It will be easier to watch some Pac-12 Networks games in China than if you subscribe to DirecTV. The conference announced a partnership with Alibaba Thursday that will see “175 live Pac-12 Networks events and 100 hours of original programming” distributed in China through video hosting and streaming service Youku Todou. But, despite a lot of talk and optimism since the networks’ 2012 launch, including from new Pac-12 Networks president (and former DirecTV figure) Mark Shuken, there’s still no DirecTV deal and no sign of one coming at any point soon.
Of course, it’s not as simple as saying “The Pac-12 should be focusing its time on DirecTV rather than China.” The network’s in a difficult spot when it comes to working anything out with DirecTV, as they signed most-favored-nation deals with other providers (so if they strike a reduced-rate deal with DirecTV, it would apply to others as well), and DirecTV’s setup isn’t geographically restricted the way many cable companies are, adding further challenges to getting the Pac-12 Networks on board at a fee DirecTV’s willing to pay. DirecTV also bet that most of its customers don’t care enough about these networks to defect for other companies, and they’ve largely been right.
So, there’s no obvious path to a DirecTV deal. The biggest obstacles aren’t anything in the current market that can be altered, but the deals the Pac-12 cut with others way back when; their most-favored-nation deals with other providers, their different geographical constructions and fees, and the amount of top-tier inventory they signed over to Fox and ESPN to still get decent rights fees there (meaning that the games on Pac-12 Networks frequently have less broad appeal). And while a deal may still may get done if the right collection of circumstances pop up, the conference executives involved in crafting this China deal couldn’t necessarily have just devoted that time to a DirecTV deal and accomplished anything. And there is some merit here, as Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said:
“Expanding global fan interest in our conference and member universities through sport, along with providing unique international opportunities for our student-athletes, are at the core of our Pac-12 Global initiative,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement. “In Alibaba we have found the perfect partner to help us achieve these goals. Alibaba’s agreement to distribute Pac-12 college sports content across its channels demonstrates their confidence in the value of our content and brand, and aligned global vision that we have for college sports and the student-athlete experience.”
But, at the same time, the basic observation that it will be easier to watch some Pac-12 Networks programming in China than if you’re a DirecTV customer is factually correct. And that’s an issue for the Pac-12. Expanding into China is all well and good (and it’s been a big part of Scott’s strategy for some time), but it’s not going to come close to the impact a DirecTV deal would have. And if you think people are ambivalent about Pac-12 Network programming in the U.S., that ambivalence seems likely to be even more pronounced in China. That doesn’t make this deal bad or wrong, or a waste of time and effort, but this is still much more of a nice-to-have addition than a critical deal. A DirecTV deal may not be all that easy or perhaps even possible at the current moment, but it would matter much more than this kind of overseas expansion.