It has been 33 days since Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff accused the Big 12 of attempting to “destabilize” his conference.
Those efforts, it appears, are ongoing.
The latest move is aimed at mitigating the Pac-12’s primary advantage over its peer-turned-rival in the realignment game: The timing of formal media rights negotiations.
The Pac-12’s current contract with ESPN and Fox expires in the summer of 2024, while the Big 12’s deal with the same partners concludes in the summer of 2025.
As a result, the Pac-12 is currently engaged in formal negotiations on a new media agreement. Kliavkoff can talk hard numbers with interested networks and, crucially, place firm offers in front of current and potential members.
Because its deal expires a year later, the Big 12 is unable to start formal negotiations.
On Wednesday, Yormark produced the best countermove available, announcing that the Big 12 “will be entering into discussions with (ESPN and Fox) to explore an accelerated extension of its current agreements.”
The reaction from Big 12 country on social media was swift and predictable:
The Pac-12’s advantage is gone!
The Pac-12 is doomed!
We hate Texas!
Various iterations of this game have played out over the past eight weeks.
Let us count the rumors, reports, salvos and spin originating from Big 12 country — not necessarily from the Big 12 office itself — that have shaped the public narrative.
Each item carried varying degrees of accuracy.
— First: The Four Corners schools would meet with the Big 12 to discuss membership opportunities.
— Then: The Big 12 had called off merger talks with the Pac-12.
— Next: ESPN would not offer a contract to the Pac-12.
— Now: The Big 12 is entering discussions with ESPN and Fox.
Nuanced … extremely nuanced.
Here is the full statement issued by the Big 12 office:
The Big 12 Conference announces it will be entering into discussions with its multi-media partners to explore an accelerated extension of its current agreements.
“It is an exciting time for college athletics and given the changing landscape we welcome the opportunity to engage with our partners to determine if an early extension is in the best interest of all parties,” said Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark. “The Big 12 has enjoyed a fantastic relationship with its multi-media rights holders, and I look forward to having these conversations.”
Note that the Big 12 never says when the discussion will begin or how long this phase will last. Also, it never uses the most important word — negotiations — and it leaves the most important piece unsaid:
The discussions only matter if both partners, Fox and ESPN, are serious about doing a deal now and willing to put hard numbers on the table.
The statement is carefully crafted to avoid false claims but vague enough to create an information vacuum that can be quickly filled by assumptions and rumors — assumptions and rumors that further attempt to destabilize the Pac-12.
Just how serious is ESPN about negotiating with the Big 12?
The network offered the following statement to the Hotline:
“We regularly engage in conversation around the future with all of our partners, but to be clear, we have not opened the contractual negotiation window with the Big 12 at this time.”
Could the window open next week or next month? Perhaps. But until it does, the Pac-12 retains a strategic advantage.
That said, the smoke matters.
All the rumors, reports, salvos and spin from Big 12 country have a purpose — to cause unease and uncertainty on the Pac-12 campuses. To make the athletic directors and presidents nervous, to undercut trust.
When it comes to aggressive messaging, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark turns the knob to 11. He’s a long lost member of Spinal Tap.
And that’s a smart approach, especially when his conference is facing multiple disadvantages:
The Pac-12 has better football brands, better media markets, a more valuable broadcast property (the 7:30 p.m. Pacific kickoffs) and an advantage in the timing of contractual negotiations.
Yormark, who was hired this summer, is constantly testing the Pac-12’s alignment. He did it with the infamous “open for business” comment in July and again here, with the announcement of contract talks.
To this point, the Pac-12 has remained cohesive. Until a media contract is signed, the public speculation about solidarity will persist.
Of course, there’s a better way through the negotiations for both conferences — one we have addressed previously.
The Pac-12 and Big 12 should combine forces.
We aren’t advocating for an outright merger, which might make the Pac-12 presidents uneasy and create bureaucratic obstacles for both leagues (in addition to costing one of the commissioners his job).
Instead, they should pool their football inventory and sell it on the open market, packaged in a manner that covers four time zones, four broadcast slots each Saturday and, potentially, two more every Thursday and Friday when the SEC and Big Ten aren’t dominating the TV windows.
Right now, supply and demand are on the side of the networks: There are two sellers of media rights (Pac-12 and Big 12) and two buyers (ESPN and Fox).
If the conferences pool their inventory, there would be one seller and two buyers (if not more).
The Hotline first addressed the benefits of a Pac-12/Big 12 scheduling partnership three-and-a-half years ago.
Plenty has changed, especially in the past 13 months, and we wonder about the current level of trust between the conferences.
But the heart of the case remains unchanged: Their futures are more secure if the football content is combined, rather than sold separately.
That’s not smoke. That’s the reality.
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