Arizona president Robert Robbins leaves Tuesday for a trip to Kazakhstan. He doesn't return until the second week of April. In what has become a long, drawn-out pursuit of a new media rights deal for the Pac-12, that trip seems ill-timed.
Except, it's not. Robbins is the one who recently made waves setting a soft April 15 deadline for the Pac-12 to at least present a financial estimate that the 10 remaining schools could contemplate, then accept or reject. Not that it was a threat, but his remarks a couple of weeks ago reflected at least a certain anxiousness.
"I have heard nothing to suggest [a deal is] imminent," Robbins told CBS Sports this week. "There's all these things about, well, 'We want to wait until [after] the Final Four.' That has nothing to do with it. It has to do with assessing who is the right fit, who assesses us.
"I hope [commissioner George Kliavkoff] gets something done sooner rather than later so that the whole thing stops, so we don't have focus on it. [But] I am perfectly willing to sit here and wait."
The best way to sum up the Pac-12's deal-making status at the moment: not close but hopeful.
Lots of deadlines -- soft or not -- have come and gone. Last May, Kliavkoff said he hoped to "piggyback" the Big Ten media rights deal to increase his conference's valuation. A few weeks later. USC and UCLA announced their intention to leave. Less than two months after their departure, the Big Ten signed a record TV rights deal, leaving the Pac-12's value gutted without its two Los Angeles flagships.
In October, the Pac-12 went to the open market after an exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and Fox expired. Multiple sources continue to tell CBS Sports that Fox remains out of the bidding. ESPN is still believed to be interested along with at least one streaming provider.
Other than that, what are the Pac-12's linear (broadcast/cable) options? It has been suggested NBC could be a possibility, but it would likely feature games only on its non-broadcast properties: USA Network (cable) and/or Peacock (streaming).
Robbins reiterated to CBS Sports that the majority of Pac-12 games will be on a linear partner, a significant claim.
"This whole streaming thing? That's overplayed," Robbins said. "I think this deal is going to have a heavy traditional analog cable [piece]. I think. There may some streaming in it, but I don't think anybody would want to go majority streaming."
At the Pac-12 Championship Game in December, Kliavkoff said there was "no rush" and negotiations would not be completed by Jan. 1. Since the calendar has turned to 2023, there has been near-constant word in the industry that a new deal was just two weeks away.
Yet, the wait continues, and the Pac-12 CEOs will not meet again until mid-April.
The Pac-12 is now within 15 months of its current deal expiring, July 1, 2024. While that seems like a long way out, it is not. Futures are generally secured roughly 18 months out. The Big 12 jumped the line and signed a new deal with Fox and ESPN last fall more than 2 ½ years ahead of expiration. The SEC and ESPN came together on a new 10-year deal beginning in 2024 that was announced in December 2020.
The Big Ten is a recent outlier. It announced a record deal in August 2022 that begins July 1, 2023. The conference had to account for the addition of USC and UCLA at that point.
"I don't feel the angst of everyone else in the world. Maybe it's because I'm too dumb to realize," Robbins added. "We've got a deal for another 15 months. We're the only ones out there. It's not like were competing with anybody else. Nobody out there is wanting to do a deal. We'll wait and see what happens."
Robbins also told CBS Sports he wasn't speaking out two weeks ago suggesting Arizona had options if it wasn't satisfied with the Pac-12's new deal. In those remarks, Robbins said the league was "95%" united while simultaneously noting that Arizona had the ability to "drive to Lubbock" where Big 12 team Texas Tech is located.
"It wasn't because I was emboldened because we have options," Robbins said. "There is no deal or no agreement where, if everything blows up, we've got someplace to go."
Industry sources continue to back up what Robbins is indicating: The Pac-12 doesn't seem close to a deal.
Potentially complicating matters less than 15 months out is expansion, which could delay the process further. Schools would have to extricate themselves from their previous leagues financially and perhaps legally. New schedules would have to be drawn up. It's not as simple as changing logos on the uniforms and fields.
Athletic budgets are calculated years in advance, and right now, Pac-12 schools are stuck in neutral.
"We just plug in the numbers we have right now," Robbins said.
WWE CEO Nick Khan made headlines this week when he said the Pac-12 "got caught off guard" during an appearance on the Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast.
Khan is one of the most influential persons in the industry. Previously an executive at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), he helped negotiate the SEC's media rights deal with ESPN as well as WWE's with NBCUniversal (Peacock, USA Network) and Fox. That was prior to joining WWE as an executive. As an agent, he has represented the likes of Kirk Herbstreit, Tom Rinaldi and Colin Cowherd.
"I think they're in a tough spot," Khan said of the Pac-12, later suggesting the league sign a short-term deal to maximize the value of the conference over a longer period.
But what is short-term -- three years? It would be advantageous as schools could perhaps sign that deal without a grant of rights, allowing them to remain nimble enough to join other conferences if all does not work out in the Pac-12. The problem is that the Pac-12 would basically be in talks for a new contract almost from the time the short-term deal started.
Plus, any media partner would almost certainly want cost certainty over a longer term.
"I'd go short-term [deal] and make sure you're not just taking the biggest money," Khan said. "You've got to make sure you keep attention on schools. If there is a streamer that doesn't have a big audience yet and you go exclusive with them, you've got to be a little careful with that."
That is part of the significance of the Pac-12's wait. It could go on much longer. The Big Ten made a strategic decision last year to not put a deadline on its negotiations after commissioner Kevin Warren suggested in May he wanted a new deal by July 4, 2022.
Six weeks later, the actual deal was done. The Pac-12 projections for closure remain open ended.
"[The Pac-12] got caught off guard, which is the worst thing that can happen in business," Khan added. "We had heard some buzz about USC leaving the Pac-12. Had not heard UCLA. Then, boom, lo and behold, both of those schools left. I didn't love that I saw some complaining about it, after, by the Pac-12. Complaining is not a strategy."