Did Larry Scott Kill the Pac-12? The answer is more complicated than you might think

FILE - In this file photo from October 8, 2019, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott speaks during the Pac-12.

Former Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott gets much of the blame for USC and UCLA bolting for the Big Ten. (D. Ross Cameron / Associated Press)

The anger was immediate and arose just minutes after the news broke that USC and UCLA goods on the way to the Big Ten Conference† Fans tapped out social media posts one after another, shouting out the name of Larry Scott

A year had passed since the former Pac-12 commissioner resigned, yet people blamed him for the loss of two marquee programs. They labeled him “destructive” and “a con man,” predicting that business schools would one day learn about his “leadership failures.”

Larry Scott single-handedly destroyed the Pac-12They wrote.

This vitriol stemmed from a decision Scott made shortly after taking charge in 2009. At a time when other Power Five conferences teamed up with ESPN and Fox to launch special networks — deals that would run into billions of dollars — Scott convinced his universities to roll the dice.

The Pac-12, he insisted, would… build your own network† The company may need time to gain momentum, but it would allow the conference to retain all control and all profits.

“If we do this right,” Scott recalled to his college presidents, “it will be successful.”

His gamble was never rewarded. A decade after their debut, the Pac-12 networks still lack widespread traction, the conference lagging far behind its rivals in terms of annual revenue and struggle to win at national level in the most important sports football and men’s basketball.

“It’s now easy to take pictures at Larry Scott playing quarterback in an armchair,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “Having said that, I think history will show that he didn’t make the most sensible decision.”

That begs the question: With USC and UCLA leaving, with speculation about Oregon, Washington and Stanford soon to follow, how much of the debt does Scott make?

His hiring seemed like a smart move for a conference that was lagging behind in terms of revenue and national reputation. It made sense to bring on board an outsider who had proven his marketing skills as the head of the Women’s Tennis Assn.

Scott, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, knew what he was getting into.

“That was my challenge,” he said in 2010.

The new boss sounded the opening bell on NASDAQ and held a promo in Times Square, saying, “We have an obligation to promote our product as widely as possible.” He added two schools, Utah and Colorado, through expansion and unveiled a redesigned logo.

Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott stands next to a map as he announces the split of the NCAA college football divisions

Larry Scott announces the Pac-10’s split into two divisions at a press conference on October 21, 2010 in San Francisco. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Television dollars changed the business of college sports. The Big Ten had partnered with Fox to launch its network in 2007, and the SEC turned over its channel to ESPN in exchange for a huge rights fee. CBS, ESPN and others expressed interest in the Pac-12.

“One criticism I’ve heard about Larry Scott in the industry is that he always wants to be the smartest guy in the room,” Rishe said. “You wonder if he was trying to top this one.”

Money and justice were only part of the argument for going it alone. The Pac-12 had always considered itself the “Olympic” conference, winning national titles in sports such as swimming, volleyball and water polo. An established broadcaster may focus too narrowly on football and men’s basketball; an own network would ensure that these sports receive the right attention.

The Pac-12 networks launched in 2012 with a national channel and six regional channels, which Scott characterized as attempting to “super serve fans” in different geographic markets. Scott also worked on a historically lucrative side deal, selling a piece of soccer and men’s basketball games to ESPN and Fox for $3 billion over a 12-year period.

That money, he thought, would cushion his network to establish himself.

Although the market was overcrowded — so many sports channels jumped into the fray — the Pac-12 asked providers for a reported 80 cents per subscriber, more than CNN, US or FX. Time Warner Cable agreed, but negotiations with DirecTV proved more difficult.

Scott acknowledged that distribution would be crucial.

“I know there’s a lot of fear,” he said in 2012. “It’s understandable…it matters a lot.”

Three years after his big gamble, during the 2014 Pac-12 football media days in Los Angeles, Scott took a break from proceedings to find a shady spot outside. In a conversation with a reporter, he preached patience.

“You have to look at this based on where we will be in 10 years,” he said. “Not three.”

The early returns were not promising.

Still unable to land a DirecTV deal, the Pac-12 only reached 11 million paying subscribers compared to 57 million for the Big Ten. With the SEC reopening with a projected 67 million households, Scott told his college presidents, “We need to look at the long-term benefits.”

