‘We know where our bread is buttered’: What challenges await new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff and how he plans to deal with them
Kliavkoff, 54, brings a wealth of experience in a number of areas needed by a conference at the crossroads. It has fallen behind other Power Five leagues, particularly in football, and is facing upcoming negotiations for a new media rights deal
The self-proclaimed Conference of Champions introduced a new commissioner Thursday, and it was a name unfamiliar to those that follow the Pac-12 — and college sports in general.
Like his predecessor, Larry Scott, the new commish doesn’t have previous experience as an administrator or executive in the world of collegiate sports.
Since the announcement came several months ago that the embattled Scott would be stepping down at the end of June, the prevailing opinion was that the Pac-12’s hiring would be an upgrade, no matter who that might be.
Kliavkoff (Klēē-ãv-cough), 54, does bring a wealth of experience in a number of areas desperately needed by a beleaguered conference at the crossroads. It has fallen behind other Power Five conferences on the football field, and it is poised for upcoming negotiations for a new media rights deal.
For the Pac-12, the good news is Kliavkoff has a proven track record for leading big properties during critical times. He is currently the president of entertainment and sports at MGM Grand Resorts and resides in Las Vegas. Kliavkoff moves into his new role July 1 and has signed a five-year contract.
Based on his comments during a question-and-answer session with the media via Zoom, it appears Kliavkoff brings strengths that Scott didn’t possess. He also understands the serious problems facing the league and he has a plan to address them.
Specifically, Kliavkoff wants to put the “Champions” back in the Conference of Champions.
When asked about the Pac-12’s greatest weakness, Kliavkoff responded, “The number of years it’s been since (the Pac-12) won a football or a men’s basketball championship. We’re going to do everything we can at the conference level to fix that.”
That answer, though a painful reality, had to be music to the ears of Pac-12 administrators, coaches, athletes and fans alike. Identifying a problem, of course, is the first step to rectifying it.
The last time a Pac-12 program won an NCAA football championship was by USC in 2004, though that title was later vacated by the NCAA infractions committee. The last time a Pac-12 program captured a championship in men’s basketball was by Arizona in 1997.
Kliavkoff reiterated that message of winning championships in the final moments of the virtual press conference — “I want to be clear. We know where our bread is buttered. We’re focused on revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”
As part of that overarching goal, Kliavkoff issued a strong statement about the league’s position on the College Football Playoff.
“I want to go on the record: The Pac-12 is in favor of expansion of the College Football Playoff,” he said.
If the College Football Playoff expands beyond inviting four teams to the party, that certainly would be a move in the right direction for the Pac-12. Since the CFP began in 2015, only two Pac-12 teams have qualified — Oregon in 2015 and Washington in 2017.
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan released a statement Thursday on the hiring of Kliavkoff.
“On behalf of Utah Athletics, I want to welcome George Kliavkoff to the Pac-12 Conference as our new commissioner. He brings an innovative, strategic approach to a very challenging role, with intercollegiate athletics in a truly transformative period. I am confident that Commissioner Kliavkoff will ensure that the Pac-12 is a national leader in shaping college athletics for years to come and will help our conference cement its position as the nation’s premier athletic conference. This is an exciting time to be a part of the Conference of Champions and we welcome George and his family to the Pac-12 family!”
While Kliavkoff’s extensive experience in negotiating broadcast and streaming deals is important, and a key factor in his hiring, he knows that on-field success by revenue sports is crucial.
As a strong proponent of Olympic sports, Kliavkoff comprehends that wins, and championships, produced by football and men’s basketball increases the likelihood of success in other Pac-12 sports. That’s something Scott failed to accomplish during his turbulent 11 years at the helm.
The new commissioner said he plans to visit each of the league’s 12 campuses to establish relationships soon and to listen to each school’s athletic director and coaches and to learn from them. Kliavkoff added that “my leadership style is relationship-driven” and he’ll put that to the test early on.
“My personal success in this conference,” Kliavkoff said, “is tied to the success of the ADs and coaches.”
“Priority No. 1 will be repairing the frayed relationships between the conference and its members’ coaches and ADs, many of whom felt disregarded by Scott and will undoubtedly be skeptical about the conference hiring another outsider,” wrote Stewart Mandel, college football editor-in-chief at The Athletic. “But he’ll also need to dive head first into the league’s upcoming TV negotiations and what to do with the struggling Pac-12 Network.”
It will be a challenge for the Pac-12 to make up ground, and catch up to, the other Power Five leagues in terms of revenue and respectability.
Kliavkoff also said he plans to evaluate nonconference schedules and game times in football, while investing money to assist Pac-12 schools in recruiting efforts.
How did the Pac-12 fall so far? Why does it find itself in this precarious position?
“Don’t be fooled — Scott didn’t leave this conference any better than he found it. It’s not nationally competitive in key revenue-generating sports. The brand is in pieces. The media-rights contracts have been lapped by peers,” wrote The Oregonian’s John Canzano in January. “Scott built the Pac-12 Network, but gutted it when it served him to do so. He trampled a lot of people. In the end, the outgoing commissioner will be best remembered as the guy who laid off dozens of his staff and handed out furloughs to others while accelerating his own annual bonus.”
The Pac-12 is hoping that Kliavkoff’s approach, which is strikingly different from Scott’s, will strike a better tone, foster better relationships and yield positive results.
“We believe that George is the right person to meet today’s challenges and even more importantly, the challenges of the future,” said University of Oregon President Michael H. Schill, chair of the five-member search committee. “He will lead the Conference of Champions to a great future.”
Kliavkoff enters this new job filled with challenges but he is confident about what he can accomplish because of the work he’s been doing for the past 25 years with companies like Major League Baseball, NBC, Hulu and MGM.
“I understand that I wasn’t on any of the media’s short lists for this role. My name will be new to many of you,” he said. “But I believe my personal style and work experience line up well with the enormous opportunities immediately in front of the Pac-12.”