There have been countless stories over the past few years about the Pac-12’s struggles, from just two Pac-12 teams being selected in six years of the College Football Playoff (by far the worst amongst the Power Five conferences, and that’s before you get to those teams putting up just a 1-2 overall record), to the growing issues at the conference network and the revenue gap to other Power Five conferences that’s widened as a result, to internal issues and decisions that have made the conference look bad publicly. But while much of the criticism in many of those areas has been directed at conference commissioner Larry Scott, there’s been little done to limit Scott’s power over the conference and the network, to point him in different directions, or even to suggest that the Pac-12 CEO Group (made up of university leaders) will do anything other than renew Scott’s contract ahead of its mid-2022 expiry.
That’s what makes a new report from Jon Wilner of The Mercury News (based in San Jose) particularly notable. Wilner obtained emails from Pac-12 university leaders discussing the possible hiring of a consultant, and those emails suggest that any consultant might report directly to the CEO group’s executive committee rather than to Scott. Those emails also suggest that the consultant might be hired to examine “the entire structure and composition of the PAC 12,” not just the upcoming media rights deal (which expires in the spring of 2024, but negotiations will likely begin in 2022, if not sooner). And they put forth some interesting options for the consultant, most notably former Fox and Hulu executive Randy Freer.
But it’s the discussion of having this potential consultant report directly to the committee that’s especially interesting. That isn’t certain to lead to the CEO group putting pressure on Scott to change course or step down (the consultant could wind up supporting Scott’s current approach), but major change is definitely more of a possibility if an independent consultant advises the CEOs major change is needed.
No consultant is certain to be hired as the moment. Right now, this is only about emails coming from an informal advisory group of Pac-12 graduates with media roles (USC grad Jeff Smulyan, the CEO of Emmis Communications, Colorado grad Jim Packer, president of worldwide TV at Lionsgate, Cal grad Larry Sonsini, an attorney specializing in intellectual property, and UCLA grad Casey Wasserman, chair of the Wasserman media group) that the CEOs have been talking with regularly for the last year. But those advisors have recommended an independent consultant who reports to the executive committee. Here’s the key part of Wilner’s piece on that, relaying an early-June email from Sonsini to Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano:
2. Scope: Once a consultant is selected, we think it is important to define the scope of the work and the related compensation. Our thought is to limit the scope at this time to canvassing the market, engaging in exploratory discussions, obtain data as to possible economic scenarios and strategies and to assess the competitive landscape. Inclusive of this scope would be information and thoughts on the status of the Pac 12 Conference as well as future challenges. No authority would be given at this time to engage in any transaction or the making of any proposals.
3. Reporting: We strongly believe that the consultant report directly to your Executive Committee but engage in discussions with Larry Scott as well as we four advisors. All reports to you and the Committee should be kept confidential.
Shortly after that e-mail, Oregon president Michael Schill wrote to DiStefano and Washington president Ana Mari Cauce and said the scope may not be that limited, saying with respects to the consultant:
“If it just were a media deal than any of the three might work.
“However, if it is the entire structure and composition of the PAC 12 as we discussed on the call, then I wonder whether consultants whose main experience is from the business world would be appropriate. Our values go beyond maximizing revenue. Or, at least they did prior to the current financial issues.”
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In any case, if the CEOs do go ahead with hiring a consultant who doesn’t report to Scott, Freer would seem like a solid choice. He has decades of experience in the TV world, first in ad sales at Turner, then as a business affairs vice president at animation syndication firm Active Entertainment, then with Fox Sports (1997-2013), Fox Networks Group (2013-17), and Hulu (2017-20). And perhaps most importantly for the Pac-12, he has a lot of familiarity with their rights; he led many of Fox Sports’ rights negotiations over the years, including on the current deal with the Pac-12 that they signed in 2011. He also would seem to have more familiarity with the “values beyond maximizing revenue” than the other suggested consultants, consultancy firms Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Allen & Co.
But if Schill’s comments about going even wider matter, it’s possible that the conference could look at bringing someone with more experience on the university side than the TV side. That could perhaps be a former conference commissioner or athletic director. Or maybe they go somewhere else entirely. At any rate, it’s certainly interesting that the CEOs are looking at hiring a consultant who would report to them, rather than Scott. And while there are still a million ways that things could go from there, this is one tangible example that the CEOs are at least looking to get some outside insight on if Scott is the right person to lead them forward into this next crucial rights deal.