New Pac-12 Commissioner: Who is George Kliavkoff and How is he Going to Help?

On Wednesday 13th May, the Pacific-12 conference began a new era. Larry Scott is leaving his post as the conference’s commissioner, a post he had held since 2009, when the conference was known as the Pacific-10.

Scott will be replaced by George Kliavkoff, who will be taking up the role of Pac-12 commissioner, leaving his role as MGM Resorts International President of Entertainment and Sports.

But who is Kliakoff and will he be an improvement on Scott for the Pac-12?

Let’s begin by examining the conference from the points of view of where it stood in 2009 when Scott came in, where it stands now and Larry Scott’s tenure.

In 2009, as mentioned above, there were just ten teams who played football in the conference, Scott was seen as an innovator and was hired by the ten chancellors and presidents off the back of frustration which was linked to the lack of television revenue and being seen as a much smaller conference than the likes of the Big Ten and SEC conferences.

Scott seemed like a great hire at the time, he was seen as a left-field hire but the kind of tonic that the conference needed – Scott had come from a position as the Chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) where he oversaw huge revenue growths, including record sponsorships and TV deals.

Scott’s innovative side came through in 2011, when the conference grew by two teams, when the University of Colorado and University of Utah joined the conference. However, these two schools weren’t the only teams that Scott tried to recruit to play out West; Scott’s original plan was to get Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado to join the original ten schools (no Utah at this time) and by all accounts this move nearly came to fruition.

How powerful would the Western-16 conference have been, had Scott’s vision been realised?

Obviously it did not come off and the conference’s format has been unchanged for 10 years with regards to football. In that time, the conference has gotten better, I don’t think that can be denied, but on the flip-side of that coin, I don’t think Scott will say that he has succeeded in everything that he has done.

The Pac-12 has had its strong points; it’s a very competitive league, where almost any team can beat anyone on a given weekend. The conference is able to compete with other top conferences in terms of recruitment; at least one of Oregon, UCLA and USC have been in the top-10 for recruiting classes every year aside from 2020 (Oregon placed highest at #11) since Scott took over as commissioner in 2009, so kids want to play for Pac-12 schools. In addition to this Scott is commended for modernising the conference and introducing things such as #Pac12AfterDark. 

However, there are negatives too; Scott didn’t foster good relations with the athletic directors around the league, nor did the conference handle the COVID-19 pandemic well either. Prior to the 2020 season, the conference’s football schedule was cancelled  two weeks after it was announced leading to a group of student athletes forming the #WeAreUnited group in protest to the COVID protocols and lack of leadership from the top. Lastly, as much as Scott brought in equal revenue shares for the 12 members, lower end Big Ten teams still earn tens of millions of dollars more than upper echelon Pac-12 schools from broadcast incomes.

This was epitomised by Mel Tucker’s move from Colorado to Michigan State the 2020 season where his salary jumped from $2.7m to $5.5m. So in the grand scheme of things, was the improved revenue down to Scott’s leadership, or was it a by-product of money in college football rising exponentially over his tenure?

Ultimately, I feel like Scott’s reign as Pac-12 commissioner will be viewed as a failure – Scott has grown the revenues of the conference significantly but it still lags behind the other four Power-5 conferences, not only in revenue but also in prestige.

2023 will be a huge year for the Pac-12, as that is when the new television deal will begin and given the catastrophe that has been the Pac-12 Network, given that the conferences own network wasn’t able to broadcast football for the first 6 weeks of the college football season last year, the new TV deal cannot come quick enough for these schools and I’d imagine that getting the new deal right will be atop of Kliavkoff’s to-do list.

Photo Credit: LA Times

Let’s get into the new man in charge then…

As the article’s title asks, who is George Kliavkoff?

Kliavkoff comes from MGM after a career which has gone through the legal field, as he graduated from the law school of the University of Virginia.His career led him through sports, tech and media, through roles in on-demand TV at Hulu, MLB advanced media and prior to MGM. Kliavkoff was a member of the board of governors for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and furthermore on a sporting level, Kliavkoff also managed the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces before the team was sold by MGM to the Las Vegas Raiders owner, Mark Davis in January 2021.

So what can we deduce from this?

Kliavkoff has relevant experience and is highly qualified and academic but isn’t coming from a position where he has managed a league before; nor did Larry Scott. So is this a problem?

Maybe.

However, Kliavkoff is said to be prioritising forging a strong bond with the 12 member schools and their athletic directors – Something which it feels like Scott failed to do.

Kliavkoff will do well to have the AD’s and players at the heart of what he does in the early days and give them input on key negotiations, such as the imminent talks over the new broadcast deal mentioned previously, which kicks in for the 2023 season.

I would imagine that experiences in media and potential relationships with streaming services such as Hulu and knowledge of that market will be absolutely paramount for the conference in the short-term. All sports fans know that streaming and on-demand services are going to become the norm in the coming years, as opposed to the traditional broadcasters, as fans search for more customisation and personalisation of their television subscriptions. Klaivkoff will surely tap into this and if he does the Pac-12 could strike gold in terms of broadcast revenues.

What else will be on the agenda?

Aside from revenues, perhaps Kliavkoff will attempt to push for an expanded college football playoff?

This is something that Larry Scott pushed for in 2020, using the COVID-19 pandemic as the reasoning, however this fell of deaf ears and the tournament remained restricted to just four teams.

If the playoff is expanded to eight teams, it’ll be great for the Pac-12 as this will mean that at least one team will gain automatic entry to the tournament and with that comes a chance to bring a National Championship out West, something that has never happened in the college football playoff era and last happened in the BCS era in 2008 when Utah claimed a National championship under Kyle Whittingham – The year before Scott was appointed commissioner, no less.

A playoff team every year protects the Pac-12’s status as a major conference and allows those teams who recruit well to dangle an even bigger carrot in front of recruits eyes as they will no longer need to play for Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State or Clemson to have a chance to win a National Championship, they could do it at USC or Oregon. It also allows West Coast teams to attract players from elsewhere across the country too and also fend off teams from the Deep South poaching top tier recruits from California in particular. 

George Kliavkoff has a chance to get things right out West – If he gets it right, football (and with that, every other sport these institutions compete in) will be better funded, the conference will be of a better standard and the conference may even bring home more than a Rose Bowl victory in future.

By Lee Wakefield

Follow Lee on Twitter @Wakefield90

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