An organization founded 108 years ago that has continued to thrive with a documented record of massively greater success than any of its competitors just imploded. Not-so-shocking development for you: there are lessons for every business vertical, particularly media and showbiz.
More shocking development for me: because the organization I’m talking about is the Pac-12 Conference, I get to write about sports while talking to you about business.
For the uninitiated, college sports is going through a massive round of “conference realignment,” which is really just a way of saying that the businesses universities with the greatest brand equity are taking larger and larger shares of the revenue pie, while the mid-level schools are being reduced to mid-level dollars and the least valuable brands are being cut out almost completely.
The final disposition of the Pac-12’s brands is a great example of what that means, so let’s get our learn on.
HOW WE GOT HERE
If you know the story, feel free to skip over to the Lessons section.
(Or don’t. It’s your call.)
Presenting a quick timeline of how we got here, noting that most of this is built around the new or expiring media deals for the three major college sports conferences at the center of our fun:
- June 30, 2022: The Pac-12’s two most valuable brands – America’s top-rated public university, UCLA, and its mediocre but valuable L.A. rival USC*, announce they’re heading to the Big 10 Conference.
*You may safely assume you know where I went to college.
- July 27, 2023: With a ton of doubt about the P12’s next media deal, which will kick in next year, Colorado announces it’s bailing, moving back to its former home, the Big 12, whose commissioner is about to teach you a really important lesson.
- August 1, 2023: The P12’s commissioner presents a less-than-scintillating media deal to the remaining “Pac-9” schools. Panic and rumors immediately start flying, particularly surrounding the P12’s remaining major basketball brand, the University of Arizona. Additional talk floats around five more key P12 programs.
- August 4, 2023: Oregon (backed by Phil Knight’s Nike money) and Washington, far and away the P12’s two most valuable remaining brands, accept an offer to join the B1G…for far less money than UCLA and USC are receiving.
- August 4, 2023, Part II: Arizona, Arizona State and Utah hightail it to the Big 12, leaving behind a Pac-4 consisting of Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State.
Let’s break it down in financial terms, noting that the P12 schools have been receiving around $37 million per year in TV money:
- UCLA & USC get a full share of the B1G’s new media deal, estimated conservatively as being worth $70-$80 million per year per business unit university.
- Oregon & Washington are each expected to receive around $30 million per year, increasing by $1 million per year through the end of the deal in 2030 when they’ll presumably be upped to a full ride.
- The new Big 12 members are looking at $31.7 million per year each.
- Cal & Stanford will be hoping for an unlikely white knight to appear on their horizon, perhaps in the form of an offer to join the B1G at a reduced stake or the remaining “Power 5” conference, the ACC, which might net them $20ish million per year. More likely, they’ll be looking at far worse options than that.
- OSU and WSU are all but bereft of hope and about to be kicked out of the big boys club, stepping down a level to the “Group of 5.” Joining the Mountain West Conference, their logical destination, would net them somewhere between $4 million and $7 million per year.
Let’s translate that: the big dogs are going to be raking in more than double what they’ve made in the past. The next tier will be losing a chunk of cash for now, but with growth coming over the next seven years. The third tier are losing a chunk of cash, but at least they’ll have stability. The last couple tiers are in trouble and in really big trouble.
That’s the (mostly) painful impact. Here’s what we should learn.
Lesson #1 (and this is the big one): That rulebook you’ve had sitting on your desk forever? Destroy it.
A decade ago, the Big 12 was roadkill; even now, had the P12 played its cards right, we’d be writing eulogies for the Big 12. Instead, the Big 12’s new commissioner, Brett Yormark, flipped the script.
How? He blew off normalthink and responded strategically to present and near-future circumstances.
Normally, when your TV deal is expiring, you go to the open market. After all, the more bidders, the higher the sale price…right? Maybe, but Yormark understood that the nice people who spend billions of dollars on TV rights, particularly ESPN, were heading towards a budget crunch of their own. Along with that goes limited capacity to pay for ever more college football licensing.
Surmising that getting a deal done, even if it was a slightly lesser deal, was better than facing the possibility of having no deal at all, Yormark moved faster than common logic would dictate and jumped the Big 12 ahead of the P12 in the TV money line. When the P12 – with bigger markets and brands than the Big 12 – went to the open market, it found the market wasn’t open for business anymore.
If you take nothing else from this whole exercise, do us both a favor. Grab that rulebook on your desk, light it on fire, and drag its body outside to burn.
Lesson #2: More than ever, size matters. A decade ago, I left a job that I absolutely loved for 14 years because I am genetically incapable of tolerating situations where we cannot win, and we were an independent operator who, it had become clear, no longer had the resources to win the way we always had in the past. It was a prescient call.
Does that mean that smaller, independent operators cannot win anymore? Nope, but the circumstances have to be right, and your definition of winning has to change accordingly. For example, if Oregon State and Washington State can accept the fact that they’ll no longer be able to sniff a national championship, they can be quite happy chasing Mountain West Conference titles. Similarly, if you’re competing as an independent in, say, market #2, you may need to think about cashing out and moving down to a competitive situation that’s within your capabilities to handle.
Lesson #3: You are strongly encouraged to read the tea leaves. Said differently, you can trust your old friends…until you can’t. Apparently, when efforts to save the Pac-12 were at a critical juncture, Oregon & Washington no-showed on the key meeting. It wasn’t hard for the remaining P12 members to figure out what that meant. There’s an old saying: when someone tells you who they are, believe them. People – and organizations – tell (or show) you who they are all the time. Believe them.
On a related note, when the facts tell you what’s going on, believe them and act accordingly.
Lesson #4: Just because you’re a big deal now, don’t count on being a big deal later. Oregon State and Washington State – essentially charter members of the P12 – are about to take a huge step back in terms of prestige and also in terms of resources, including the payroll and facilities budgets that an extra $30 million a year provides. Cal and Stanford are currently trying to figure out how to avoid joining them.
That sucks, but it was always coming, and that won’t be the last time this happens. (College sports fans: do you really think that, when faced with the opportunity to replace Vanderbilt and South Carolina with, say, Virginia and North Carolina, the SEC won’t find a way to make that happen? I’ll let you craft your own scenarios regarding, say, Notre Dame and the B1G.)
WRAPPING IT UP
Summing it up, if things have changed, don’t act like they haven’t. Respond to the lay of the land as it exists today, not as it existed one, or ten, years ago. If Brett Yormark didn’t realize this, we’d be discussing the all-new Pac-16 headlined by Washington & Oregon and the imminent death of the Big 12.
Today, we tip our hat to the Pac-12, the erstwhile “Conference of Champions,” winner of 533 national championships and soon-to-be-former home to the three most decorated athletic programs in college sports.
As a P12 alum, I hate that it’s going away, but I understand it. Times change. Money and technology drive change. A ton of people – me included – will miss the Pac-12, but even if the conference somehow continues in name, the Pac-12 we miss will no longer exist.
I can, and have, said the same about my adopted hometown, Los Angeles. I miss L.A. terribly, but the L.A. that I miss no longer exists.
Y’think that you might be able to say that about broadcast media? If so, perhaps you should take a little time to learn from the coming demise of the Pac-12.
What’s coming next for college sports will look similar to what we’ve always known, but it will also be very different, and there will be great opportunities for those who, like Brett Yormark, act on the current reality.
You can definitely say the same about broadcast media.