Story by Jon Wilner
LAS VEGAS — For the 10th consecutive season, the Pac-12 Networks will broadcast dozens of Pac-12 football games. Some will start before just lunch; others will end just before midnight. A few might pack lofty stakes and high drama.
For the 10th consecutive season, none of them will be available on DirecTV.
There isn’t much chance for a deal with DirecTV next season, either. Or the season after that.
Nor is there any reason to expect a reduction in the frequency of Pac-12 night games.
Or the number of six-day selection windows for ESPN and Fox, which leave kickoff times uncertain until the week of the game.
All the logistical sources of campus consternation and fan frustration that have existed for the past decade remain in place for 2021.
George Kliavkoff has changed the tone of the conference and even some policies in his two months on the job. But he cannot change the TV deals.
He cannot rewrite the terms of the Tier 1 contracts with ESPN and Fox to make them more fan-friendly, and he cannot craft new Pac-12 Networks carriage fees that are more palatable to DirecTV.
He’s a commissioner, after all, not a wizard.
“Unfortunately, the deals that were done for (Pac-12 Networks) distribution kind of put us in a box and preclude us from extending the distribution until we renegotiate those rights,’’ Kliavkoff said.
“We’re talking to DirecTV, and we talk to all the distributors. But I don’t see an immediate path, given the current deals we have, to getting there before the time of renegotiation.”
Those renegotiations are expected to begin late next year and could conclude by the spring of 2023. But changes to the Pac-12 Networks and Tier 1 agreements probably won’t take effect until the 2024 football season.
Kliavkoff was named commissioner in the middle of May and assumed command on July 1. He’s well aware of the frustration over night games, six-day selection windows and Pac-12 Networks distribution. The conference’s wholly-owned media company has approximately 14 million subscribers — about one-fourth the total of the SEC and Big Ten networks.
But Kliavkoff also believes the Pac-12 Networks are judged unfairly when it comes to content and production.
“There’s a distinction between the quality and quantity of programming and the distribution of that programming,’’ he said.
“In my opinion, the Pac-12 Networks produce as fine of college content as anyone, and the amount of programming we produce is far beyond the amount that any other college network is producing.
“We are producing 850 live events a year. The next nearest competitor is 517. So we’re lapping the competition in the production of that content and, I believe, in the quality of that content.
“Where we are falling short is the distribution.”
There is one escape hatch, but prying it open might require a miracle: Kliavkoff could ask the Pac-12’s broadcast partners to revise the terms of the distribution contracts before they expire in the spring of 2024.
And ESPN and Fox might very well agree. After all, they own exclusive negotiating rights and could, in theory, use the opportunity to secure Pac-12 inventory at below-market rates for a decade to come.
But there’s a catch in that request: Kliavkoff wants no part of below-market rates.
He wants the opposite: An open-market, multi-bid feeding frenzy for Pac-12 content.
His vision is based on the NFL’s broadcast model, which features five partners: FOX owns the NFC games; CBS has the AFC games; and separate packages exist for NBC (Sunday night) and ESPN (Monday night) and Amazon (Thursday night, with FOX).
Kliavkoff wants something comparable for the Pac-12. But in order for the conference to enter into negotiations with any potential new partners before the current contracts expire, ESPN and Fox must be willing to relinquish their exclusive rights.
“I like the NFL model, where you have more than two distribution companies invested in all of your sports and distributing your sports,’’ Kliavkoff said.
“And today, for our biggest sports, we have ESPN and Fox. They have been great partners, and I’m sure we’re going to continue to have them as partners. But renegotiating early would have to be under the rubric of having the ability to add more partners to our distribution palate.”
Never say never … except maybe in this case.
“I can’t discuss what ESPN and Fox would have to agree to,’’ he added.
There is a second component to Kliavkoff’s media strategy: In addition to adding broadcast partners, he wants to increase broadcast flexibility — not only for football but also basketball.
The Kliavkoff era is all about prioritizing College Football Playoff invitations and NCAA basketball tournament bids. He has stated as much (numerous times). The athletic directors have agreed to it (on more than one occasion). And the fans are clamoring for it after years of being told the Pac-12 values championships in the Olympic sports as much as championships in the major sports.
Within the push to maximize postseason opportunities is weighing media revenue against media exposure and creating a flex-scheduling component for the best teams in any given season.
“All of our media rights are a balance between revenue and exposure, and that’s a real balance and a difficult balance,’’ Kliavkoff said.
“If you want as much revenue as you can get, you’re going to give up some exposure. The obvious example of that is night games. If you’re willing to play games that start at 7 or 8 p.m. West Coast time, you’re going to get paid for that because we have the only schools in the Mountain and Pacific time zones in the Power Five … People want to put a big-scale football game on at that time.
“The flip side is that you lose exposure in the Eastern and Central time zones. That’s the trade-off.
“What I want to create is flexibility for the conference, where we can have more flexibility to do what we need to do late in the season to benefit our teams that have a chance of making the NCAAs in basketball or, in football, getting a CFP invitation.”
But with the flex scheduling, as with other key elements to Kliavkoff’s strategy — not to mention DirecTV and night games and six-day selection windows — change is likely years away.
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