LAS VEGAS — Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, contenders to his crown like Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix leading what might be the best quarterback crop in the history of a conference long defined by quarterback, and five preseason Top 25 teams: Pac-12 football figures to deliver one of the best on-field products in the 2023 season, and commissioner George Kliavkoff would love for college football media to focus on that.
But he absolutely, positively cannot steer focus that way.
Kliavkoff committed a potential unforced error, at least in terms of steering attention to the league’s loaded football lineup, when he said that, “we’re not announcing a [new media rights deal] today on purpose today because I want the focus to be on football.”
Kliavkoff dismissed a follow-up asking if that meant a resolved media rights agreement had been reached was “reading too much” into his statement.
Considering the Pac-12’s media future has been a multiple-year source of controversy, conflicting rumors and some outright misinformation suggesting the conference’s impending demise, not announcing a deal ensures continued coverage of anything but football.
The annual media day kickoff event emanated from Resorts World in Las Vegas, and the move from Los Angeles made for a much more generally positive vibe than recent years in Hollywood.
A revamped format contributed to the energy shift, with coaches’ podium sessions that in the past were plagued by awkward silences replaced in favor of Ashley Adamson and Yogi Roth hosting.
Adamson and Roth have long been two of the best personalities on college football television, providing quality analysis and conducting thoughtful interviews that offer a refreshing break from the myopic, cynical Playoff focus that seeps into the sport’s coverage on other platforms.
And that their work isn’t more widely recognized is a reflection of the conference’s larger problems.
Heading into its 11th year, Pac-12 Network has broadcast well-produced live games, showcased standout talents like Roth, Adamson, and Michael Yam (who is now at NFL Network), and aired pregame and postgame shows that spurned the Embrace Debate model viewers often lament.
Pac-12 Network has also languished with sub-15 million subscribers through its lifetime. Much like the football played in the conference last season, and projected to shape the conference in 2023, Pac-12 Network begs the question how does one attract eyeballs when simply offering a quality product isn’t enough?
Kliavkoff’s confusing hint that a media agreement may have been reached, but maybe hadn’t, perhaps overshadows some more insightful points the commissioner made in his address.
“There’s an underlying shift in the media market that’s happening,” Kliavkoff said.
Indeed, the prevailing sentiment when it comes to college football media rights — most sports, really — is that the lack of an investment from ESPN is a death sentence.
Challengers tried to contest the unofficial monopoly, but suggested with the death of NBC Sports Network — which once aired Pac-10 football in its previous incarnation as Versus — even the backing of major conglomerates couldn’t loosen ESPN’s stranglehold.
However, Bob Iger’s recent comments about ESPN’s place within the greater Disney media empire, and CNBC reporting right around the time Kliakvoff was on stage at Resorts World that ESPN was in talks with pro leagues for partnerships in exchange for equity, perhaps conferences seeking media rights may not have to kiss the Worldwide Leader ring quite as much as in eras past.
Kliakvoff made cryptic remarks about the Pac-12 having more and better options the longer an announced deal waited.
Given a once-rumored conversation between the conference and TheCW that was widely mocked in the spring has since seen the over-the-air network announce it will broadcast games for the ESPN-partnered ACC, or that ION struck a $39-million dollar, three-year deal to broadcast the WNBA on Friday nights, there might be tangible reason for an optimism in the Pac-12.
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, the longer sports media’s left speculating, the less George Kliavkoff will be able to turn attention to the conference’s football — no matter how good it is