Larry Scott has CU Buffs, Pac-12 peers playing the long game. But will they win?

Editor’s note: Part of a series looking back at CU’s decision to join the Pac-12 a decade ago.

Larry Scott is banking on the long game.

Banking that a pot of gold, in the form of media dollars, will be landing in the laps of the CU Buffs and their Pac-12 peers as soon as 2023. Or 2024. All he asks is that conference members keep hanging in there, keep gripping to that ledge. Even as the coronavirus threatens to take an aluminum bat to each finger.

“Our primary focus right now is on the (COVID) crisis in front of us, and the health and safety of our student-athletes,” Scott, the Pac-12’s commissioner, told The Denver Post recently. “But more broadly, we’ve been very focused on (any) short-term and long-term efforts we can make to put our schools in the best position possible to financially compete.”

Which was a problem even before COVID-19 wrecked the sports landscape.

Colorado received approximately $32.2 million in revenue distributed from the Pac-12 for the 2019 fiscal year, according to a USA Today report from this past July. But that number is dwarfed by what former Big 12 peers Nebraska ($55.6 million) and Texas A&M ($45.3 million) received from the Big Ten and SEC, respectively, during that same period.

And the numbers for 2020, given the impact of the coronavirus, aren’t expected to be kind, either.

With the failure of the Pac-12 Network to deliver as promised over the past decade, and conference football teams rarely making a national imprint, Scott has come under increased pressure within league circles. Not helping his case is the fact he’s the highest-paid commissioner in college sports, making upwards of $5.4 million a year — a number Scott argues is justified by his dual roles as both the conference’s commissioner and chief executive of the Pac-12 Network.

Making matters worse from a public relations standpoint is that Scott green-lit $4 million in performance bonuses for himself and other league executives after the pandemic hit, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Those came before a second round of furloughs and layoffs that affected roughly half the employees at the league’s San Francisco headquarters, decimating both the conference’s digital team and the Pac-12 Network. (Some of the furloughed employees have since been brought back to prepare for the basketball season.)

Of course, Scott has never been shy about compensation. Or ambition.

It was the former professional tennis player and chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association who announced, 10 years ago, that the then-Pac-10 would consider expanding to 16 schools. The conference eventually plucked CU from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West in June 2010.

Nearly a year later in May 2011, Scott helped shepherd a 12-year, $3 billion broadcasting rights deal with ESPN and Fox — the largest deal of its kind at the time for a collegiate conference.

But as bright as the future appeared then for Scott, the Pac-12 and its TV plans, it didn’t take long for dark clouds to form on the horizon.

Pac-12 Network troubles

There are two cardinal sins for a CEO: overpromising and underdelivering, both of which happened with the Pac 12 Network.

The network was birthed in July 2011. About five months later, Scott signed an 11-year lease on a 70,000-square-foot space of pricy downtown San Francisco real estate to house the network and league offices.

While the Big Ten Network partnered with FOX and the SEC Network with ESPN, Scott opted to run and distribute the Pac-12 Network independently — a decision that to date has backfired. At its 2012 launch, the league promised a reach of 48 million homes. The best estimates are that it’s actually seen in fewer than 20 million homes nationwide.

Despite Scott repeatedly touting the channel’s independence as a strength, few are buying that line anymore.

“No media company wanted to partner with the Pac-12 (at the outset) … we weren’t wanted,” a league official told the Oregonian recently, asking for anonymity to protect their job.

Fast forward a decade later, and Scott still has yet to reach a distribution agreement with DirecTV, which reached 16.3 million homes in 2019. The channel was also dropped from AT&T’s U-verse in December 2018.

League athletic directors were told the Pac-12 Network could bring in as much as $3 million to $10 million in annual revenue per school, according to a 2019 investigation by the Mercury News’ Jon Wilner. But that figure had only maxed out to $2.67 million as of 2018, according to league sources in the report. Moreover, internal records showed network revenues from 2014-2018 added up to just $9.7 million total for each conference member, and that’s without subtracting what schools needed to pay in order to buy back local broadcast rights.

More recently, the conference’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has come under scrutiny, as the league followed the Big Ten in canceling its fall football season in early August, then backtracked a month later after the Big Ten did the same. Scott called the conference’s deal with Quidel Corporation — one he did not reveal to athletic directors prior to announcing the partnership — to implement daily testing a “game changer.” But two weeks into the coronavirus-shortened season, four games have already been canceled.

“I don’t know how Larry Scott still has a job, I really don’t,” ESPN/SEC Network commentator Paul Finebaum said. “He’s become a punch line. I don’t know exactly how much of the lack of success for (Pac-12) programs across the board can be laid at his feet. But there’s a lot of it, surely, that can be laid at his footsteps.”

Wrong kind of attention

Scott’s salary, and reported $2.5 million bonus this year, has drawn the wrong kind of attention for a league that consistently underperforms in relation to its Power 5 peers in the two biggest revenue sports — football and men’s basketball.

So, too, does the cost of the league’s headquarters and network, which were rented for $6.9 million in 2019, with another $11.7 million deferred. By comparison, the Big Ten reportedly pays $1.5 million and the SEC $1 million for annual rent at offices in Rosemont, Ill., and Birmingham, Ala., respectively.

None of which helps the commissioner exude much sympathy from the Buffs’ fan base. Alex Passett, president of the Forever Buffs Kansas City alumni club, provided a simple example of the frustrations he and other CU alums feel, especially if they live outside the league’s footprint. Passett said only three sports bars in the greater Kansas City region, a market with a population of 2.34 million, make the Pac-12 Network available for game-watch parties.

On a scale of 1-5, with “5” being best, the CU alum said he’d grade Scott’s performance “as a 2.”

“And it really boils down to the fact, for 10 years, CU has been promised money, and fans and alums have been promised DirecTV,” Passett said. “And neither thing has been delivered.”

Scott, meanwhile, continues to preach patience. The Pac-12’s current broadcast deals expire in 2024. Cable-and-satellite services that haven’t embraced the league have also been hemorrhaging subscribers as fans increasingly turn to streaming services. The conference has contracts with two such providers, Sling and fuboTV, and has had talks with digital giants such as Amazon and Facebook in regards to future media rights.

“Long-term, we feel we’re very well-placed with all our television rights coming up in 2024, and the value of college sports — football and basketball in particular — continue to rise,” Scott said. “Long-term, we feel very, very good about our competitive position.”

CU fans will believe it when they can see it. And just like with the Pac-12 Network, it’s easier said than done.

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