George Kliavkoff’s tenure atop the Pac-12 begins July 1 — a groundbreaking day within a tumultuous summer within a historic year for college sports.
It’s the first day athletes can receive compensation for marketing and promotional endeavors through the use of their Name, Image and Likeness.
It’s the deadline to transfer without penalty for the upcoming sports cycle and the start of a new fiscal year for athletic departments reeling from the COVID shutdown.
And it all comes one week after a key step in the playoff expansion process and a searing rebuke of the NCAA by the Supreme Court.
Against this turbulent backdrop stands a conference desperate for new leadership and vision — a conference concerned about its relevance and its future.
This much seems clear: When he takes charge Thursday, Kliavkoff will have strong support from the campuses, including the school with the most valuable football brand in the Pac-12.
“I’m excited to partner with George and help execute a vision for the future of the conference,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn told the Hotline last week, in a wide-ranging interview.
“I don’t think anyone is in position to make declarative statements about the future. But I know what the Pac-12 can be when USC is at its best. We can take advantage of this opportunity to reset. George brings a brilliant skill set to the table.”
Bohn’s stance is shaped, in part, by personal roots: He was Colorado’s athletic director in 2010, when the Buffaloes agreed to join the conference and shift their center of gravity to the West Coast after decades in the Big 12.
While the first decade as a 12-school conference hasn’t met competitive or financial expectations, Bohn appears undeterred about the road ahead for the Pac-12.
“I’ve always believed in the promise of its future,” he said, “and I still do.”
His position packs significant strategic impact, as well.
In approximately 18 months, the Pac-12 will begin negotiations on media rights partnerships that will shape its financial outlook for a decade or more.
The Trojans’ rich football tradition, combined with the massive Los Angeles market, make USC the essential piece in a collective quest to maximize that media contract.
“USC wants to be a great partner, and we want to be a leader in everything we do,’’ Bohn said. “I think you saw that with our student athletes when they spoke out” — to California Gov. Gavin Newsom — “about wanting to play last fall.
“And whether it’s being in the Southern California market or our relationship with Notre Dame, we realize USC brings TV inventory to the Pac-12 that’s incredibly valuable.
“We know it’s important to lead from that position. We feel immense pressure and responsibility.”
No school in the conference carries more leverage than USC, but perhaps no school’s fan base had more reason to be frustrated with the state of affairs under outgoing commissioner Larry Scott.
— USC constituents have long been irked that the Trojans are responsible for more than 1/12 of the conference’s media rights value but receive an equal share of the annual revenue — revenue that has fallen far short of expectations because of the Pac-12 Networks’ financial performance.
— That same constituency was occasionally frustrated by a football schedule that placed USC at a competitive disadvantage resulting from the Notre Dame series. (The Trojans’ biennial end-of-season home date with the Irish is arguably the most valuable football property the Pac-12 owns aside from the conference championship.)
— In December, USC was left boiling by the logistics of the football championship game, which required the undefeated Trojans to play their third game in 13 days against a replacement team (Oregon) that had two weeks to prepare.
Bohn has been on the job for less than two years but made his opinion crystal clear prior to the pandemic when asked if the Trojans would consider leaving the conference.
“I think right now, and Larry would agree with this, everything’s on the table,” he told the Peristyle Podcast.
The comment rippled through the conference — and across the country. Were USC to take serious assessment of its options, the Pac-12’s foundation could liquefy.
But more than a year later, Bohn’s public posture has changed.
Given the tumult unfolding across college sports, it’s reasonable for Bohn to respond to questions about USC’s commitment with the framing he offered the Hotline: “I don’t think anyone is in position to make declarative statements about the future.”
But the tone of his comments is notably more positive following the change in leadership and a meeting between Kliavkoff and the athletic directors in Las Vegas two weeks ago.
“He has great energy and connects well with people,’’ Bohn said. “He’s present with you when you’re talking and communicating. He was genuinely interested in what the athletic directors had to say. It was a wonderful jump start.”
He added: “It was very organic and inspiring. Everybody understands that we’re all in this together. It’s an incredibly challenging time.”
During the course of the 30-minute interview with the Hotline, Bohn fielded questions on a variety of topics, most of them related to football:
— On the Pac-12 continuing to play nine conference games or dropping to eight:
“USC’s position is unique. Historically, we’ve never played an FCS team. If we introduce another non-conference game into an environment where we’re already limited in who we can play (because of the low number of FBS teams in the West), that could be limiting for us.”
— On continuing the Notre Dame series beyond the current contract, which runs through the 2026 season (per USC’s website):
“We are wholeheartedly committed to the series and, having talked with him about it, I think (Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick) is, too. We’re working on things to allow the game to gain additional traction.”
— On the financial future of the conference:
“With George’s leadership and vision, we can explore innovative revenue opportunities that we haven’t had before. It’s dicey out there, but I know there are big opportunities. It’s also important that we focus on local business opportunities.”
— On Kliavkoff’s limited experience in college sports:
“I think it will end up being a strength, because it will stretch him and challenge him. He’s a great listener.”
— On his vision for USC:
“To be the most student athlete-centered program in the country.”
— On what the conference office can do to support Pac-12 football programs:
“There have been a lot of comments (from other athletic directors) about that, and we discussed it. How can we schedule most strategically and get the most exposure for our teams? How can we use our geographic position and tap into the leverage it provides? Can the time zones be used to our advantage in some way?
“(Kliavkoff) is well equipped to answer these sorts of questions, and the ADs are aligned to support him. But for any subject, everyone has to understand the strategic initiatives and what’s best for the league. That means not every institution is always going to get its way, and that includes USC.”
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Source: Orange County Register