The outrage was immediate, just minutes after news broke that USC and UCLA were headed to the Big Ten Conference. Fans have been tweeting Larry Scott’s post on social media, one after the other.
It’s been a year since the former Pac-12 commissioner resigned, but people still blame him for the loss of two marquee programs. They called him a “wrecker” and a “fraud,” and predicted that business schools would one day learn about his “leadership failures.”
Larry Scott simply destroyed the Pac-12they wrote.
The vitriol stemmed from a decision Scott made shortly after taking office in 2009. At a time when other Power Five conferences were partnering with ESPN and Fox to launch exclusive networks — deals that would fetch billions of dollars — Scott convinced his universities to break even. .
The Pac-12, he insisted, must build its own network. The investment may take time to gather momentum, but it will allow the conference to take all control, all profits.
“If we get this right,” Scott recalled telling his college presidents, “it will be a success.”
His gamble never paid off. Ten years after their inception, the Pac-12 Network has yet to expand, the conference lags behind its competitors in annual revenue and struggles to compete nationally in the all-important sports of football and men’s basketball.
Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “That being said, I think history will show that he didn’t make the wisest decision.”
Which begs the question: With USC and UCLA gone, with speculation about Oregon, Washington and Stanford soon to follow, how much blame does Scott deserve?
Hiring him for a conference that was declining in revenue and national prestige seemed like a smart move. It was smart to bring on board an outsider who had proven his marketing skills as president of the Women’s Tennis Assn.
Scott, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, knew what he was getting into.
“That was my challenge,” he said in 2010.
The new president rang the opening bell at NASDAQ and held a promo in Times Square, saying: “We have to promote our product as widely as we can.” He added two schools, Utah and Colorado, with the expansion and unveiled an updated logo.
Television dollars were changing the business of college sports. The Big Ten had partnered with Fox to launch its own network in 2007, and the SEC handed over the channel to ESPN in exchange for a hefty fee. CBS, ESPN and others have expressed interest in the Pac-12.
“One criticism I’ve heard about Larry Scott in the industry is that he always wants to be the smartest guy in the room,” Rishe said. “You wonder if he tried to think it through.”
Money and equity were only part of the argument for going it alone. The Pac-12 has always considered itself the “Olympic” conference, winning national titles in sports such as swimming, volleyball and swimming. An established publication may focus too narrowly on men’s football and basketball; A proprietary network will ensure that these sports are properly exposed.
The Pac-12 Network launched in 2012 with one national channel and six regional channels, which Scott described as an effort to “super-serve audiences” in diverse geographic markets. Scott also worked on a historic side deal, selling a portion of the football and men’s basketball games to ESPN and Fox for $3 billion over 12 years.
That money, he believed, would give him some leverage to build his network.
Even though the market was crowded — so many sports channels entered the fray — the Pac-12 charged carriers a reported 80 cents per subscriber, more than CNN, USA or FX. Time Warner Cable agreed but negotiations with DirecTV proved more difficult.
“One criticism I’ve heard about Larry Scott in the industry is that he always wants to be the smartest guy in the room. You wonder if he’s tried to think about that.
– Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis
Scott agreed that distribution would be very important.
“I know there’s a lot of frustration,” he said in 2012. “Understood… it’s very important.”
Three years into his senior game, during the 2014 Pac-12 football media days in Los Angeles, Scott took a break from the proceedings to find a shady spot outside. Speaking to the reporter, he preached patience.
“You have to look at where we’re going to be in 10 years,” he said. “Not three.”
Initial returns were not promising.
Still unable to land a DirecTV deal, the Pac-12 reaches just 11 million paying subscribers compared to 57 million for the Big Ten. With the SEC restarting its projected 67 million households, Scott told his university presidents “we have to look at the long-term benefits.”
Although the ESPN and Fox deals were successful, the cable networks were demanding nighttime starts to fill the vacant airtime on the East Coast. Fans and coaches were fed up with the “Pac-12 After Dark” games.
Other than that, Scott’s project took a bad turn.
