As the news of a mass exodus from the Pac-12 Conference flooded in on Aug. 4, my 9-year-old son snapped me from my bewilderment with the kind of question only the video game-loving 9-year-old mind conceives: Why did Sega and Nintendo hate each other?
Memories from my youth came flooding back. I realized that while I couldn’t recall where I’d set my keys 10 minutes prior, I remembered that the Genesis version of the original Mortal Kombat had pixelated blood and the arcade Fatalities — with a cheat code — while the Super Nintendo version didn’t.
Don’t feel bad if the above doesn’t make sense; it’s a decidedly ‘90s thing, a relic from an era of brand wars. Merely marketing a product on its merit wasn’t sufficient: Brands initiated publicly rivalries to let consumers know that not only was their product worth your money, but similar products were to be scorned.
Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi, WWF vs. WCW, Sega vs. Nintendo were as embittered as any Iron Bowl.
Consumer tastes and marketing strategies have changed, and coupled with monopolies becoming increasingly entrenched post-Great Recession, advertisers going to war is as archaic of a concept in the 21st Century as blacked-out Football Bowl Subdivision games.
But, as a ‘90s kid, I know both well. My earliest memories of college-football Saturdays, growing up in the then-Pac-10 footprint, are of Keith Jackson on the call for ABC’s marquee 12:30 p.m. PT kickoff — usually featuring one of either UCLA or USC — followed by my dad’s justifiable frustration trying to find the syndicated Raycom Game of the Week around dinnertime.
For a generation that remembered a time when only one or two Pac-10 games a week were easily accessible, Larry Scott arrived in his former role as conference commissioner a hero.
However, his actual legacy — likewise, for a generation who would remember such things — is akin to Sega CD, 32X, Sega Saturn: a series of risky missteps that leave a once industry-leading brand at best a shadow of what it was; and, at worst, in the proverbial Alamogordo landfill of college sports history.
It’s easy to forget now, with the Pac-12’s current inability to secure a TV deal as a result of Scott’s tenure and the resulting near-total dissolution of the conference. However, when the Harvard-educated Scott spearheaded the league’s initial broadcast contracts in his first year as commissioner, he garnered almost universal praise.
“Since taking over a conference that was stuck in neutral in July 2009,” a July 2011 Associated Press report explained, “Scott has orchestrated college sports’ largest TV deal, restructured the league and its tournaments, saved sports from being slashed, pulled rival programs together to share revenue and put the nation on notice: The Pac-12 is not just a BCS conference, it’s reshaping college athletics.”
Indeed, in 2011 when it was announced, the Pac’s newly brokered television deal positioned the conference on both ESPN and as part of Fox’s push for more prominence in the college football space. The $3 billion contract seemingly fulfilled the expectations within the conference.
A June 2010 article by longtime Oklahoman writer Berry Tramel quotes Andrew Walker — a colleague of Scott in the ex-commissioner’s previous role leading the Women’s Tennis Association and later the Pac-12’s VP of communications — saying of Scott, “Best negotiator I’ve ever seen.”
Former University of Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, now heading up sports for the University of Alabama, said of Scott to The Oklahoman: “[Scott] comes from a different angle. I don’t know anybody else [in college sports who] comes from that line. He’s a really good fit for the Pac-10.”
Coming to the Pac off a six-year stint as CEO of the WTA, Scott’s “different angle” included talk of global presence and membership expansion — big ambitions that diverged dramatically from the conference’s previous era.
Chief among those big ambitions was what became the conference’s albatross: An independently owned network.
Conference networks first surfaced in the half-decade before Scott arrived in the Pac with the Mountain West’s ill-fated TheMtn., and the Big Ten debuting its own channel in 2007.
The formation of a Pac-10 network, or Pac-12 Network by the time of launch, wasn’t a brainchild of Scott’s. Nor was he the first league commissioner to publicly address the possibility.
Scott succeeded Tom Hansen in 2009, inheriting a conference that while more visible than in its Raycom Game of the Week days, still languished primarily on regional Fox Sports Networks. A Thursday night basketball doubleheader in which the first tip bled into most of the second tip’s opening half was hardly uncommon, and tape-delayed airings of Tier 3 non-conference football games were not unheard of as a result of time conflicts with professional leagues.
On his way out the door in June ‘09, Hansen spoke with the late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Dufresne for a Q&A that touched on what would be the hinges for college sports in general, and the Pac specifically over the ensuing decade. Included was discussion of a league-specific network.
Some of Hansen’s points missed the mark; he downplayed the value of prospective expansion with Utah, which was fresh off an undefeated football season and Sugar Bowl pasting of Alabama.
The Utes’ win arguably helped accelerate the demise of the Bowl Championship Series through threats of antitrust litigation. Growing sentiment and possible legal action against the BCS initiated the shift to a Playoff and college football’s current state of expansion to add more programs with the possibility of landing lucrative Playoff berths.
Other points Hansen made were much more prescient — specifically: “We need to be competitive financially with the two conferences that have done these recent TV deals: the Big Ten and the SEC,” Hansen said. “The Big Ten did it by forming a network and the SEC did it by threatening to form a network.”
