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With unique network deal, Pac-12 goes from stale to cutting-edge

by | CBS Sports
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NEW YORK -- The former tennis player and the former Alabama defensive back walked the four blocks to Chelsea Market anonymously. 

Their conversation was about a variety of subjects on a warm New York afternoon and went unnoticed by the bustling city they were passing through. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott on the left, Oregon State head coach Mike Riley on the right.

One man was one of the best in the business at scheming X's and O's. The other, as he would soon demonstrate, was one of the best in the business at scheming for dollars and cents.

Larry Scott says 'the idea that every football game, every basketball game will be able to be seen ... is a game changer." (Getty Images)  
Larry Scott says 'the idea that every football game, every basketball game will be able to be seen ... is a game changer." (Getty Images)  
What Scott would announce 30 minutes after walking over to a press conference together marked a watershed moment in a conference that Riley had been a part of for 15 years. Under an agreement, one Pac-12 television network and six regional networks would be created, all in conjunction with four of the largest cable companies. Over 850 events would be broadcast live, including every football and men's basketball game. 

Forget a network, Riley's school got two networks.

"This has been our hope and aspiration for our conference and our presidents and athletic directors for some time," Scott said amid Pac-12 Media Days on the East Coast. "I know it is for the fans and the student-athletes and the coaches. The idea that every football game, every basketball game will be able to be seen -- and have such robust platforms for the Olympic sports -- is a game changer." 

The genesis of what came out of Wednesday's press conference started shortly after Scott was hired to replace retiring commissioner Tom Hansen. It was an idea that evolved slowly during the months and years after he accepted the job of taking a largely stale conference into the 21st century. 

"I didn't come into the job with the mandate to form a TV network. It really evolved as a strategy over my first three months going on a listening tour and really assessing the conference," Scott said. "What attracted me to the job was that the Pac-10 was a storied conference with amazing athletic success and a great image. [The presidents] felt like they had slipped and were falling behind. We were seen as conservative, not progressive, and in a dynamic and robust market, which meant this opportunity.  

"The presidential leadership, in their words, said, 'Larry, we want to be bold, we want to be aggressive, this is a blank canvas for someone with your background and skills. We want to be led.' " 

Scott had good insight as to where the media world was going after landing the largest sponsorship in women's athletics and getting unprecedented television exposure as the CEO of the Women's Tennis Association. The opportunity to jump into college sports at the time was an easy one for him, recognizing the passion of the fans and the unique position the industry was moving toward.

More money, more viewers and, ultimately, more schools. 

Last summer's realignment derby, fueled by Scott's attempt to create a 16-team superconference, resulted in adding teams to the conference for the first time since 1978. Though he didn't get to add the program he was truly after in Texas, expansion was by no means a failure given the 12-year, multibillion dollar media contract he assembled with Fox and ESPN. The fact that Scott helped bring together two major competitors and four cable operators is one reason why other companies looking to partner with the Pac-12 are eager to buy into the master plan. 

"I think we have a compelling vision," he said. "We know what we want to do and I think people have confidence and trust in us that we're going to do what we say. I think we've delivered on everything we said we've wanted to do or exceeded it.  

"I think people have seen that what I'm trying to do is not follow any one model but do something very unique and transformative." 

It was expected to take the conference another month or two to hammer out the details of the networks, but Scott wanted to be aggressive and set an early deadline in order to build off the momentum of Media Days. Pac-12 negotiators, led by general counsel Woodie Dixon, were in New York nearly a week before the announcement ironing out the details.  

Meeting in the Time Warner Center, the negotiations were almost literally around the clock, wrapping up just past 4 a.m. Wednesday. With a framework in place, most of the outstanding issues were resolved on a conference call that began around 9:30 a.m. while Scott was in the car on the way to ESPN studios in Bristol.  

Shortly after 1 p.m., the Pac-12 public relations staff began to make changes to the already-scheduled press conference that evening. While North Division coaches were at SiriusXM studios taping segments, press releases were being cobbled together and video plans were being laid. Back in New York, Scott and his staff literally finished the deal with a few minutes to spare before the commissioner took the stage at Chelsea Market. 

"We had a virtual handshake over the phone at 10 a.m.," Scott said. "That's when I knew we had a done deal. But I only got confirmation from my general counsel right before the press event at 5 p.m. that it was signed." 

As one Pac-12 official later said, "The ink was still drying as Larry was speaking." 

Scott was aware of how the negotiations were going when he took the stage at the Fox Lot in Los Angeles for Pac-12 Media Day, but kept things under wraps in case things happened to unravel. One of the key people who helped the process move along from beginning to end was Melinda Witmer, chairwoman of cable consortium iN DEMAND and an Arizona alumna.

"She really introduced this vision to us," Scott said. "This idea that on top of what we want to accomplish nationally, [the cable companies] can help you accomplish things locally. That was kind of an 'aha' moment for me. We can have the best of both worlds for our schools by having a national conference network but I can also give them the equivalent of their own school channel in their markets. 

"How perfect is that?" 

Though Scott didn't pop off the top of a bottle of champagne following the deal's completion, his first drink came at an afterparty following the announcement and was, fittingly, with Witmer and Time Warner Cable executive David Rone. Though no financial terms were announced, the networks are still expected to make money in the short term and the conference's unique position of wholly owning everything have positioned them to be rewarded well into the future. 

"We've been very fortunate that the market has been very strong," Scott said. "The other conferences are in large part responsible for that. What the Big Ten did with that network kind of proved that that could be done. What the SEC did completely raised the bar in terms of media rights. We had the benefit of other conferences doing record-breaking things themselves, and the market being just red hot for college sports right now." 

With distribution of the networks to cable providers secure, plenty of work still has to be done by the Pac-12. Satellite and telecom providers are up next, but the conference is hoping to take a breath and celebrate a little before beginning negotiations with other companies. Scott is confident that he'll reach an agreement DirecTV, Dish, Verizon and others, but has that on the back burner for now as he assembles his management team. 

"We've got a great product. Not just with the quantity but the quality of the football games we have," he said. "Basketball is important, too, but knowing the importance of sports to consumers and the fan base, I think we've designed something that consumers are really going to want." 

That includes a digital component to the network so consumers can watch content on any device, anywhere. The concept of TV anywhere has been often talked about but is finally becoming reality for the 1,500 sporting events the Pac-12 has each year. 

"The president of Stanford University is the chairman of the board at Google, just to put things in perspective. We kind of feel like it's in our DNA to be on the cutting edge of technological innovation," Scott said. "We'll call it Pac-12 Everywhere ... I just made that up now." 

Innovating new things, it seems, isn't a foreign concept for the commissioner. 

Speaking of things that are actually foreign however, the digital network will be a key component the conference hopes will help quickly push into Asian and other worldwide markets. In addition to establishing a foothold in the Pacific Rim using the internet, the Pac-12 is actively exploring playing athletic contests, from two football games early in the season to multiple Olympic sport competitions, in China and Japan. 

That's a long-term goal, however, and Scott has plenty to do in the meantime. He calls the startup costs for the network "significant," but sees revenues ramping up quickly. 

"With this arrangement we just struck, there's no financial risk to our schools or our conference," Scott said. "There's healthy economics involved in this deal." 

Healthy, wealthy and wise.

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