If the 62-year-old Pac-12 were a car, you’d kick the tires, give it a walk-around and see that it’s had better days. There are dents and scratches and it costs a fortune to run. It’s undergone various overhauls to fix it up but it still can’t keep up with other cars in its class — or that used to be in its class. It’s been left behind by the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 models. It also pulls to the left when it goes down the road — waaaay, waaay to the left, like the state it’s based in — and it stops and starts and stops and starts as if the driver can’t make a decision. Last fall it had a very difficult time starting, period. It also likes to blow its own horn — it advertises itself as the “Conference of Champions” (ha!) — but that was a long, long time ago.
Well, better days might be ahead. This week it was announced that the driver of the Pac-12 will be stepping down after an 11-year run. As Phil Connors says, “Anything different is good.”
Say goodbye to commissioner Larry Scott, who at one point was by far the highest paid college commissioner in the country, at $4.8 million per year — as Sports Illustrated noted, that was more than the combined salaries of the Big Ten and SEC commissioners. He also made the league an expensive operation, paying a reported $6.9 million annually to rent its home offices in downtown San Francisco. OregonLive reported that Scott stayed in a $7,500-per-night suite in the ARIA casino in Las Vegas during the 2019 league basketball tournament. It featured a private elevator, a marble jacuzzi and 3,370 square feet.
Maybe this would have been tolerable if the league were prospering; it most definitely is not.
The on-field performance of football and basketball has nosedived, its TV network is seen by almost no one, attendance was cratering even before the pandemic and leadership is so lacking that sometimes you wonder if there’s an adult in the room.
In the latest basketball rankings, no Pac-12 school appears in the top 20 (Oregon and UCLA check in at 21 and 24, respectively). The last time a Pac-12 basketball team won the national championship was UCLA in 1995, and you’d have to go back to 1975 to find another one (also UCLA).
In football, the Pac-12 hasn’t won a national title since it claimed a three-way tie in 2003 (the conference not only lists Utah as the 2008 co-national champions, but claims it for the conference as well, but that’s silly — Utah was not recognized as the national champion in 2008 and furthermore the school didn’t join the Pac-12 until 2011).
Football is tanking. Since the College Football Playoff was created seven years ago, the Pac-12 has claimed only two of the 28 berths, the last one in 2016. The league has lost 22 of its last 33 bowl games.
Last fall it wasn’t clear that anyone was in charge in the Pac-12, or at least not anyone who was capable of making a decision. Scott announced in July the conference would play only conference games, then in August he said it wouldn’t play at all this season, then in September he said it would try to play the season, then in October he said it would play seven conference-only games, but wouldn’t begin until Nov. 7 (two months after most teams had begun playing), then in November he said it would allow nonconference games, after all, then in December most of the Pac-12 schools said they were “opting out” of bowl play.
At times, Scott and the Pac-12 came off as pathetically desperate. Last summer, OregonLive reported that in 2018 the league made an agreement with The Los Angeles Times in which it would pay the newspaper $100,000 in advertising in exchange for more coverage of the Pac-12. That was embarrassing and disgraceful for the Times, journalism and the conference.
As CBS reporters David Cobb and Dennis Dodd reported, the coup de grace for Scott might have been the Pac-12 Network, which was started in 2012 and simply never has been able to capture enough viewers to be viable. Per CBS, as of 2015 the network was available in 90 million homes but only 15 million homes subscribed.
The Pac-12 is almost irrelevant and some of the factors in its decline are inherent in its geography. A big part of the country doesn’t see Pac-12 games — a 7:30 p.m. kickoff time in California is 10:30 on the East Coast. Which is why, as noted by Bleacher Report’s David Kenyon in 2019, the Pac-12 Network isn’t carried by YouTube TV, DirectTV or U-verse, unlike the networks at the other P5 leagues.
The league not only lacks TV viewers, it lacks viewers in stadiums as well. Last fall, Mercury News reporter Jon Wilner reported that from 2013-18, the Pac-12 had by far the biggest drop in attendance among the P5 conferences. All of college football experienced an attendance decline during those years, but the Pac-12’s decline was almost twice that of any other conference, at 13.3%.
The Pac-12 certainly has not gotten a good return on its considerable investment in Scott and his freewheeling spending. The next commissioner will have a lot of work to do.