Larry Scott has Pac-12 poised for future. What lies ahead?
Larry Scott helped Pac-12 line up luncrative television deal with ESPN, Fox
Former tennis executive says BCS conferences can't create level playing field
Business mindset keeps Scott aware of bottom line in conference dealings
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott accompanied his league's football coaches to New York this week for a two-day preseason media tour. The itinerary included stops to Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But he managed to sneak in some business, too.
On Wednesday morning, a room full of executives and lawyers representing the conference and four different cable companies haggled over the details of an elaborate plan four months in the making. By 5 p.m., Scott was standing at a press conference in Chelsea, announcing a finalized deal for carriage of the newly created Pac-12 Network and six regional networks (in Northern California, Southern California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and the Mountain regions).
"[The cable deal] is a truly unique one-of-a-kind initiative to create exposure that's unprecedented for Pac-12 programs," Scott said in announcing the deal.
"Unique" and "one-of-a-kind" have been recurring mantras the past two years as Scott, a rare outsider among mostly lifelong college administrators, has repeatedly bucked convention in overhauling the once-sleepy conference. The former professional tennis executive was hired in 2009 to modernize the league and negotiate better television contracts. Just over two years later, the Pac-10 is the Pac-12, ESPN and Fox are teaming up to provide the richest rights fees for any conference in the country ($3 billion over 12 years), and, starting next season, the same league that once prompted Cal to install a Slingbox in its stadium in order for fans to watch a league road game will be able to televise all football and men's basketball games. Mission accomplished.
Scott is not the first commissioner to land a lucrative television deal, but he's the first to convince two purported competitors (ESPN and Fox) to team up and split the inventory. And while Jim Delany was the unquestioned trendsetter in launching the Big Ten Network, Scott's unique arrangement with the three most dominant cable companies in Pac-12 markets (Cox, Comcast and Time Warner) as well as a fourth, Brighthouse, is that the network(s) won't face the same distribution battles the BTN, The Mtn and now The Longhorn Network have endured. (Deals with satellite providers like DirecTV may be another story.)
To top it off, the league retained 100 percent ownership.
"The game-changer here is we got a conference network, but essentially, each of our schools -- with their rival school in their state or market -- has their own network too," Scott told SI.com on Thursday. "It's kind of the best of both worlds."
The point here is not simply to heap praise on Scott. His league is not without warts. For one, its most prestigious program, USC, is dealing with massive NCAA sanctions, and its reigning two-time champion, Oregon, is currently under investigation. Pac-12 football is enjoying a golden period (the conference garnered two BCS berths last season and a pair of Heisman finalists last season), but basketball is in the dumps (seventh in Conference RPI last season). And Scott's attempted land-grab of the vulnerable Big 12 last year left permanent scars in certain parts of the country.
But his nonconformist, outsider's mentality happens to be exactly what college sports could desperately use right now, and it leads one to wonder: What's next?
While plenty of work remains in implementing the league's new television deals, for the most part, Scott has checked off all of the highest-priority items on his initial to-do list. "Now I can take a breath a little bit," he joked. "Maybe focus on some longer-term goals."
Obviously, most of those goals concern his own conference. But after a year full of off-the-field controversy and pay-for-play debates, Scott, like his five BCS power-conference colleagues, has an eye on the greater landscape. "I do feel strongly we need some serious reform inside the NCAA," he said, and on that he's certainly not alone. Last week SEC commissioner Mike Slive laid out his National Agenda for Change at his league's Media Days. The Big Ten's Delany said Thursday that college sports' current governance "could probably be described as a system established in the '50s and stuck in the '70s." The ACC's John Swofford and Big 12's Dan Beebe have issued similar calls for change.
But unlike Scott, all of those commissioners rose up through college administrative ranks, either at the NCAA, as athletic directors or as smaller-conference commissioners. In fact nearly all the key figures currently involved in "modernizing" college athletics -- whether to change academic requirements, increase the value of scholarships or overhaul the enforcement process -- have themselves been doing things the old way their entire professional lives.
What college sports could really use is a good outside consulting firm, but short of that, Scott may be the closest thing. Unconfined by career-long rituals and relationships, he seems less attached to -- and more cynical of -- college sports' governing body.
"My biggest worry is that the NCAA is incapable of making major changes," said Scott. "The nature of the bureaucracy and the mindset of some people is incrementalism -- like turning a thoroughbred into a camel through the legislative process. That's the biggest risk to the NCAA.
"It's a really interesting thing to watch. I haven't been around [college sports]. I listen a lot and I learn a lot from the other commissioners who grew up through the system. They understand the process and the policy a little better than I do. But I've got the benefit of coming from the outside and saying maybe there's a few things you're a little too close to, that maybe I can look at objectively."
Scott said he's extremely supportive of new NCAA President Mark Emmert, who recently proclaimed: "We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient to meet [the current] challenges." Emmert has organized a Presidential Retreat for Aug. 9-10 that will include 50 university presidents from around the country (as well as four conference commissioners and four athletic directors). However, the attendees include everyone from Mississippi State to Molloy College -- and to Scott, that's part of the problem.
"If it were just the six [BCS] conferences we're talking about, I wouldn't have any worries about our ability to affect change," he said. "But ... there's been this notion that one size has to fit all -- the so-called even playing field, competitive equity. If that continues to be the mindset, the NCAA will not be able to evolve in a way that's satisfactory."
With comments like those, you can't help but wonder whether Scott might be the guy who eventually leads the radical push so many have long surmised: For the six most powerful conferences to break away from the NCAA.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," he said. "I hope [Emmert] and the presidential leadership are able to recognize that we're at a crossroads. They've got to let the system be responsive to where the attention is and where the issues are.
"... Is anything affecting the image of college athletics -- when you read about the cloud surrounding college sports -- involving any school outside of the six conferences? It's out of these six conferences that these issues are being caused, and we're the ones that need to be responsive -- whether it's cost of attendance or treating student athletes a little bit more fairly to different kinds of enforcement rules to academic reform."
It's not what the Sun Belt or the Big Sky want to hear, but it's become an increasingly common sentiment among the Big Six. College football has reached the strange, paradoxical place it stands today in large part because the vast majority of college administrators would like to keep pretending the sport is not a business. For most, in fact, it's a very unprofitable business.
Scott, on the other hand, is a quintessential businessman. The fact he can drum up $3 billion for his conference or launch seven different television networks in an afternoon only reinforces the fact his conference (and the Big Ten, SEC, et. al.) is operating in a completely different industry than the vast majority of NCAA members.
"I'm certainly hopeful there will be a recognition at the presidential level at this upcoming retreat that one size can't fit all if the NCAA is going to be a relevant and effective organization going forward," he said. "We're either going to be allowed to address these things in a more nimble and responsive way, or, because of the structure of the NCAA, we're not going to be able to.
"Then we'll have to see where that leads to."
In two years, no one's successfully predicted any of his Pac-12 initiatives. If the day comes, we'd certainly be curious what his vision for an NCAA alternative might be.
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