NCAA sanctions hurt USC football more than expected and Oregon coach Chip Kelly lost to the NFL. None of the top men’s basketball programs made it to the Final Four.
The conference found itself in a Catch-22. Its network needed a juggernaut team to lure fans, but, with rival conferences generating bigger revenues, spending more on coaches and fancy training facilities, the competition for premierships was getting tougher.
“They had a lot of product, but they didn’t have the level of audience they needed,” said Daniel Durban, director of USC’s Institute for Sport, Media and Society. “Honestly, the Pac-12 wasn’t that compelling.”
Meanwhile, the SEC was pouring unrelenting resources into football, with Nick Saban and Alabama leading the way, winning one championship after another.
“The Pac-12 schools have always been on the West Coast, they’ve always had issues with visibility and recruiting,” Rishe said. “When a conference like the SEC starts, those issues become more acute and harder to catch.”
The Olympic Games could not compensate.
“The Olympic thing can be on paper,” Durbin said. “But you need the basic product.”
The numbers remained cool until 2018, with the Pac-12 giving out about $30 million a year to its schools, which is well behind the SEC’s $40 million-plus. Washington State President Kirk Schulz and others began to publicly complain.
That summer, sitting in the stands at an AAU basketball tournament in Garden Grove, watching his young son play, Scott quickly caught on.
“I’m never going to say you’re not going to make a different call at some point,” he said. “But at this point there is a real belief on the part of our universities and myself that the core objectives of having the Pac-12 network are important.”
ESPN has reportedly offered to distribute the network in exchange for an extended rights deal. There was no agreement.
“If that was the case, it was a seriously missed opportunity,” said consultant Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media Inc. “There is certainly room for criticism.”
Pac-12 college 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.
Oregon president Michael Schill said in a statement, “At one point, our television contract was the most profitable in the country and the debut of the Pac-12 Network helped us bring our championship brand to the US and global markets on traditional and digital platforms. ” “That said, the intercollegiate sports market is not static and now is a good time to bring in a new leader who will help us develop our growth strategy.”
“Larry Scott is one of those problems, … [But] you can’t fool just one person.”
– Daniel Durban, director of USC’s Institute for Sport, Media and Society
Their strategy is made more difficult with current media contracts expiring in 2024 and two, if not five, marquee programs out the door.
This exit can be attributed to Scott’s gambit. The Big Ten distributed $680 million to schools in the 2021 fiscal year, nearly double the $344 million awarded by the Pac-12. Without the additional revenue, UCLA officials said they are at risk of cutting programs. USC President Carol Folt called the Big Ten move a benefit to her school’s “long-term success and stability.”
So where does that leave Scott and his 11-year tenure?
He certainly should take responsibility for leading the Pac-12 down the road to self-ownership and signing that 12-year ESPN-Fox deal that left the conference unable to adapt to a changing media environment. Also, to avoid changing the course in other ways.
“Remember, when he came on the scene, he was trying to make a pitch,” Rishe said. “Obviously there was some myopia.”
Some factors were beyond his control.
Experts point to that bad luck, the nature of college sports and the college leaders who initially signed off on Scott’s media strategy. When the network started, campus leaders refused to spend at SEC levels and promote winning teams that would attract more fans.
The conference also faced a tough battle in terms of geography and time zones, with the majority of television viewers living in remote areas of the country.
“Unless you take the Pac-12 and move it across the Mississippi River, you’re always going to have these problems,” Berke said. “Basically, that’s what the Big Ten has done, they’ve taken USC and UCLA and moved them into the central and eastern time zones where a lot of their games will be seen.”
Shortly before resigning, Scott told The Associated Press that he regretted that his schools did not succeed more in football. He criticized the university leadership for abandoning the plan too soon.
Fans did not react to the comments. Still, the final decision on his tenure is perhaps more suggestive than a number of angry posts on social media.
“Larry Scott is one of those problems,” Durbin said. But when it comes to something as potentially explosive as the Pac-12, he added, “you can’t just fool someone.”