about the past year and the most critical goals remaining for the Pac-12 -- including, quite simply, increasing winning. The Pac-12 champion has been excluded from the playoff six times in eight seasons, posting a 1-2 record and no national titles. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports The USC effect USC's bold hire of former Oklahoma Sooners coach Lincoln Riley was applauded by many as a significant upgrade not only for the struggling program, but also for the entire conference. Washington State president Kirk Schulz said league leaders have a better recognition of the importance of staying competitive with coaching salaries, maintaining national recognition with facilities and keeping five-star recruits in-state rather than aiming for a "single solution" or "magic bullet" when multiple areas were in need of improvement in the past. "I think a lot of us have been waiting for a while to say, 'Hey, that's a school in our conference along with Oregon that has a pretty deep set of pockets there if they want to choose to do that,'" said Schulz, who was on the three-person committee that hired Kliavkoff. "And I think hiring Lincoln Riley away from the University of Oklahoma was a pretty firm stand by one of our marquee programs to say that they're interested in reestablishing themselves as a national blue chip football program." USC continued to make waves, as Riley lured former OU quarterback Caleb Williams and star Pitt receiver Jordan Addison , along with former Oregon running back Travis Dye . Following more than a dozen transfers after Riley was hired, USC has morphed into one of the most improved teams in the country in a matter of months -- on paper, at least. (USC athletic director Mike Bohn declined to comment for this story.) Will such investments and efforts encourage other Pac-12 schools to bulk up? One fear is that while schools are not allowed to directly pay players to join their rosters, the unregulated industry of NIL could lead to a competitive imbalance. "I say the only two schools who have any shot in the Pac-12 of competing at that level are SC and Oregon: Oregon because of [Nike co-founder] Phil Knight and SC because of SC alumni," Arizona president Robert Robbins said. "What does that say about the Arizonas of the world?" Lincoln Riley has morphed USC into one of the most improved teams since his arrival. Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire Scheduling solutions In mid-May, just minutes after the NCAA allowed it, Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 presidents announced their decision to eliminate divisions in football, pitting the two teams with the highest winning percentages against each other in the conference title game. The change was made to immediately bolster the league's position in the selection committee meeting room this fall. In five of the past 11 years, divisions have prevented the Pac-12 championship game from featuring a matchup that included two teams with better rankings. In 2011 and 2012, for example, the conference title games would have featured Stanford and Oregon -- both ranked in the top 10 those two seasons -- had it not been for divisions, which allowed an unranked UCLA team and a 9-5 UCLA team to play instead of 11-1 Stanford and 11-1 Oregon. "We're doing everything we can at the conference level to make the product more sellable," Kliavkoff said. Stanford coach David Shaw said the SEC is able to "schedule in a more advantageous way" with only eight league games, while the Pac-12 often plays seven straight conference games without a break. At Pac-12 media days in July, the league is expected to announce another scheduling change relating to conference games, though the motivation is less about the Pac-12's place in the college football pecking order and more about simply correcting inequities that exist. "We're going to fix the in-conference football scheduling," Kliavkoff said, "and it's going to be focused on the two priorities of reinforcing rivalries and creating a better experience for our student-athletes by ensuring that they get to play home and away against every team in the Pac-12 at least every three or four years." There's an imbalance in the Pac-12's current scheduling model because of a conference rule requiring every California school to annually play every other Pac-12 school in the state. USC and Oregon have only played twice in the past five years, and USC has not played in Eugene since 2015 (partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic). Kliavkoff, who was instrumental in the formation of "The Alliance," which joined the Pac-12 with the Big Ten and the ACC in an unwritten partnership of "like-minded institutions," said he expects to see more from the group "related to how we schedule nonconference games longer term." The Pac-12, like most conferences, is also having serious discussions about whether it wants to move from nine league games to eight. The SEC was unable to come to a consensus on the issue at its spring meetings earlier this month. "We went to a nine-game conference schedule, to say it bluntly, to kind of try to help shame the other conferences to go and do a nine-game conference schedule, and that just didn't happen," Shaw said. "So if the other conferences are gonna stay at eight games, great, and let's give ourselves the flexibility of staying at eight games." While it's contractually possible for the Pac-12 to make the move during its current TV deal, it wouldn't happen without consultation with ESPN and Fox, which own the rights to many of those games. Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 would only move to an eight-game conference schedule if the replacement games were "more valuable in every aspect, more valuable to our TV partners, more interesting to our fans and players." There has already been some pushback from within the Big Ten. In February, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters the Big Ten athletic directors "walked away" from the idea of an eight-game conference schedule, but no decision has been made official. Regardless of the schedule format, the conference needs more success on the biggest stages. In the playoff era, the Pac-12 has the second worst record among Power 5 conferences in nonleague games, trailing only the ACC, which has been buoyed by perennial title contender Clemson . The league also has the Power 5's worst record in bowl games (23-32). As a result, Pac-12 teams have appeared in the AP top 10 only 129 times in that span, compared to 396 for the SEC and 305 for the Big Ten. It has a chance to change the narrative starting early this year, with Oregon facing defending champ Georgia Bulldogs in Week 1, while Washington hosts Michigan State and USC faces Notre Dame in the Coliseum later in the year. "We've got these marquee matchups that are out there, and you don't have to win them all, but you've got to win enough of them that people say, 'Hey, the West Coast is serious about playing football at the highest level,'" said Washington State president Schulz, whose team travels to Wisconsin this season. "Simply put," said Merton Hanks, the Pac-12's senior associate commissioner for football, "we just need to win some games." Stanford coach David Shaw said the SEC is able to "schedule in a more advantageous way" with only eight league games. Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports Finances and TV The financial reality is that the Pac-12's ceiling is third behind the Big Ten and the SEC, but the league's goal is to remain closer to them than the ACC, which is stuck in its television contract through 2036, and the Big 12, which is expected to take a sharp decline in revenue and look like a beefed-up version of the American Athletic Conference once Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC. The additions of the Big 12 co-founders are projected to bring the SEC an additional $60 million annually, which would boost the superconference's total revenue to an estimated $1.3 billion, according to USA Today. The Big Ten is on the brink of a record-setting TV deal worth $1 billion annually, starting in 2023, according to the Sports Business Journal. "Is [Kliavkoff] going to pull a rabbit out of his hat, and we're going to bypass the Big Ten? I don't think so," Arizona president Robbins said. "But if we can get into clear No. 3 as a point of money for each of our schools, then we'll have more to invest in football." Before taking over as commissioner, Kliavkoff had been serving as the president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International since 2018. He was the chief digital officer at NBCUniversal, where he led the company's corporate digital strategy in a role that eventually saw him become the interim CEO of Hulu in the streaming giant's early stages. He was also the executive vice president of business for Major League Baseball's Advanced Media. His hire now serves as a blueprint of sorts. On Wednesday, the Big 12 named as its next commissioner Brett Yormark , COO of Jay-Z's Roc Nation, who also has little experience at the collegiate level but spent nearly 15 years with Barclays Sports and Entertainment, including as CEO. "I think college athletics is changing, and it's changing at a pace that college athletics has never been used to previously," said Kliavkoff, who "ran in the same media circles" as Yormark and even worked on some projects with him. "My assumption is that the presidents and chancellors believe that getting a new perspective is healthy." Both are facing high expectations to secure media rights deals that will ensure their respective leagues financial security and additional exposure. The Pac-12's is up first. "This is the easy part of my job," Kliavkoff said. The current television contract runs through the 2023-24 school year, so contractual provisions have precluded Kliavkoff from starting negotiations with most of the league's potential partners until later this year or early 2023. Still, Kliavkoff said "dozens of companies" who are viable candidates for the league's Tier I, II and III media rights have already reached out to the league and expressed interest. "We will have multiple bidders for every tier of our rights," he said. According to the Bay Area News Group in March, the Pac-12 Network's national channel has an estimated 14.8 million subscribers, compared to likely more than 50 million subscribers for the SEC and Big Ten networks, which are partnered with ESPN and Fox, respectively. As disappointing as the Pac-12 Network has been to the conference, the league retains ownership of its live events. It is also making streaming options a priority in the next media deal. While locked into the current TV contract for now, Kliavkoff created the Pac-12 baseball tournament, as well as a softball tournament for next year, to help generate revenue. To cut costs, the Pac-12 is also working fully remotely. The staff of roughly 200 has an office space in downtown San Francisco with a lease that runs through the end of the year that Kliavkoff said costs the conference roughly $7.5 million annually. He plans to move to a smaller space for the television studio and estimated half a million dollars will return to each athletic department annually. "I think we're going to end up saving almost $6 million a year for the conference," he said. The Pac-12's financial report for the 2020-2021 financial year was a significant hit. Because of the pandemic, the Pac-12 said, only one of 35 football games scheduled for the conference-owned Pac-12 Networks was played, and the networks ended up with a $14 million operating deficit. Payouts for each school dropped from $33.6 million in 2020 to $19.8 million in 2021. By comparison, the SEC announced in February it generated $54.6 million per school during the same time frame, excluding bowl expenses. The ACC also fared well with the addition of Notre Dame as a full member for one season during the COVID-19 pandemic. The league distributed an average of nearly $36.1 million to its schools, including roughly $34.9 million to Notre Dame. "I don't know how you can argue with [the fact that] the center of power for college football resides in the SEC, with all due respect to the Big Ten and everybody else," Robbins said. "The television contracts are rewarding what people want to see on TV. "The question is how to crack the code," he continued. "I don't really know the answer to that other than I know you're going to need to invest more money. That's why the television deal is so important. Flat-out." George Kliavkoff said that the Pac-12 "will have multiple bidders for every tier of our rights." Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire The Pac-12 and the playoff The irony is that while the Pac-12 arguably needed expansion the most, it was one of three major leagues to vote against it in February, along with the Big Ten and the ACC. Kliavkoff said he would have voted in favor of expansion in February if he had known what the revenue split would be in 2026, and if there was protection for the Rose Bowl. Despite the controversial 8-3 vote, which left others stewing, there is an overwhelming sense of confidence at the highest levels of Pac-12 leadership that expansion will ultimately happen. "Expansion's coming," Oregon's Mullens said. "We know it's coming. It's just a matter of when." Kliavkoff said the FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick are reviewing the college football calendar and its rules. If they can figure out a way to keep the Rose Bowl happy, come to an agreement on automatic qualifiers and determine the revenue split beyond the 2025 season, expanding the field is not only possible but necessary, he said. "If you look back historically and say, 'Well, we created the CFP in a way where only four teams make the playoff, I think that has led to a greater stratification among schools, rather than the ability for more schools to have a legitimate shot at a championship," Kliavkoff said. "And I don't think it's good for college football. I don't think it's good for the fans. I don't think, long term, it's good for the television ratings. I think it's only good for those three or four or five schools that have been able to take advantage of that structure. "Every decision we're facing, you have to balance whether it's going to further create a system of haves and have-nots, or whether it will create a system where every school or every school in the Division I or the FBS has a shot at championships or not." After five straight playoff snubs and incremental changes over the past year under Kliavkoff, the Pac-12 will soon find out if it's got a shot.