While the ESPN and Fox deals were lucrative, the cable networks demanded nightly kick-offs to fill empty airtime on the East Coast. Fans and coaches became frustrated with the “Pac-12 After Dark” games.

Other than that, Scott’s project ran into a bit of bad luck.

NCAA sanctions hurt USC football more than expected, and Oregon lost coach Chip Kelly to the NFL. None of the best men’s basketball programs could make it to the Final Four.

The conference was in a Catch-22. The network needed a juggernaut team to entice viewers, but with competing conferences generating greater revenue, spending more on coaches, and lavish training facilities, the battle for top recruits became more difficult.

“They had a lot of product, but they didn’t have the audience they needed,” said Daniel Durban, director of USC’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society. “Honestly, the Pac-12 just wasn’t that convincing.”

Meanwhile, the SEC poured unprecedented resources into football, with Nick Saban and Alabama leading the way, taking home championship after championship.

“The Pac-12 schools have always been on the West Coast. They’ve always had visibility and recruiting issues,” Rishe said. “Those issues become more acute once a conference like the SEC takes over and it becomes harder to catch up.”

The Olympic sports could not compensate for that.

“The Olympic thing could be the icing on the cake,” Durbin said. “But you need the core product.”

The UCLA softball team poses for photos after defeating Oklahoma in the 2019 Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.

The UCLA softball team poses for photos after defeating Oklahoma in the 2019 Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. (Alonzo Adams/Associated Press)

The numbers remained lukewarm until 2018, with the Pac-12 distributing about $30 million a year to its schools, well behind the $40 million plus the SEC paid out. Washington State President Kirk Schulz and others began to publicly complain.

That summer, sitting in the stands at an AAU basketball tournament in Garden Grove, watching his teenage son play, Scott held on.

“I would never say that at some point you wouldn’t call differently,” he said. “But right now, our universities and I are really convinced that the original goals of having a Pac-12 network are important.”

ESPN has reportedly offered to distribute the network in exchange for an expanded rights deal. No deal was struck.

“If that were the case, it was a significant missed opportunity,” said consultant Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media Inc.. “There is certainly room for criticism.”

Pac-12 college presidents finally lost patience after the 2020 football season when it was announced that Scott would step down in June, a year before the end of his contract.

“At one point, our television deal was the most lucrative in the nation, and the debut of the Pac-12 Networks helped bring our championship brand to the U.S. and global markets across traditional and digital platforms,” said Oregon President Michael Schill, in a statement. “That said, the peer athletics market is not going to remain static and now is a great time to bring in a new leader who will help us develop our ongoing strategy.”

Their strategy is getting tougher with current media contracts expiring in 2024 and two, if not five, marquee programs out the door.

This exodus may be associated with Scott’s gambit. The Big Ten distributed $680 million to schools in fiscal year 2021, nearly double the $344 million paid out by the Pac-12. With no additional revenue, UCLA officials said they were at risk of cutting programs. USC President Carol Folt called the Big Ten movement a benefit to her school’s “success and long-term stability.”

So where is Scott and his 11-year tenure?

He must certainly take responsibility for leading the Pac-12 on the path to self-ownership and signing that 12-year ESPN-Fox deal that left the conference unable to adapt to a changing media environment. Also for not changing course in other ways.

“Remember, when he came on the scene, he was trying to make a splash,” Rishe said. “There was obviously some myopia.”

Some factors were beyond his control.

Experts point to that bad luck, the cyclical nature of college sports and the college presidents who endorsed Scott’s media strategy in the beginning. Once the network launched, campus leaders refused to spend money at the SEC level and nurtured winning teams that would attract more viewers.

The conference also faced an uphill battle over geography and time zones, with a majority of television viewers living in remote regions of the country.

“Unless you took the Pac-12 and moved it across the Mississippi River, you’re always going to have those problems,” Berke said. “Essentially, what the Big Ten has done is they’ve taken USC and UCLA and moved it to the central and eastern time zones where a lot more of their games will be shown.”

Shortly before resigning, Scott told the Associated Press that he regretted that his schools were no longer winning in football. He criticized the university leadership for abandoning its plan too soon.

Fans did not respond kindly to the comments. Still, the final verdict on his tenure is likely more nuanced than a slew of angry social media posts would suggest.

“Larry Scott is one of the problems,” Durbin said. But when it comes to something as big as the potential implosion of the Pac-12, he added, “You can’t scapegoat one person.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times

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