The SEC’s threats became reality, and in a manner more akin to how the Big Ten formed its network than the Pac-12’s biggest and least successful gamble under Scott.
SEC Network launched on Aug. 14, 2014, two years after the debut of Pac-12 Network. On Day 1, SEC Network reported availability in 87 million homes with an estimated 75 million subscribers — a byproduct of Southeastern Conference passion, surely, but also indicative of the league’s partnership with ESPN.
The Fox-partnered Big Ten Network enjoyed 60 million subscribers by 2014. The Pac-12 Network had 26 million subscribers at the same time, making it the Sega Channel of sports.
Now, as easy as it would be to mock the Pac-12 Network’s lack of penetration as reflective of apathy or a bad on-field product, that misses the mark on several fronts. Your author has praised Pac-12 Network production value and on-air talent in this space before as perhaps the best in college football.
In the early days of Pac-12 Network, before financial issues stemming in part from Larry Scott’s inability to oversee in market reach scaled back inventory, the channel offered some unique and interesting non-event content.
The Drive, following teams over the course of a football season in docuseries style, introduced audiences — limited in numbers as they may have been — to the stories of Pac-12 athletes. Speaking from the perspective of a ‘90s kid whose love of sports was fueled in part by Sports Illustrated taking deep-dives into the lives of the performers, The Drive was reflective of an important part of sports coverage that in the present day feels as endangered as the Pac-12.
For football history buffs, Pac-12 Network’s short-lived Varsity Days made use of university archives to air long-ago games of historical significance with Pop-Up Video style citations — that’s another ‘90s reference for you younger readers.
What’s more, the uneven comparison in distribution between the Pac-12 versus the Big Ten and SEC Networks in 2014 specifically underscores that Pac-12 Network’s failure ultimately had little, if anything at all, to do with product.
The 2014 season was the high watermark for the conference’s football product, with Marcus Mariota quarterbacking Oregon to the College Football Playoff Championship Game and winning the Heisman Trophy; Utah emerging as a contender, beginning to fulfill its promise as an expansion partner and finishing as one of a league-record six teams ranked in the final AP Top 25; and the birth of #Pac12AfterDark.
A series of upsets and wild finishes played out that year that showcased both the competitive nature of the conference, and the entertainment value. Some of the most iconic Pac-12 After Dark moments aired on Pac-12 Network.
No, it wasn’t the actual product on Pac-12 Network that hurt the conference; the actual product was pretty damn good. It was the Pac-12 Network’s failure to gain distribution nationally through DirecTV and in assorted markets’ cable providers.
Larry Scott believed vehemently in the Pac-12 Network’s independence. In 2017 at the conference’s media day, he acknowledged the SEC and Big Ten Network enjoyed far more market penetration as a result of partnerships with ESPN and Fox, both of which had negotiating chips to play with providers.
“We’re the only collegiate network that owns and controls its own content,” Scott said. “Over time we’re going to have a unique flexibility and ability to be nimble and experiment and pilot as these new forms of distribution occur.”
But that experimentation, such as a direct-to-consumer streaming model, never came to pass in part because the initial losses in revenue from not having partnership limited the conference’s options.
Meanwhile, partnering directly with a media entity had a finite window for cashing in.
In the 13 years since rumblings of mutual interest between the Pac and Texas were ultimately fruitless, it’s become canon — regardless if it was ever a realistic proposition — that the conference whiffed by not adding the Longhorns. Texas having brokered a partnership with ESPN that produced the Longhorn Network seems a development that suggests such a merger wouldn’t have been feasible.
To be clear, the Longhorn Network was a disaster on numerous fronts: poor distribution, woefully limited inventory and misguided attempts by the Worldwide Leader to push Texas’ Big 12 Conference rivals onto LHN broadcasts. But it netted the UT athletic department $15 million annually.
And while the Pac-12 Network’s independence allowed it to determine its content strategy and keep the entirety of its profits, quizzical spending decisions under Scott’s leadership cut into the bottom line.
Scott often touted having both Silicon Valley and Hollywood in the conference’s geographical footprint. Wires seemed to be crossed as to what that entailed, however, with the Network operating out of downtown San Francisco, an area hardly known for its television presence but notorious for its expensive real estate.
Financial disclosures revealed an astronomic $8.35 million annual cost for rent. The commitment to San Francisco when the conference had a foothold in Los Angeles and a growing presence in Las Vegas after moving the men’s basketball tournament there in 2013 might stand as the most symbolic misfire of Scott’s tenure in that there was just no logical reason from an outsider’s perspective behind it.
For a commissioner whose leadership often felt based on marginal improvements from past misses, Scott setting up operations in San Francisco lacked both precedent and foresight: Los Angeles has been entertainment’s epicenter since the silent-movie era, and Las Vegas has exploded as a hub for sports in the past decade — including direct involvement from the Pac-12.
As a result, we face a future where the Pac-12 competing with the Big Ten or SEC may seem to future generations as archaic as a time when Sega and Nintendo went head-to-head, and the concept of a “Conference of Champions” being as much of a nonsensical relic of a bygone time as Blast Processing.