When word began circulating Thursday that the Pac-12 was set to hire George Kliavkoff as its new commissioner, Stanford football coach David Shaw reacted in the same way as much of the college sports world.
"I had never heard the name before," Shaw said. "That's not a negative thing. I did the old social media and Google stalking just to see who we're dealing with."
Roughly four months since the conference announced Larry Scott's 11-year tenure as commissioner would end in June, its highly secretive search ended in Las Vegas, where Kliavkoff had been serving as the president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International since 2018. His appointment is a gamble in the sense that Kliavkoff's background is not rooted in college sports -- a trait many around the Pac-12 felt would be a benefit, in contrast to Scott's arrival from the Women's Tennis Association -- but his impressive track record as a respected leader in various roles in media, sports and entertainment makes him an intriguing choice to lead the conference into a pivotal era of college athletics.
After the conference's executive search committee was formed and recruitment firm TurnkeyZRG was enlisted to help, input from stakeholders around the conference was gathered to develop a profile for the type of candidate who would be best suited for the role. It was one of the longer stages of the search, lasting a few weeks, and from it emerged several common themes for both the type of leader who should take the baton and what their priorities should be to move the conference forward, according to Oregon president Michael Schill, the chair of the Pac-12 CEO group.
"Someone who would listen, someone who would go out and meet with people on the campuses, someone who would be able to help achieve better revenue for the campuses," Schill said. "Someone who put student health and well-being at the forefront [and] understood that they are student athletes, rather than just pro athletes. Someone who cared deeply about the Pac-12 maintaining its progressive leadership among intercollegiate athletics. It was a variety of things."
For a role as complex as a Power 5 conference commissioner, it's unreasonable to expect anyone to check all the boxes, but Kliavkoff checked enough of them and quickly emerged from a list of roughly 200 applicants.
At MGM, he oversaw a massive live event operation and was intimately involved in corporate sponsorship efforts. He was the chief digital officer at NBCUniversal, where he led the company's corporate digital strategy in a role that eventually saw him become the interim CEO of Hulu, in the streaming giant's early stages. He has a history in women's sports -- having served on the board of governors of the WNBA and managed the league's Las Vegas Aces -- and was the executive vice president of business for Major League Baseball's Advanced Media.
"He looked really interesting and we decided we would learn more," Schill said. "Then we decided we would interview him. He really knocked our socks off and we decided that we would then include him in the finalists group for all of the presidents and chancellors to see, and George emerged as the unanimous choice."
Eight candidates received full interviews from the search committee, according to Schill, and three were brought to the conference's presidents and chancellors to be interviewed again in the final stage. While there has been some public speculation about who else was considered, there was a deep commitment to protect the identities of those who engaged in the process.
"We were looking at very, very accomplished senior people and if their names had gotten out, their current positions would be compromised," Schill said.
In the end, the presidents and chancellors bet Kliavkoff can reverse recent problematic shifts that have seen the conference fall behind some of its peers in relevancy, revenue and on the field in the sport that matters above all others: football.
"His background is outstanding and very interesting," Shaw said. "I watched some interviews and like the way he expresses himself, so we'll ride with him, obviously."
Here is a look at some of the key issues Kliavkoff will need to address when he officially assumes the role on July 1.
Finances and TV contract
After Scott's hire in 2009, the conference added Utah and Colorado, which played a role in the conference's ability to secure what was then a lucrative 12-year, $3 billion media rights deal with ESPN and Fox. At the time it set the standard for college sports, but in the years since -- as media rights fees have skyrocketed -- the deal, which runs through the 2023-24 school year, has become problematic for the Pac-12.
Though its own revenue grew significantly compared to where it was previously, the $32 million the conference distributed to each of its member schools in the 2018-19 academic year was a far cry from what the SEC ($45 million per school) and Big Ten ($55 million) distributed, according to tax records.
"Job No. 1 right now [for Kliavkoff] is our new TV contract," Shaw said. "How far we've been behind other major conferences financially and exposure-wise is beyond significant and we have to make up that gap."
The most visible failure of Scott's tenure is the level of distribution that was secured for the Pac-12 Network, which was created, in part, so the conference would retain ownership of a significant amount of its live events and benefit by taking them directly to the consumer. Prior to launch, the expectation was that the conference would achieve widespread distribution and increase visibility. Instead, the opposite happened. Prominent cable and satellite providers -- DirecTV, most notably -- showed little interest in obtaining the network.
According to reporting from the Bay Area News Group in March, the Pac-12 Network's national channel has an estimated 14.8 million subscribers, compared to likely more than 50 million subscribers for the SEC and Big Ten networks, which are partnered with ESPN and Fox, respectively.
