LOS ANGELES — Like a boxer that has been caught in the corner of the ring, sustaining repeated punches, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff came out swinging during his comments Friday morning at the Novo Theater to kick off Pac-12 football media day.

As expected, Kliavkoff fielded plenty of questions about the state of the Pac-12 and the issue that’s overshadowed almost everything else — the departure of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in 2024.

On top of that, there has been constant speculation that programs like Utah, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado could be moving to the Big 12.

At Big 12 football media day earlier this month, new commissioner Brett Yormark said that league is “open for business,” intimating that the Big 12 is prepared to poach programs from the Pac-12. 

Asked why he’s confident that the 10 remaining schools will remain in the league, Kliavkoff fired back. 

“We’ve had two board meetings a week for the last four weeks. Looking my colleagues in the eye, understanding their commitment, that their first priority is making sure that the Pac-12 survives, thrives and grows and is successful,” he said. “They’re committed to the conference. I think the best thing to do is to ask them about it. With respect to the Big 12 being open for business, I appreciate that. We haven’t decided if we’re going shopping there or not yet.”

As a follow-up to that comment, and if the Pac-12 would try to go after Big 12 programs, Kliavkoff expounded. 

“That remark was a reflection of the fact I’ve been spending four weeks trying to defend against grenades that have been lobbed in from every corner of the Big 12 trying to destabilize our remaining conference,” he said. “I understand why they’re doing it, when you look at the relative media value between the two conferences. I get it, I get why they’re scared, why they’re trying to destabilize it. I was just tired of that. That’s probably not the most collegial thing I’ve ever said.”

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From what we’ve seen in recent years, collegiality isn’t something that exists much in college athletics these days. 

In terms of expansion opportunities — many speculate that the league might add San Diego State, for instance, to maintain a presence in Southern California — Kliavkoff listed criteria the league is searching for. 

“As we consider these opportunities, we will look at media value, athletic strength, academic and cultural fit, and geography from a recruiting and student-athlete experience standpoint,” he said. “As you would expect, we’ve had significant inbound interest and are in the process of evaluating opportunities.”

Added Kliavkoff about potential expansion targets: “Cultural, academic fit is important. It’s one of our criteria. Listen, we understand how important revenue is. We understand that for the last 10 years, because of a series of decisions that were made by the conference 10 years ago, we’re behind. We have to close the gap in revenue. That’s going to be a focus. But as we think about adding schools, one of the criteria will be cultural, academic fit. It’s really important to our presidents and chancellors who make these decisions at the end of the day.”

Not surprisingly, Kliavkoff declined to talk about any schools he may have talked to about joining the Pac-12.

When asked, Kliavkoff said that the Pac-12 has not looked into the possibility of the league merging with the Mountain West Conference.

There have been reports that the Big Ten, at some point, might be interested in picking off more Pac-12 programs, like Stanford, Cal, Oregon and Washington. 

Joining Kliavkoff on stage for the Q&A session was Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir, who, when asked, said his school has not had discussions with the Big Ten or any other conference. 

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“I will say in our meeting yesterday with my fellow peers around the conference, we have been really open and transparent. We understand the issues at hand,” Muir said. “When this broke a month ago, we all, each one of us, are trying to figure out scenario planning. We have discussions internally and try to figure that out. But we have not had any formal overture from another conference.”

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 is exploring expansion and it began negotiations for its next media rights deal, an exclusive 30-day window with current partners ESPN and Fox that closes Aug. 4.

“We are in the enviable position of being next to market after the Big Ten. We already have significant interest from potential partners, including both incumbents and new traditional television and most importantly digital media partners,” Kliavkoff said. “This interest is driven by the strength of our schools’ brands and markets and a recognition of our continued leadership position in college football across the Western and Mountain time zones.

“With the value of premium college sports rights continuing to rise, multiple interested media partners and limited opportunities, particularly in the West, we are confident in the long-term value of our rights.”

While Kliavkoff conducted himself as a strong leader Friday, there are so many things that are out of his control. 

But the commissioner is confident about the Pac-12’s new media rights deal, including opportunities with nontraditional partners like Apple and Amazon. 

“Without talking about individual potential partners, I would say it’s highly likely that we will end up with a big digital partner for some of our rights and that our rights will be distributed in a way that’s unique, different and new,” Kliavkoff said. “We’re excited about that.”

There are plenty of constituents in California that aren’t happy about UCLA heading to the Big Ten, including alumni, faculty, fans and politicians.

“There’s a hearing coming up about that decision,” Kliavkoff said. “I can’t give you a percentage chance (that UCLA returns to the Pac-12). I think it’s unlikely. But if they came back, we’d welcome them back.”

Pac-12 Conference commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks at Pac-12 football media day Friday, July 29, 2022, in Los Angeles. | Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press