Larry Scott defends Pac-12’s shaky year, eyes future changes
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott did his best to put a positive spin on his conference’s shaky year.
At best, the Pac-12 had a down year, struggling in the revenue-generating sports while taking consolation successes with titles in smaller NCAA championships. At the worst, the conference fell even further behind its Power Five rivals, both in competitive and financial success.
“There are different ways to measure success in college sports,” Scott said, snuggly wearing his salesman’s cap during Wednesday’s Pac-12 Media Day. “The scorecard we think matters, and that I know our university presidents and athletics directors care about most is academic and athletic excellence across all sports.
“By this measure, we’re achieving unmatched success.”
But money, bowl records and championships in football and men’s basketball matter, too — to many, more than anything thing else. By those metrics, the Pac-12 is behind.
It left Scott with a lot of topics to cover in Hollywood.
Football, basketball postseason failures
When it mattered most last year, the Pac-12’s teams didn’t come through. Twice.
For the second time in four seasons, the league didn’t send a football team to the four-team College Football Playoff, a blow on its own. Then, the nine Pac-12 teams that did qualify for bowl games imploded. They combined for a 1-8 postseason record, Utah as the only winner.
There was deja vu in March. Only three Pac-12 teams qualified for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Two (Arizona State and UCLA) were saddled with First Four games. Both lost. Then Arizona, the league’s controversial champion thanks to FBI investigations, was demolished by Buffalo, a mid-major seeded nine spots below the Wildcats, in the first round.
That was it. The Pac-12 was three-and-done in March.
Even so, Scott claimed the conference was building a “strong base.”
“Much was written and discussed about our bowl record last year,” he said. “From our perspective, a handful of season-ending games are not a key indicator of a conference’s overall strength and competitiveness.”
Perhaps. But the Pac-12 combined for just one bowl or NCAA Tournament game win. The rest of the Power Five: The ACC won 22 combined games, the Big 12 won 17, the Big Ten won 16, and the SEC won 13 (and a football national championship).
Though it was just one down year, that’s a massive gap, a crack not easily papered over.
Scott pointed to success in other sports as a counterbalance to the conference’s scales: “The total number of Pac-12 Championships now stands at 513. We’ve led the nation in NCAA titles for 13 straight years, 17 of the last 18 years, and 52 of the last 58 years.”
But when it mattered most, his conference’s most important teams in college athletic’s most important sports didn’t come through last year. A repeat of failures this season could be catastrophic.
Revenues and the Pac-12 Network
Complicating matters for the Pac-12 isn’t just that it lags behind other Power Five conferences in success in the big sports. The league is trailing its competitors in revenue, too.
According to public college athletic departments’ revenues for fiscal year 2017, Pac-12 schools are just raking in the same amount of dough as their peers.
No Pac-12 schools cracked the top 10 in the country in revenue last year. Oregon (which made over $145 million) was the conference’s lone representative in the top 20. More concerning, three league members (Utah, Oregon State and Washington State) were among the five lowest-earning Power Five schools in the country.
A common culprit for the Pac-12’s revenue struggles: The Pac-12 Network.
The league’s network is unique in the college athletics landscape. It is the only such network wholly owned by its conference and not in some way affiliated with a larger national TV network.
Scott illustrated this fact as a strategic advantage over the long haul.
“We’ve got full control of our rights and content, which preserves the flexibility we need to adapt to this rapidly changing media landscape and provides the freedom to experiment with new technologies, and ultimately will allow us to maximize our values long term,” Scott said. “Because we, along with most analysts and experts, believe the value of premium sports rights will continue to increase.”
However, right now, that business model is putting serious limitations on how many dollars Pac-12 schools can make.
Jon Wilner, author of the Bay Area News Group’s Pac-12 Hotline, has reported on this topic in-depth and as recently as June wrote, “The situation, as it appears, should be deeply concerning for Pac-12 schools … The Pac-12 Networks, however, aren’t providing nearly the same return to campuses as comparable ventures in the other conferences.”
Wilner indicates that by fiscal year 2020, the Pac-12 projects will generate and distribute the least amount of TV revenue to its schools among the Power Five conferences.
Asked directly about Pac-12 Network revenue streams on Wednesday, Scott circled back to the fact that the Network has been used as a vehicle for the conference to become more successful in all sports.
“The original purpose of our TV network is very mission-based,” he said. “The main purpose was to provide a platform and exposure that previously didn’t exist. So we have 850 live events per year on that network, more than any other college conference network.
“We own and control it ourselves, which gives us flexibility to prioritize those things that may be important one year to the next, in addition to the 850 live events, most of which are Olympic sports, we invest in that because that’s the priority for our campuses.”
The future of the game
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision this year to allow states to legalize sports gambling, Scott was pressed on how betting will impact the conference.
The commissioner used the conference’s relationship with Las Vegas as an example of how to navigate potential pitfalls. The conference hosts its men’s basketball tournament in Sin City each year and sends a football team to the Las Vegas Bowl on an annual basis as well.
Scott said that because of the strict regulations the state of Nevada has put in place, gambling has been a non-issue for these events.
“There is a great infrastructure and regulations around gaming in Nevada and a relationship we’ve been able to have with them to monitor any issues that are a potential concern that have given us confidence that we haven’t had significant issues or problems,” he said.
Scott’s worries moving forward are that, without federal oversight on gambling, not all states that adopt sports gambling laws will institute such unwavering rules.
“We are supportive of the NCAA’s efforts with the NFL and others to advocate for national legislation restrictions and standards around this area,” he said. “Because my first and foremost concern is protecting our student-athletes, those around our programs, and the integrity of the competition.”
Gambling questions have sparked discussion around another new idea, too: standardized injury reports in college athletics. Some pundits have suggested NFL-style injury reports would be necessary if gambling becomes law to preserve fairness and transparency. Unknown injuries to star players, after all, could have serious ramifications on betting lines.
Scott pushed back against this idea on Wednesday.
“It’s a complex issue, and one we’re going to have to spend more time thinking about and studying,” Scott said. “But we don’t default to injury reporting like the NFL does it as making sense, necessarily, for college sports.
“There are some fundamental differences. These are students living amongst other students. They’re not living in a cocooned bubble the way professional athletes might. There are certain federal laws regarding privacy related to health issues, not just physical health issues, but the mental health issues.”
He wasn’t alone.
Earlier in the day, Stanford coach David Shaw said he “would not be comfortable” with injury reports, adding, “I coached in the NFL for nine years, and there is a stark difference between working with professionals and working with college kids. I do not feel right giving out medical information of a 19-year-old. I think it’s wrong in any way, shape or form. If there’s something the young man and his family wants to release, that’s up to him. It’s his health.”
Another former NFL coach and player, ASU’s Herm Edwards, also saw faults in the idea.
“As a former player, you like to look at the injury report of your opponent because if a guy had a sore shoulder and he was going to play, guess what? (Are) you going to ask him does his shoulder hurt? No. You’re going to hit him on the shoulder, right? So I think as good as we want to be forthright with letting (people) know people’s injuries, you kind of put the player in a bad position if he’s going to play, right?”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly, another veteran of the NFL coaching ranks, was more on the fence.
“I really don’t care,” he said. “I know it’s a big question, and I know it’s about gambling, and they don’t want to say it’s about gambling, but it’s about gambling. So if you want to support gamblers, tell them who is injured. If you don’t, don’t tell them who is injured. Maybe they’ve got to figure it out on their own. But there’s been gambling everywhere.”