The anger was immediate, erupting just minutes after the news broke that the USC and UCLA were leading the Big Ten Conference. Fans took advantage of social media posts, one after another, suing the Larry Scott name.
It had been a year since a former Pac-12 commissioner resigned, but people blamed him for losing two marquee boards. They labeled it “destructive” and “fraudulent”, predicting that business schools would one day teach about its “leadership failures”.
Larry Scott destroyed the Pac-12 alonethey wrote.
This vitriol arose from a decision made by Scott shortly after he took office in 2009. At a time when other Power Five conferences were partnering with ESPN and Fox to launch dedicated networks – markets that would generate billions of dollars – Scott persuaded his universities to roll the dice. .
The PAC-12, he argued, should build its own network. The enterprise may need time to gather momentum, but it would allow the conference to maintain all control, all profits.
“If we do this right,” Scott recalled, telling his university presidents, “he will succeed.”
It didn’t pay off. Ten years after its inception, Pac-12 Networks continues to gain widespread traction, with the conference falling well behind its competitors in annual revenue and struggling to win nationally at key football and basketball sports. of men.
“It’s now easy to take shots at Larry Scott and play chair quarterbacks,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at the University of Washington in St. Louis. “That said, I think history will show that he did not make the wisest decision.”
The question arises: With USC and UCLA leaving, and speculation about Oregon, Washington and Stanford to follow soon, how much of the blame does Scott deserve?
Hiring for a conference looked doomed in a state of obsolescence and national reputation. It made sense to bring on board an outsider who had proven his marketing skills as head of Ladies Tennis.
Scott, who did not respond to an interview request on this story, knew what he was up to.
“That’s my challenge,” he said in 2010.
The new boss rang the opening bell at NASDAQ and ran a promo in Times Square, saying: “We are obliged to promote our product as widely as we can.” It expanded two schools, Utah and Colorado, through expansion and unveiled a revamped logo.
TV dollars were changing the college sports business. The Big Ten partnered with Fox to launch its network in 2007 and the SEC was donating its channel to ESPN in exchange for a huge rights fee. CBS, ESPN and others have expressed interest in the PAC-12.
“One criticism I have heard about Larry Scott in the industry is that he always wants to be the smartest person in the room,” Rishe said. “I wonder if he tried not to think about this one.”
Money and equity were only part of the argument for leaving him alone. The PAC-12 has always considered itself an “Olympic” conference, winning national titles in sports such as swimming, volleyball and water polo. An established broadcaster may focus too narrowly on men’s football and basketball; a self – owned network would ensure that these sports are properly exposed.
Pac-12 Networks launched in 2012 with a national channel and six regional channels, characterizing Scott as an effort to “best serve fans” in diverse geographic markets. Scott also operated a historically lucrative side market, selling chunks of men’s football and basketball games to ESPN and Fox for $ 3 billion over 12 years.
He believed that money would give his network some reason to establish itself.
While the market was crowded – with so many sports channels jumping into the fray – the PAC-12 charged carriers 80 cents per reported subscriber, more than CNN, US or FX. Time Warner Cable agreed but negotiations with DirecTV were more difficult.
“One criticism I have heard about Larry Scott in the industry is that he always wants to be the smartest person in the room. I wonder if he tried to think of this one. “
– Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at the University of Washington in St
Scott acknowledged that distribution would be crucial.
“I know there are a lot of concerns,” he said in 2012. “It’s understandable… it’s very important.”
Three years into his big gambling, during the 2014 Pac-12 football media days in Los Angeles, Scott took a break from the events to find a shady spot outside. Speaking to a reporter, he preached patience.
“You have to look at this based on where we are after 10 years,” he said. “Not by.”
The early returns were not promising.
The Pac-12 was only able to reach the DirecTV market on 11 million paying subscribers compared to 57 million for the Big Ten. With the SEC to be redirected to a projected 67 million families, Scott told his university presidents “we need to look at the long – term benefits.”
