WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- This is the story of how a tennis-playing, Ivy-educated history major with thinning hair is changing your life.
Not just your college sports-viewing life. Not just changing the former sleepy West Coast conference that was the Pac-10, or even college athletics. It's bigger than that. When Larry Scott leaves office as Pac-12 commissioner -- which may be sooner than later, judging by his swift, mind-blowing accomplishments -- his legacy will draft behind him like a comet's tail.
That was assured the moment he gathered the league's 12 presidents for a hastily arranged Sunday conference call on May 1. Three days later, iPad in hand, Scott announced a record 12-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox that represented a 250 percent increase in the league's rights fees.
|Larry Scott brought Utah into the Pac-10/12 fold to complete(?) the league's overhaul. (Getty Images)|
"He's truly been, and I don't use this word lightly, a transformative figure," according to Chris Bevilacqua, the league's TV consultant and Scott's right-hand man in the negotiations.
This is about a guy who sees to and beyond the Pacific Rim to revenue streams in China. Scott has determined that, for some reason, the Chinese love UCLA, to the point that there are 100 Bruins merchandise stores in the communist stronghold. Uck-luh the natives call it, pronouncing it phonetically.
"It's an aspiration brand to the Chinese," said Scott, relaxing on a couch of his office, which provides a three-sided view of the Northern California landscape north of San Francisco. "They have this kind of fantasy notion of the California lifestyle and U.S. academia."
There are a lot of fantasies out West at the moment. Chief among them: How far can this go? An industry source told CBSSports.com recently that when the still-to-come Pac-12 Network is on line, the league could be taking in $400 million per year. That would be a gross of $33.3 million per school.
That would lead to other, more ominous questions:
With all that cash, does the Pac-12 want merely to beat the SEC -- the reigning champ in revenue and football -- or does it want to be the SEC? That last assertion carries not-always-positive implications.
In essence, Pac-12 schools are now in the market to be able pay a big-name coaching free agent like Urban Meyer.
"They'll certainly have the wherewithal to do that," Bevilacqua said. "That's the way of the world now. The pace of change is stunning."
Will Scott even be around to enjoy the league's fortunes? He has become the ultimate fixer for bringing the Pac-10 out of the dark ages. He is seemingly able to write his own ticket: Pro league commissioner. Network executive. Olympics CEO. Major corporation head.
"How long he wants to do this is to be determined," said UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood, who was with Arizona when Scott was hired. "Larry's one of those persons who always has a challenge ahead of him."
The future makes the Pac-12 modern, relevant and sexy whether you're a school accountant drooling over the bottom line or as Hollywood as Steven Spielberg.
This is about one of the most influential persons in college sports -- ever. And you hardly know him. Cal AD Sandy Barbour was asked to consider who has done more, quicker, to alter the system since the marriage of college sports and television six decades ago.
|More CFB 100|
"I don't think there is a name to put in that blank," she said.
Perhaps Roy Kramer, the former SEC commissioner who brought the league into the modern age by expanding it, establishing a championship game and positioning it as the No. 1 college entity with sponsors and networks.
But even that took a period of years. Maybe Walter Byers. Within approximately a year in the early 1950s, the NCAA's first executive director grabbed hold of college football's television rights and established the association's enforcement arm.
Byers, though, lost traction in 1984. That's the year of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling that determined the NCAA was in violation of antitrust laws by controlling those college football TV rights.
Scott has emerged as the most powerful and significant benefactor of that 27-year-old decision to date. Without it, we would have no BCS. Without it, we would have no free market to make $3 billion possible. Without it, we would not have conferences aggressively remaking themselves in realignment to present the best possible package to TV bidders.
At its core, this is about broader exposure of what had become a well-hidden BCS league. Before the latest deal, Pac-10 schools were making $8 million to $9 million per year. Beginning in 2012, they will make an average of $21 million.
Before Scott, league presidents met once a year for two hours. When ESPN/Fox was going down, he was able to rally the 12 presidents on a Sunday night to finalize it. In the early days, former commissioner Tom Hansen used to take a bus from here to San Francisco to save money. Scott is a Town Car guy who rented a couple of G4s last year to shuttle players and coaches to New York for a media car wash.
There's nothing wrong with that. It takes money to make money. Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby found that out as chairman of the search committee. He was most impressed that as CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, Scott was able to assemble 45 tournaments scattered around the world, sponsors, agents and players and built a formidable business enterprise.
