George Kliavkoff’s first year as Pac-12 commissioner included the onset of name, image and likeness, the expansion of the SEC, the creation of the alliance and the chaos of the transfer portal.
Yet as Bill Murray’s character Carl Spackler told the Bishop in Caddyshack when the skies opened: “I don’t think the heavy stuff will come down for a while.”
Kliavkoff has received high marks for his accomplishments, both internally and as the public face of the conference, but two momentous issues remain unresolved.
The early years of his tenure will ultimately be judged by the outcome of College Football Playoff expansion and, especially, negotiations on a new Pac-12 media rights agreement.
Both matters should be resolved in the next 12 months.
The Hotline recently spoke to Kliavkoff about his first year in office — it began July 1, 2021 — and his objectives for Year Two.
— Does the first year feel like one month or 10 years?
Both, which is an indication of how crazy it’s been. In some instances, it feels like it began yesterday. And in some cases, it feels like a decade-long slog.
— Is there an event, an issue or a decision that stands out?
We worked behind the scenes for months to get a rule changed with the NCAA to allow conferences to change how they determine which teams play in their football championship game. We convinced our coaches, our athletic directors and our board (presidents and chancellors) of the reasons we should make the change.
As a result, when the NCAA announced the change in policy (on May 18), we were able to make our announcement six minutes later.
It wasn’t that important a decision in the grand scheme. But the concept of us taking the lead, having the vision to get the rule changed and doing all that preparation work — for me, I hope that signals a new approach that the conference will have with football and everything else.
We want to be a leader in college athletics.
— Having worked for so long in the private sector, what are your impressions of college athletics within the higher-education space?
College athletics is unique, and there are aspects that I’ve had to get used to. I’m used to working in the free market, where almost everything is dictated by dollars and cents. But college athletics operates in a subsidy model.
There are three tiers where we have massive subsidization.
On one tier, at the campus level, the revenue from football and men’s basketball subsidizes the investment in the other sports, and there’s good reason for that. I’m not being critical of the model.
Then, in every conference, you have schools with bigger (TV) ratings and larger and more affluent alumni bases, and they are subsidizing the smaller-resource schools.
Then the third tier is the NCAA, where the most highly-resourced conferences subsidize the rest. That balances the competitive environment so you have a situation like St. Peter’s beating Kentucky (in the NCAA Tournament).
And I think what’s happening is that model is bumping up against people who want to take a fresh look at intercollegiate athletics with the free market as their signpost. The result is a tension between the subsidization model and the free market model.
There’s also a really interesting tension within the NCAA, where you have rules that drive toward parity and you have mechanisms that are also driving toward stratification between the haves and have-nots.
— Every new job has its challenges. Most of them are known ahead of time, even if the specific outcome is uncertain. But have you encountered anything totally unexpected — something that could be described as an unknown unknown?
I underestimated COVID, the decisions that were made during COVID and how it all has negatively impacted our ability to compete. The fact is that it will take us a couple years to climb out.
These were decisions made to deal with local governments and decisions by the conference to not play games. We were in an interesting spot in that there is a liberal lean in many of the Pac-12 states, but those states took a conservative approach to COVID.
I think it’s improper to think there isn’t a COVID hangover in all of our sports. And I anticipate it will last another few years.
You saw it during the football season.
— Do you sense alignment between the conference office and the campuses?
It’s better than I thought.
I credit the athletic directors and the board (presidents and chancellors) — they have all been actively engaged and have come to the table willing to make decisions based on what’s best for the conference.
We have collaboratively organized in a way that allows us to best help each other. It has been very strong, which isn’t necessarily what the reputation had been.
— What is on your to-do list for Year Two?
The priorities I announced a year ago haven’t changed.
The first is being No. 1 in supporting student-athletes.
Then, winning championships in football and men’s basketball and taking every step at the conference level to make that more likely. You saw an example of that with the change in how we determine which teams play in our football championship, and I think we’re seeing renewed investment from the campuses.
I like the trajectory we’re on there.
Also, I want to return to our position of dominance in women’s and Olympic sports in the post-COVID years.
And, lastly, is optimizing for our media rights.
— Media rights negotiations are expected to begin later this year for a contract cycle starting in 2024. How much time do you spend crafting strategy and preparing for the discussions?
My actual work on media rights is probably a couple hours each week, although I anticipate that will increase into the fall and winter.
But in terms of how I think about media rights, it’s the filter through which I make every decision.
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