While the ESPN and Fox markets were profitable, the cable networks demanded early night kicks to fill empty broadcast time on the East Coast. Fans and coaches became frustrated with the “Pac-12 After Dark” games.
Moreover, Scott’s project was unlucky.
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 has reached the Finals.
The conference was held in Catch-22. Its network needed a juggernaut team to attract audiences but, with competitive conferences generating more revenue, spending more on great coaches and coaching facilities, the competition for the best recruits grew.
“They had a lot of products, but they didn’t have the level of audience they wanted,” said Daniel Durban, director of the USC Institute of Sport, Media and Society. “In fact, the Pac-12 was not that strong.”
Meanwhile, the SEC was pouring unprecedented resources into football, with Nick Saban and Alabama at the forefront, pulling one championship after another.
“The Pac-12 schools were always on the West Coast, they were always dealing with visibility and recruitment issues,” Rishe said. “These issues become more acute when a conference like the SEC comes up and becomes more difficult to come up with.”
The Olympic sports could not compensate.
“The Olympic thing can be icing on the cake,” Durbin said. “But you need the core product.”
The numbers remained lukewarm during 2018, with the Pac-12 distributing about $ 30 million a year to its schools, far behind the $ 40 million-plus paid by the SEC. Washington State president Kirk Schulz and others began publicly complaining.
That summer, sitting in the stands at the AAU basketball tournament in Garden Grove, watching his teenage son play, Scott quickly recovered.
“I would never say you would never make another call,” he said. “But at this point our universities and I are convinced that the core objectives of having a PAC-12 network are important.”
ESPN reportedly offered to distribute the network in exchange for an extension rights agreement. No deal was made.
“If that is the case, it would be a missed opportunity,” said councilor Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media Inc. “There is certainly room for criticism.”
Pac-12 university 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 TV deal was the most lucrative in the nation and the launch of Pac-12 Networks helped deliver our championship brand to US and global markets on traditional and digital platforms,” Oregon president Michael Schill said in a statement. . “That said, the intercollegiate athletics market is not what it used to be and now is a good time to bring in a new leader who will help us develop our progress strategy.”
“Larry Scott is one of the questions, … [But] you can only scapegoat one person. ”
– Daniel Durban, director of the USC Institute of Sport, Media and Society
Its strategy becomes more difficult with current media contracts expiring in 2024 and two, if not five, programs that have gone out the door.
This ecstasy can be linked to Scott’s gambit. The Big Ten distributed $ 680 million to schools in fiscal year 2021, almost double the $ 344 million paid by the PAC-12. With no additional revenue, UCLA officials said they were in danger of cutting programs. USC president Carol Folt called the Big Ten move a boon to the “long-term success and stability of her school”.
So where does that leave Scott and his 11-year stint?
He certainly has to take responsibility for leading the Pac-12 down the path to self-ownership and the signing of that 12-year ESPN-Fox transaction that left the conference unable to adapt to the changing media environment. . Also, for failing to shift course in other ways.
“Remember, when he came on stage, he wanted to make a splash,” Rishe said. “Obviously there was some myopia.”
Several factors were beyond his control.
Experts point to that bad luck, the cyclical nature of college sports and the university presidents who initially agreed with Scott’s media strategy. With the launch of the network, campus leaders refused to spend money at SEC levels and nurtured winning teams that would attract more audiences.
The conference also saw a battle raging in terms of geography and time zones, with the majority of TV viewers living in distant regions of the country.
“If you did not take the PAC-12 and move it across the Mississippi River, you will still have those problems,” Berke said. “Basically, that’s what the Big Ten have done, they’ve built USC and UCLA and moved into the central and eastern time zones where many more of their games will be featured.”
Shortly before resigning, Scott told the Associated Press that he was crying out for his schools not winning anymore in football. He criticized the university leadership for abandoning his plan too soon.
Fans did not respond kindly to the comments. However, the final judgment on its duration is probably longer than a number of angry posts on social media would suggest.
“Larry Scott is one of the issues,” Durbin said. But when it comes to something as big as the potential explosion of the Pac-12, he said, “you can only scapegoat one person.”