Among the numerous deeds that ultimately doomed Larry Scott’s tenure as Pac-12 Conference commissioner was describing a few years ago his athletics organization as “a media company.”
That offended a lot of people who believed the Pac-12 was about sports. But on that point, at least, Scott was right.
Criticize him all you want for accepting bonuses for himself and other conference execs totaling $4 million last summer, a month before laying off or furloughing nearly half the Pac-12 staff. The man was tone-deaf on many other fronts too.
But there is no doubt that the athletics budgets for Pac-12 schools are predicated on being an entertainment company that flourishes only if they get their football and men’s basketball amusements distributed into as many or more homes/casinos/channels/tablets/phones than the competition.
All other priorities in a modern college-sports commissioner-ship are tied for last place.
Scott knew that. He just failed to execute.
The Pac-12 has fallen behind the other Power 5 conferences. Pac-12 schools in 2019 distributed $31.3 million in conference revenues per school, slightly more than the ACC before it launched its own network that year, but trailing the Big Ten ($51 million average) and the SEC ($44.6 million).
The deficit is likely to increase as schools prepare for the arrival of outside income given directly from companies and sponsors to athletes. Legislatures in three SEC states have authorized payments for use of players’ names, image and likenesses (NIL) as soon as July 1, unless federal legislation arrives beforehand with a national plan to be imposed on the NCAA.
Into the maelstrom to succeed Scott, who’s leaving with a year left on his contract, steps George Kliavkoff, 54.
It doesn’t matter that you’ve never heard of him, that he’s never been in college sports administration, nor that he was a rower at Boston University before becoming a lawyer.
What matters is he’s probably the smartest guy in any room when the conversational subject is sports media. In a couple of breaths Thursday during a Zoom webinar via the Pac-12 office, in which he introduced himself, he more or less explained why that is.
“I have a background in structuring complex media distribution deals, including an understanding of the ongoing transition from consumption of linear television models to digital,” he said. “I have built and run large-scale live events sponsorship, licensing and ticket sales operations, and I have an understanding of lobbying and other efforts necessary to address some of the biggest opportunities and issues facing college athletics today, including name, image and likeness, expansion of the College Football Playoffs, and sports betting.”
This is the sort of guy you want running a media company.
As for the athletics administration part — you know, where he has to defend in public the crappiness of the league’s football officiating? — his response to the question sounded as if he was planning to hire out for that.
“Stay tuned,” he said. Excellent delegation of responsibility.
His growing power in sports media was nurtured for a while in Seattle.
He worked for RealNetworks, founded by Mariners part-owner Rob Glaser, a former Microsoft exec who joined the local business group in 1992 behind Japanese national Hiroshi Yamauchi, which kept the franchise from moving to Tampa.
RealNetworks made a little sports media history when it became the first to live-stream a baseball game, Yankees-Mariners, on Sept. 5, 1995.
Kliavkoff joined RealNetworks in 1999 to help its client, baseball’s owners, expand their digital footprint. In 2000, they began MLB Advanced Media to help teams create their own websites. By 2003, Kliavkoff was hired away by BAM, as it became known.
BAM figured out how to stream live up to 15 games a day, complete with videos and stats. It became a sports-industry colossus. BAM took on clients including ESPN, Fox Sports, WWE, the NHL, and launched in 2014 HBO’s streaming service, HBO Now.
In 2016, Disney bought a 33 percent stake for $1 billion; a year later, it paid an additional $1.6 billion for a majority stake. All of the sale proceeds were pocketed by owners, who organized the company as a separate entity that could be sold independent of the pure-baseball business.
But Kliavkoff had moved on much earlier, in 2006, to NBC Universal Media as its chief digital officer. Upon his departure in November 2008, after staging the then-largest digital event in history at the Beijing Olympics, here’s what Jeff Zucker, now president of CNN Worldwide, said:
“George came to NBC Universal when we were nowhere in digital. We asked him to help us change the fundamental orientation of a traditional media company from an analog to a digital mindset. George did that, and did an outstanding job for us. Today, our digital properties are thriving across the company, and are now embedded in each of our divisions.”
Since then he has immersed himself in matters such as birthing the Hulu streaming serrvice, virtual reality, owning the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces — “I’m a believer in women’s sports,” he said — and most recently as president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International, with its 29 hotel/casino operations in the U.S. and Macau.
Besides what he knows, he differs from the sometimes-imperious Scott in how he learns.
“As commissioner, my leadership style is relationship-driven,” he said. “I’ve built long-standing relationships with nearly everyone I’ve worked with and negotiated against, across a 25-plus year career in sports, media technology and entertainment.
“Once I start in July, my intention is to go on a listening tour.”
One thing he’s going to hear is that Scott’s prized achievement, the Pac-12 Networks, a $3 billion,12-year deal that stunned the sports media world in 2012, is still not available in most cable households.
My guess Kliavkoff will say something like, “Cable? Are you kidding me? So 20th century . . . Watch this.”
I’m not sure what that will be. But I’m eager to see. Throw in a side of high-end football and basketball success driven by large outside money from NIL and gambling, and the Conference of Media Champions might be relevant again.