An unofficial deadline is just three weeks away
It has been 360 days since the Pac-12 presidents authorized commissioner George Kliavkoff to “immediately” begin negotiating a media rights deal and 137 since they expressed hope for a resolution “in the very near future.”
Evidently, the presidents think in geologic time, where the “very near future” means sometime this century.
There is still no media deal, no decision on expansion and no hard evidence suggesting the endgame is nigh.
Instead, there are only crumbs, clues and hints that the Pac-12’s existential crisis soon could be coming to a close.
Today, on the anniversary of USC and UCLA announcing their intentions to enter the Big Ten on Aug. 2, 2024, the Hotline presents a summary of the situation and predictions for the outcome.
The survival odds
Our current forecast views Pac-12 survival as a 4-point favorite over Pac-12 extinction, suggesting a 60 percent probability (approximately) that Kliavkoff will negotiate a media contract that keeps the 10 remaining schools together.
That line has held steady since Arizona president Robert Robbins and Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano publicly stated their willingness to wait for a final offer before possibly pursuing futures in the Big 12.
If presidential panic isn’t a factor, the conference has a better chance to navigate the crisis.
However, the survival line has fluctuated over the past year and could move again in the coming weeks, depending on circumstances.
The (unofficial) deadline
If desired, the Pac-12 could delay consummating a media deal for months and gamble that a stellar football season will generate big ratings and drive up the price of its content.
But that’s a risky strategy.
The informal deadline for a deal is July 21, when players and coaches will gather in Las Vegas for the Pac-12’s preseason media extravaganza.
If there’s no media rights agreement by then, the existential crisis will dominate the proceedings and divert attention from the coaches and players — a PR nightmare, in other words.
We would interpret that scenario to mean Kliavkoff has been unable to secure a satisfactory deal, and the odds for Pac-12 survival would drop.
But make no mistake: News could break at any point. The situation is highly fluid.
The valuation calculation
The Hotline initially expected the Pac-12 to sign a media deal that averaged $35 million to $40 million per school per year.
But the Big 12 changed the marketplace in October. Desperate for stability, the conference renewed its agreements with Fox and ESPN and established a valuation floor: $31.7 million per school per year.
We expect the Pac-12’s deal to last five-to-seven years and fall within 10 percent of the Big 12’s valuation, indicating a low end of $28.5 million per school and a high end of $34.9 million.
And frankly, slight differences in annual media revenue are immaterial to success for schools that have $100 million annual budgets.
(The Pac-12 has better media markets and the two most valuable football brands, Oregon and Washington. Meanwhile, the Big 12 has a deeper well of quality programs and a better basketball product. But in general, the leagues are more alike than different.)
One important piece to the valuation calculation: Will the Pac-12 agreement include the sale of its data and statistics to sports gambling companies? And if so, how significant is the accompanying dollar figure?
The media partners
Few topics have received as much attention over the past year as ESPN’s interest level in the Pac-12 without USC and UCLA providing direct access to the L.A. market.
Our view is unchanged: The interest is narrow but deep.
The most influential network in college sports probably doesn’t want a large package of Pac-12 football games. After all, it has plenty of inventory through its contracts with the ACC, SEC and Big 12.
But what it needs from the Pac-12, it needs badly: Content to fill the late broadcast window (7:30 p.m.), which is prime time for the 76 million residents in the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones.
The late window is also critical in the rabid (and rapidly growing) sports wagering industry — a chance for gamblers to recoup losses from earlier in the day.
ESPN licenses 22 regular-season games from the Pac-12 under the terms of the agreement signed in 2011. We expect the number in the next contract to be approximately the same.
Our favorite for the other 50-something games that currently air on the Fox and Pac-12 Networks? That would be Apple, with its growing interest in streaming live sports.
And don’t discount the potential for a third media partner — perhaps it’s Amazon, Fox or NBC (for streaming on Peacock) — to grab a small package of Pac-12 games.
The expansion decision
There are three possible answers to the membership question: The Pac-12 could stand on 10; it could add two schools; or it could add four.
We have yet to detect strong interest for 14 and remain skeptical that a 10-team conference would include enough TV homes and generate enough game inventory to meet the desired valuation threshold.
(Simply adding two schools would increase inventory by 13-15 home games per season, with each worth several million dollars in the media contract.)
The overwhelming favorites are San Diego State and SMU, although they carry very different profiles.
The Aztecs are a geographic fit and just reached the NCAA Tournament championship game.
SMU brings the Dallas media market and is a long-haul play competitively, with the resources to support football success.
In our view, no other school clears the bar — at least not now.
If the Pac-12 is back at the negotiating table in five or six years for the next media contract cycle, there could be other expansion options.