"You're at a competitive disadvantage when people are not able to see your product as widely as your competitors are seeing," UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said. "People talk about the money. The money is important, absolutely, but I think about the future more. I think about five, 10 years from now and what I get concerned with is the distribution.
"We've got to be on either more platforms or more easily accessible to fans and families that have kids to help our recruiting effort and exposure. That's really important and that's where we're lacking right now. The numbers don't lie. People in L.A. right now can't get the Pac-12 Network. That's a huge problem. Then you wonder why other schools are coming in so much and getting kids from California. Well, they can say they're on TV all the time."
Said one Pac-12 head football coach, who wished to remain anonymous: "The Pac-12 Network is the single biggest problem we have in recruiting. It was a good idea, I guess, but it has really hurt us."
With the network having served as a liability for the conference, it was fair to wonder whether it would continue to exist at all in the future, but Kliavkoff said Thursday he believes it will remain part of the conference's media strategy, while acknowledging the distribution issue.
"I think there's a way to fix that through structuring and relationships," Kliavkoff, "but we have to get the Pac-12 Network distributed every place on every platform that our fans want to be able to consume that content."
If that sounds familiar, it's because Scott essentially said the same thing a decade ago and at various stages since. Having someone new leading the charge allows for a renewed sense of optimism, but considering the conference is less relevant nationally than it was when the network launched, the issue doesn't have an obvious, simple solution.
"I also think about the media rights and the Pac-12 Network as being a small slice of the media rights that we can create and distribute," Kliavkoff said. "There are some very obvious and perhaps not so obvious ideas to optimize the revenue, from distribution of our content and slicing and dicing that content. It's, candidly, what I've done in many of my previous roles with great success. But just to be clear, I'm not going to get into those ideas before doing the work to validate."
New Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff 🗣️⤵️— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) May 13, 2021
"It's the greatest sports league in college athletics, I believe. And I believe it's our birthright to be that again."#BackThePac pic.twitter.com/FSbTsnhJ8y
Kliavkoff's role incubating and running Hulu in its early stages lends credibility to the idea he can find more success than his predecessor, and as television viewing habits shift toward streaming platforms and away from more traditional cable and satellite services, it's possible the conference's ownership of the Pac-12 Network could still be an asset.
"I think [owning the network is] an advantage we have in the Pac-12 as we start our negotiations prior to 2024," Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano said. "We haven't really seen much revenue coming from the network, but it's an asset that we'll be able to negotiate as we meet with different media outlets.
"The other [advantage] is how we might approach to be more streaming, looking at more options such as Amazon Prime or Disney and looking at Apple and some options that could really move us ahead of the other conferences. Although we've fallen behind from a financial standpoint, I think we're in a very good position coming up in the next couple of years to make some significant gains, and especially to look at some new ways of doing things."
Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen. Innovation was very much a part of the brand the conference set out to build for itself over the past decade, and in the end, the buzzwords used to describe the media strategy ended up serving mostly as false hope.
While the Pac-12's problems extend beyond its lack of representation in the College Football Playoff, conference coaches, athletic directors and university presidents acknowledge its exclusion has contributed a direct hit to the league's reputation. The Pac-12 champion has been left out five times in seven seasons, with Oregon and Washington the only teams to represent the conference for a 1-2 record and no national titles.
"You are what your record says you are, and if you look at our record, we haven't been in it since 2016, so would expansion help our effort to solidify a spot consistently? Absolutely," Jarmond said, adding that he hasn't formed an opinion on whether expansion is the best choice. "That would help any conference, but especially ours because we haven't been there in a while."
It's not like the Pac-12 hasn't had the opportunity.
On Dec. 6, 2019, No. 5 Utah had the selection committee's undivided attention as it faced No. 13 Oregon in the Pac-12 conference championship game. The Utes had a realistic chance to join Ohio State, LSU and Clemson in the semifinals. Instead, they fell flat on a Friday night, losing 37-15 with the nation watching. It was another devastating blow to the entire league that further perpetuated the perception that the Pac-12 was in the worst position of the Power 5 conferences.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the Pac-12 collectively has to be better "and that's really the bottom line," but he's "all for expansion." He said the Pac-12's new commissioner should push for the playoff to expand on behalf of the league.
"If you polled the college coaches, there would be a very small percentage, if any, that wouldn't be in favor of expansion. So why not?" Whittingham said. "There's too much money being left on the table, there's not enough opportunity right now to include teams that maybe should be included. I just think it's a win-win to expand it."
Kliavkoff wasted no time making it clear where he stood.
"I'll be pushing to expand the College Football Playoff," he said.
