Larry Scott and the Pac-12 has been a pretty rocky marriage, so credit to both parties that they found a pretty clean way to wind down Scott’s tenure. The Pac-12 will now become the third Power Five conference to replace a long-term commissioner over the last year, following the Big Ten (which went with Kevin Warren in June 2019 following Jim Delany’s retirement) and ACC (which went with James Phillips in December 2020 following John Swofford’s retirement).
Under Scott’s tenure, the Pac-12 fell further and further behind the other Power Five conferences in just about every significant measurable metric, from per-school payouts to network distribution and profitability to football success. Thus, whoever the new Pac-12 commissioner is won’t exactly be inheriting an easy situation. But it’s still a pretty prestigious job, and one that will attract an impressive list of candidates with strong backgrounds.
Given the Pac-12’s litany of issues on the media front (smaller amounts of TV money, inconvenient kickoff times, fewer households for their cable networks, and no media partner for those networks) there is some thought that the conference may opt to target someone from the media world as the next commissioner. Early speculation has pointed to ESPN’s Burke Magnus (seen at left above) and former Fox Sports and Hulu CEO Randy Freer (seen at right above) as strong contenders.
Yahoo’s Pete Thamel was the first to identify Magnus as a candidate. Magnus was recently rumored to be in the final running for the recently filled ACC commissioner’s job (which ultimately went to Northwestern AD Phillips), and he was also mentioned as a candidate for the Big Ten job (which ultimately went to Minnesota Vikings COO Warren).
The early read on candidates to replace Larry Scott is that they need direct college experience, football savvy, media experience and a relationship builder. Early potential names include Oliver Luck, Bernard Muir, Gloria Nevarez, Burke Magnus, Dan Radakovich and Gene Smith.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) January 21, 2021
The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna spelled out the rationale for pursuing Magnus, who can be currently be viewed as ESPN’s second or third in command (especially after the departures of influential ESPN/Disney execs Connor Schell and Kevin Mayer).
Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, might just be the most influential person in college athletics who doesn’t technically work in college athletics, at least from a financial standpoint. He has been the point person on most of ESPN’s long-term deals with major conferences and the College Football Playoff. If he’s serious about this job — and it wouldn’t exactly be considered a traditional promotion from his current seat — then the Pac-12 absolutely has to consider finding a way to get a TV mind like this in charge of its conference. But Magnus’ interest remains to be seen.
The thinking on going with someone with a media background is that the Pac-12 will soon start negotiating their next TV deals, which expire at the end of the 2023-24 academic year. While that seems like a ways away, the hiring process could take six to nine months, and the conference will likely figure out their next deal a year or two before the current one lapses. Additionally a media executive would be key in terms of figuring out what in the world to do with the Pac-12 Networks, which have frankly been a disaster that nobody knows what to do with.
While Magnus seems to be the most likely candidate from the media world, expert on all things Pac-12 Jon Wilner of The Mercury News (San Jose) has another candidate in mind.
If the presidents opt to hire straight from the sports media space, there is a clear choice, in our estimation:
Randy Freer, the former head of Fox Sports, who lives on the West Coast, understands the Pac-12’s challenges and worked with Scott on the $3 billion TV deal signed a decade ago.
Wilner is pretty plugged in, so it’s hard to discount his suggestion. Although I wonder if someone like Freer who recently ran Hulu is realistically in play, given that other media opportunities would potentially be a) more lucrative and stable and b) less scrutinized.
Wilner also makes the case that despite the popular conjecture that a media hire was likely, it may not actually be the best path forward.
The presidents might be tempted to hire straight from the sports media world. After all, the conference must chart a future for the Pac-12 Networks and maximize its value in the upcoming media rights negotiations.
Who better to suck every possible dollar out of the TV networks than one of their own?
We see two issues with that approach:
Even if the conference hired a sports media veteran as commissioner, he/she would then hire a media consultant to craft strategy and run point on the negotiations. So you’re paying double.
There is more to the role of commissioner than the media component, and every other aspect requires someone with deep experience in college sports, and football in particular.
If we’ve learned anything from the commissioner searches from the recently completed Big Ten and ACC searches, it’s that a) these things are hard to handicap and b) the conferences keep a pretty tight lid on the process. So it’s very possible we won’t hear much going forward regarding Magnus, Freer, or any of the other candidates until a decision is actually made.
It’s an interesting time at ESPN right now with a brutal stretch of layoffs and strategic change in a cord-cutting world. So perhaps Magnus sees this as a great escape hatch from The Worldwide Leader. Meanwhile, Freer is a free agent, so maybe the prestige of a being a P5 commissioner gets him back in the game. Either way, whoever the conference lands on as the next commissioner, it’s pretty clear that the Pac-12 has a pretty extensive list of issues that need to be addressed and that patience from fans has already been mostly exhausted.