When Larry Scott met with the Pac-12 CEO group last week to discuss his future with the conference, he said it immediately became clear that the presidents and chancellors had concluded it was time for new leadership.
"[They] were feeling like a new direction would make sense," Scott told ESPN on Wednesday night after the conference announced that his turbulent 11-year tenure as Pac-12 commissioner will end in June.
While the Scott era had a promising start with expansion to include Colorado and Utah, the birth of the Pac-12 Network and a record media rights deal, the conference's national visibility and relevance has been trending in the wrong direction over the past few years.
When he replaced Tom Hansen, who retired after 26 years, in 2009, Scott arrived having just engineered an impressive six-year stretch for the Women's Tennis Association, where he landed record sponsorship and TV deals.
In one of his first interviews after being hired, Scott told the Associated Press the conference was "craving different, more media exposure, more commercial success where it's possible, innovative and different ways to promote the conference -- all things I feel I've done before."
But nearly 12 years later, the conference is in a similar spot. While it generates significantly more revenue than it did when Scott took over -- $101.9 million in revenue in 2009-10 and $530.4 million in 2018-19 -- there have been similar spikes for the other Power 5 conferences, as media rights values skyrocketed over the last decade. In recent years, the Pac-12's revenue has been comparable to the ACC and Big 12, but it is well behind the Big Ten and SEC. In 2018-19, the Big Ten generated over $250 million more than the Pac-12.
While Scott's background and initial vision helped the Pac-12 at times, league sources believe his successor must have stronger on-campus roots and built-in relationships in the college athletics community, an area where Scott often struggled.
Potential candidates include Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who served as Arizona State's athletic director from 2000 to 2005 and has a home in the Phoenix area; Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne, who led Arizona's athletic department from 2010 to 2017; former West Virginia athletic director and NCAA vice president Oliver Luck, whose son Andrew starred at quarterback for Stanford; current Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir; American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, a former programming executive for both CBS and ESPN; Colorado athletic director Rick George, a former Texas Rangers executive; Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, who has worked closely with Scott and league presidents during the coronavirus pandemic; and West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez, a former senior associate commissioner at the Pac-12, who oversaw compliance at Cal and also received her law degree there, and served as a senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma.
As Scott closes out his time with the conference, here are three major issues that will shape the future of the Pac-12:
Television rights: When the Pac-12 signed a 12-year media rights deal with ESPN and Fox Sports in 2011, it was a landmark deal. At the time, it was the most valuable college sports rights deal in the country and was structured in a way that would allow the conference to grow its own network, which would serve as a platform for the live events that ESPN and Fox Sports didn't broadcast. The Pac-12 Network struggled with distribution from the beginning and never came to an agreement to be carried by DirecTV. With that contract up before the 2024 season, it's reasonable to expect another increase, evident from other conference media rights deals over the past four years, but how it will be structured remains to be seen. That will be the first order of business for the next commissioner, and the timing played a significant role in why Scott's departure is happening now, Scott said. After the Pac-12 Network shed much of its staff in the fall -- mostly because of the pandemic -- it's fair to wonder if the network will shutter in advance of the next deal or if the next commissioner will continue to believe, like Scott has, that keeping the network in place has long-term value.
CFP expansion: In September, Scott made a push for the College Football Playoff to be expanded, but the request wasn't taken seriously and came too late in the game for it to receive any real consideration to happen this season, even with the unusual circumstances. One of the most baffling decisions of Scott's tenure is that he didn't push for expansion from the start. The four-team structure of the College Football Playoff has been fine for crowning a national champion, but the Pac-12's lack of involvement has been devastating for the conference's national reputation. There was a general belief at the Pac-12 that it wouldn't be an issue, that the cyclical nature of the sport would prevent the Pac-12 from extended absences, but it hasn't worked out that way. Had USC been able to buoy the conference in a way that Clemson has done for the ACC, Scott's tenure would likely be viewed much differently, but without a top-tier team that keeps the conference relevant late into the season, the Pac-12 will continue to be out of sight, out of mind. An expanded playoff would solve this by keeping the conference relevant later in the season and should be top of mind for Scott's replacement.
Player empowerment and rights issues: As the Pac-12 grappled with the decision of whether to play football in the fall, a group of athletes threatened to opt out of participation if certain demands weren't met. Most had to do with health and safety related to the pandemic, but the group also asked for revenue sharing, which Scott told them was a non-starter. If there was ever a year for football players to learn their value to a university, it was in 2020 as the scaled-back season and related financial shortcomings wreaked havoc on athletic department budgets. With law changes that will soon allow players to profit from their names, image and likeness (the NCAA delayed a vote on the issue on Jan. 11), the next commissioner will have to come in ready to adapt as necessary and, ideally, helpful navigate NIL so the conference becomes an attractive place for top-caliber recruits to want to play.
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg contributed reporting.