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New Pac-12 commish has his work cut out for him

George Kliavkoff knows the problems that ail the Power Five league. Can he fix them?

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George Kliavkoff, previously the president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts, is the new Pac-12 commissioner. 

George Kliavkoff, previously the president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts, is the new Pac-12 commissioner, the league announced Thursday, May 13, 2021. 

Business Wire via Associated Press

The Pac-12 announced Thursday that it has found a new commissioner to replace Larry Scott. The winner is ... George Kliavkoff.

Never heard of him.

Most collegiate conference commissioners come from a background in, you know, college athletic administration, including Greg Sankey, Bob Bowlsby and John Swofford, commissioners of the SEC, Big 12 and ACC, respectively.

Not Kliavkoff. Most recently, he was president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International. Before that he worked for MLB Advanced Media (the internet and interactive branch of Major League Baseball), Hulu, and Hearst Entertainment and Syndication and NBA Universal Media, where he led digital strategy.

He hasn’t been around college sports since he rowed for Boston University.

You can see what the Pac-12 is going for here: Media, media and more media, in all its forms. Maybe he can fix that Pac-12 Network almost no one watches, but only if he can convince the big boys like YouTube and DirectTV to carry the league’s games, as they do the other big-shot conferences.

During his introductory press conference, Kliavkoff said the league must increase revenue, improve recruiting, address kickoff times (so more people on the other coast can see the games), and improve football and basketball performance.

Is that all? What about world peace, hunger and global warming?

He’ll also want to do something about attendance. From 2013 to 2018 all of college football experienced a decline in attendance, but, as noted by ace Pac-12 reporter Jon Wilner, the Pac-12’s decline was almost twice that of any other conference, at 13.3%.

Kliavkoff scored points in his introductory press conference when he told reporters, “I want to go on the record that the Pac-12 is in favor of both the expansion of the College Football Playoff’s four teams and the implementation of consistent guidelines for name, image and likeness. We think that both CFP expansion and NIL legislation are good for college sports fans, good for our student-athletes and can be a significant competitive advantage for the Pac-12.”

The issue over use of an athlete’s image, name and likeness continues to vex the NCAA, and college football needs an expanded playoff. Kliavkoff’s support of expansion probably isn’t altruistic; the Pac-12 has claimed only two of the 28 berths since the College Football Playoff was created seven years ago, the last one in 2016. It’s worth noting, too, that the league has lost 22 of its last 33 bowl games.

“The greatest weakness, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is the number of years it’s been since we won a football or men’s basketball championship,” Kliavkoff said. “We’re gonna do everything we can at the conference level to fix that. … We know where the bread is buttered. We’re focused on the revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”

The last time a Pac-12 basketball team won the national championship was Arizona in 1997. In football, the Pac-12 hasn’t won a national title since it claimed a three-way tie in 2003.

Anyway, the easy part is identifying the problems; fixing them is another matter. The Pac-12, for one thing, has inherent issues that are difficult to address, unless the new guy can move California closer to the Eastern time zone.

While Kliavkoff is at it, he should dump the league’s posh headquarters and extravagant living. The league reportedly pays $6.9 million annually to rent its home offices in downtown San Francisco. ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura reported that the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 paid a combined total of $1.58 million for occupancy expenses (all costs associated with a workplace); the Pac-12 came in at $8 million. 

OregonLive reported that Scott, the highest paid commissioner in the country ($4.8 million per year), stayed in a $7,500-per-night suite in a Las Vegas casino during the 2019 league basketball tournament. It featured a private elevator, a marble jacuzzi and 3,370 square feet.

None of the above is a good look when you’re trying to convince student-athletes to play for a scholarship while schools, coaches and sponsors rake in millions. Nor is it a good look when the Pac-12’s revenue distribution to its member schools is among the worst among the Power Five. Late last summer, Wilner reported that the Pac-12 cut its headquarters staff from 190 to 96.

Clearly, Kliavkoff has a lot of work ahead of him.

Correction: The original version of this column incorrectly stated that the last time a Pac-12 basketball team won the national championship was UCLA in 1995. Arizona won a national title in 1997.