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The Fall of the Pac 12

Credit: Pac-12

The Pac-12 was originally founded in 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) with member institutions including University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington, University of Oregon, and Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State). Eventually, the conference became the Pac-8 in 1968, then the Pac-10 in 1978, expanding again in 2011 to become the Pac-12 we know today. The conference currently includes University of Arizona; Arizona State; University of California, Berkeley (Cal Berkeley); University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Oregon (Oregon); Oregon State University; University of Southern California (USC); Stanford; University of Utah; University of Washington; and Washington State.

From its inception, the PCC succeeded athletically, especially on the football field, while also earning recognition for the academic excellence of its member schools. Following its 1978 expansion, the Pac-12 (then the Pac-10) received national attention and success when USC, UCLA, and Washington won national championships. The Pac-12 has won 553 national championships since its foundation, which is 200 more than the next conference.

After becoming the Pac-12, the conference signed a historic media deal with ESPN and Fox in 2012. The twelve-year deal was one of the most lucrative TV contracts in college sports at the time, paying the member schools $2.7 billion over the life of the deal and providing national exposure for the teams. Despite the size of the deal, the west coast conference struggled to attract a national audience because of the time zone disparity. High-scoring Pac-12 football games would often run past midnight on the East Coast, making it difficult to garner the viewership and media exposure typical of the Eastern time-zone games. The length of the deal also proved to be a downfall. Each of the other four Power Five leagues negotiated a more or equally impressive media deal at some point during the twelve-year agreement.

The ESPN and Fox broadcast deal is set to expire at the end of the upcoming athletic season, and a new agreement would begin before the 2024-2025 seasons. But leading up to the negotiations, members of the Pac-12 began to look elsewhere. In August, Oregon, University of Washington, USC, and UCLA announced their departure from the conference for the Big Ten at the start of the 2024-2025 season. Colorado Boulder’s announcement that it would be leaving for the Big 12 hastened Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah’s departure to the same conference.

The outbreak of announcements leaves just Oregon State and Washington State in the Pac-12, as Cal Berkeley and Stanford accept a deal to enter the ACC.

Proposed Apple Deal

Prior to the mass exodus that has turned the Pac-12 into the Pac-2, there was a media rights deal on the table from Apple. Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff presented the deal early August to the member schools. Kiliavkoff presented the Apple offer five days after Colorado’s departure to the Big-12. This offer, from Apple, was the first presented to the conference since USC and UCLA announced plans to join the Big Ten over a year ago.

Apple’s proposal was streaming-centric. The universities would receive incentives upon subscription quotas met, and the offer allegedly stood at $20 million per school annually. However attractive the deal may look, the Pac-12 would still earn over $10 million less than the Big 12 per year. The Apple deal would also create a model where the Pac-12 pushes subscriptions to Apple TV+ in an industry that lacks stability.

“If the Pac-12 was an added $15 package to the base Apple TV+ platform, one industry source said the streamer would need a million new subscribers for the deal to make sense. The ‘incentive’ part of the offer means Pac-12 schools would earn more annually as the league passes various subscription thresholds.”

Regardless of the projected growth of Apple TV+ subscribers, Apple currently accounts for 1% of all video minutes consumed across all platforms. The lack of viewer accessibility and high cost to stream Pac-12 conference games diminished the attractiveness of this deal. Subsequently, the Pac-12 could not land a media rights agreement with Apple TV+, and teams continued to jump ship. Thus, the Pac-12 remains the only Power Five conference to not agree on a deal through at least the year 2031. However, in lieu of the Pac-12’s dismantlement, Washington State and Oregon State turn to the court for answers.

WSU and OSU File Suit

On September 8, 2023, Kirk Schulz, president of Washington State University (WSU), and Jayathi Murthy, president of Oregon State University (OSU), along with their respective universities filed suit against the Pac-12 in Washington Superior Court. WSU and OSU assert a breach of bylaws claim against the Pac-12 and commissioner Kliavkiff, and they demand a temporary restraining order (TRO) to “preserve the status quo.”

Kliavkoff scheduled an “unauthorized” board meeting where board members from all twelve schools will discuss an employee-retention and conference governance plan. The conference constitution and bylaws state, “once a member school gives notice of withdrawal, it loses its spot on the conference’s board of directors.” WSU and OSU remain the only schools that have not departed the Pac-12, thus the schools argue that the board meeting, inviting all twelve schools to vote on important conference issues, is a clear conflict of interest. WSU and OSU further assert “a school set to join a competing conference should not have a voice on negotiations of media rights deals and other ventures, when its allegiance is shifting to a rival that competes for ‘media rights deals, viewers and student athletes.”

Generally, it is difficult to obtain a TRO. Judges consider a TRO an “extraordinary remedy” and “demand a showing of irreparable harm—harm that money can’t remedy.” WSU and OSU assert that irreparable harm would occur because a board vote would be “hopelessly conflicted” and lack “incentive to expend the resources that will be needed to retain employees and partners, recruit new members, and take other steps that would be necessary to sustain the Pac-12 after 2024.” The universities also assert that the board meeting would likely further affect recruitment of new member institutions.

In response to these assertions, the team of lawyers the Pac-12 has retained are expected to take the position that the concerns are speculative, premature and not ripe for judicial review. The issues take on another layer of conflict because a potential dissolution of the Pac-12 will lead to further litigation. The dissolution, like any other corporation, will trigger the dividing of assets and liabilities. The Pac-12 might feel as though the lack of voting power for member schools on board issues might cause future litigation regardless; and the conference constitution explicitly states that a majority vote is required, in which all members are needed for a quorum.

Future of the Pac 12

The Pac-12 is forced to be creative in determining the fate of the conference as fans once knew it. Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports are reporting a possible merger with the Mountain West Conference “in some capacity.” The creative aspect would emulate the conference style of European League soccer, including relegation and promotion.

It would establish the Pac-12 and Mountain West “as separate entities that are partners with eight teams each.” Keeping with the European-style analogy, The Pac-12 would act as the ‘Premier League’ in which the top 8 teams compete to stay in the Pac-12. Each season the bottom two institutions would relegate to the Mountain West, and the top of the Mountain West would be promoted to the Pac-12.

“We have to think differently,” said one Mountain West athletic director who wished to remain anonymous. “We’re always trying to fit things in a box and we are always late to the party. How do we get in front of this?”

Ross Dellenger with Yahoo Sports warns that this system is simply a thought right now, and many challenges lie ahead, beginning with the financial breakdown of OSU and WSU as the only remaining teams in the conference. Dellenger also states that “the first step is to figure out if the two programs keep their automatic qualifying bids in NCAA championship tournaments besides football, and get revenue from the College Football Playoff for each league/division.”

Dellenger also stresses that “preserving two separate conferences is maybe the most important part of this concept.” The Pac-12 currently has two teams, and the Mountain West includes twelve, hoping to add two more teams (citing both South Dakota and North Dakota State as top candidates).

In regards to media deal rights in a relegation/promotion style conference, Dellenger warns of the potential issues that could occur if divisions vary in amounts paid for media rights.

This is where the real problem lies," said one conference administrator. With relegation, budgets will change, dipping by as much as $3-5 million a year. That’s an issue for athletic directors in annual budget projections. There must be a balance struck in the base distribution that allows for annual budget projections.”

“If a school is getting $15 million this year, they budget for $15 million next year,” said the conference official. “Well, if we are relegated, we can’t do that.”

While the Pac-12 has a potentially long road ahead to enact a new conference structure, they must continue to be inventive in order to survive.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


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