Sony Ericsson bought in with a six-year, $88 million sponsorship that shot the Harvard grad into the marketing superstar stratosphere. At the time it was the largest sponsorship in the history of women's sports.
But that history degree doesn't exactly line up with a career as an international marketer with the WTA for seven years. The former tennis pro got as high as the 200s in the world rankings, once winning a first-round Wimbledon match over former NCAA champion Greg Holmes.
"Better player than I was," Scott said, "but a terrible grass-court player."
From there, he moved up the ladder at the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), becoming its COO by age 30.
"He did some things that weren't intuitively likely," Bowlsby said. "He got equal prize money for the women at the Grand Slam events. You have to be a pretty good salesperson and negotiator [to convince] people who are not motivated to do it at all."
That persuasiveness translated to a league hung up on its hypocritical whine about East Coast bias. Whether that was true or not, what did fans expect? The Pac-10 absolutely was overwrought within its footprint and underexposed outside of it. This is a league that allowed premier football games to be shown at 10 p.m. ET.
If the Stanford Tree dances at midnight with no one watching, does it make a sound? Apparently not. At that point, not all of the conference's basketball and football games were even televised.
Scott wants to make it impossible for you to miss the Pac-12 playing anything.
"TV Everywhere," Bowlsby said enthusiastically of a little-known clause in the new contract.
The league essentially asserted that it has rights (to show Pac-12 content) on any new digital platforms that are invented over the next 12 years. How does a rights-holder agree to that? If you know Larry Scott, then you understand how it got done.
"If 10 years from now somebody comes up with the invention to watch a game on a toaster oven," Bevilacqua said, "[the Pac-12 is] going to have the rights to watch the game on a toaster oven."
Industry experts continually remind consumers that technology has been driven by sports. Think of HD, 3D, 360 cameras. In five to seven years, Scott wouldn't be surprised if a major portion of Pac-12 fans watch games on something other than TV. In a stroke of negotiating brilliance, he got the rights-holders to agree that the Pac-12 Network will have first choice of the best games. He is in talks with Google, a year into Smart TV, which is essentially the next wave -- Internet TV.
In less than two years, the soft-spoken 46-year-old whirlwind has changed what has been possible in college athletics. In June 2010 -- less than a year on the job -- he shocked the world by making a bold play for six Big 12 schools to create the Pac-16. At the last minute, ESPN and Fox jumped in to make financial assurances to the Big 12 that basically kept Texas from jumping.
"That would have been amazing," Livengood said. "Can you imagine the numbers we'd be talking about now? It would rival many Third World countries, if not all."
Scott allowed his "disappointment" to last 24 hours. Within two weeks, Utah and Colorado had joined, allowing the league to split into divisions and stage a conference championship game beginning this season. Still, you get the feeling the idea for superconferences hasn't been driven from his mind.
"College sports, as successful as it is, is ridiculously fragmented," Scott said. "It defies all the basic economic laws of sports marketing. You see what we've unlocked in our little conference here. Imagine doing that in a broader way. Fewer, bigger [conferences]."
Even with the same membership numbers as the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC, the Pac-12 might be looked back on the first real superconference. Scott calls it the league's "ubiquitous-ness." The head of Pixar, located in nearby Oakland, is a Utah grad. Scott is trying to arrange a meeting with George Lucas, a Southern California grad who might have some influence over an equally famous peer.
"Imagine the opening graphic packages of the Pac-12 Network being designed by ..."
" ... Steven Spielberg is a [USC] trustee."
Scott, in his own humble way, has momentarily gained more power and influence than college athletics' two de facto kings -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and his counterpart in the SEC, Mike Slive.
Part of it is marketplace. The Pac-10 was the next major conference up for renewal at the time. It sprinted ahead of the SEC and Big Ten megadeals that were finalized a couple of years ago. The market is starved for content whether it comes from Pullman, Wash., or L.A.
When NBC and Comcast topped out at a bid of $225 million per year in the latest negotiations, Bevilacqua said he floated the idea of ESPN and Fox joining forces. The two giant networks swallowed hard and became partners in a cutthroat industry to eliminate NBC. Final number: $250 million per year for a league that used to make less than $100 million.
Did we say cutthroat? Not on a recent sun-splashed weekday in that office with views from three sides. There is still part of the tennis bum in Scott. On that day, the NCAA championships were being played down the road at Stanford. More important, Pac-10 teams were in them, the matches being beamed into his office on the device that is going to make his conference rich.
Settling onto that couch for an interview, he cast half an eye at the TV.
"Mind if I watch?"