George Kliavkoff to serve as new Pac-12 Commissioner.— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) May 13, 2021
A sports & media executive, he brings unparalleled expertise in managing change & driving results from roles at MGM Resorts, Hearst, NBCUniversal & MLB Advanced Media.
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His rationale is simple: It's not good for the sport when only a few teams are regular participants, and built-in opportunities for other schools to participate are an obvious solution.
"I am ahead of this particular opportunity because of what's going on at the NCAA, with respect to looking at college playoffs and the expansion, and the reports that we've seen out of the CFP, that things are being considered even as early as a June announcement," Kliavkoff said. "I don't start until July 1, so I was very clear with the presidents and chancellors. I want to make sure our position that CFP should be expanded was clear, even before my first day on the job."
In April, CFP executive director Bill Hancock said the current four-team format of the playoff would not change in 2021 or 2022, but left open the possibility that the field could grow to anywhere from six to 16 teams in the future.
The CFP comprised a working group of four management committee members -- Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. They are expected to make a report to the entire management committee about the future format at the group's next in-person meeting.
According to an April news release from the CFP, the working group has discussed "some 63 possibilities for change," meaning variations upon the different numbers of teams (six, eight, 10, 12 and 16). If there is a model the entire group supports, they will present it to the CFP board of managers, who have the ultimate authority over the playoff format. In order for the playoff to change, those 11 presidents and chancellors would have to approve it. The CFP is entering its eighth season of a 12-year contractual agreement. All parties involved would have to unanimously agree to change the contract before it expires.
"Four has worked, is working, and can continue to work," Sankey said, "but I'm also responsible and in a role where I need to listen to other perspectives as well."
Arizona president Robert Robbins, who hails from SEC country, went to school in Mississippi and continues to follow college football closely, said the four best teams advanced to the playoff in 2020.
"What we've got to do is field more competitive teams," he said of the Pac-12. "I would personally say that -- and it's probably a minority opinion with the other university presidents -- I would favor expansion of the playoff, maybe to eight teams. We'd start there. If you look at every other college sport, there's multiple teams in the playoff, and you decide the championship that way.
"You would have to cut down some of the regular-season games, obviously, but I think it would be kinda cool. I think the fans would want to see it. We as presidents, however, do not want to see a longer season. I don't think anybody would go for that."
Name, image, likeness and beyond
As the college sports world prepares for the introduction of name, image and likeness (NIL) laws that will open up revenue streams for college athletes in a way that would have been demonized by the NCAA for most of its existence, Kliavkoff's outsider status could work as a benefit. Unlike those who've held leadership roles in the system for years, his perspective hasn't been shaped to protect the status quo.
Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 will be an advocate for a consistent approach to NIL across college sports and expressed optimism about how the Pac-12's geographic footprint -- with several schools in major markets -- could provide a competitive advantage.
The NIL issue also reaffirms the need for more visibility, especially in football.
There is some concern from coaches in the conference that because the Pac-12 has become less relevant nationally, top recruits might become more easily persuaded to play elsewhere, lured by the pitch that players in higher-profile conferences, in regions of the country where college football is more popular, will be better positioned to build their own personal brands and make more money as a result.
The trend of top recruits leaving the footprint has grown in recent years, so it was undoubtedly refreshing for coaches in the conference to hear Kliavkoff identify the need for the conference office to do its part to help the football programs improve their recruiting efforts.
"We need to be more aggressive about teaching the legacy of the Pac-12 as the Conference of Champions," he said. "At the conference level, we will invest to give Pac-12 athletes, football players and others an opportunity to create a bigger social platform. We believe video creation and other tools will help the athletes and once NIL comes into effect that will help the athletes substantially."
It shouldn't end there.
Beyond the TV contract, there are structural issues that can be addressed that many Pac-12 football coaches believe will help level the playing field nationally, most notably with the nine-game conference schedule.
"We've talked about this before, comparing [Pac-12 football] schedules to other schedules, it's apples and oranges," Shaw said. "To have a nine-game conference schedule with some teams that don't have a bye for 10 weeks, against an eight-game conference schedule with at least one FCS opponent and one or two byes -- it's not comparable.
"So the idea is for us to make up those gaps in both our TV revenue, our exposure, our scheduling. All those things kind of really start on the desk of the commissioner, and I know he'll have the support of all 12 entities as we go forward."
If there is one thing that came across from both Kliavkoff and Schill, it's that the new Pac-12 commissioner has expressed a willingness to listen. And if that's the case, it's a good start.
"I really do feel that we're very lucky that we found George," Schill said. "And I feel very fortunate that he accepted our offer."