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Will Pac-12’s media rights deal make dollars and sense to Arizona?

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell08/01/23


As Arizona President Robert Robbins assesses details of the Pac-12’s media rights deal – which primarily entails streaming platform Apple TV+ – the fate of the conference may hang in the balance.

The dilemma for Robbins – and stakeholders at Utah and Arizona State – is whether the proposed deal better positions members now and in the future than the Big 12’s six-year deal with ESPN and FOX Sports. In the Big 12, members will receive $31.7 million annually and enjoy a strong presence on and promotion from linear network behemoth ESPN.

There is no sign at the moment that the Pac-12’s deal includes a linear partner, a conspicuous absence that would limit the reach of its brand to fans and recruits. As of last year, Apple TV+, which has a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal for Major League Soccer, was estimated to have some 25 million paid subscribers. 

The Apple TV+ deal, reported by ESPN’s Pete Thamel, includes subscription-based financial incentives that, theoretically, could propel the annual revenue distribution beyond the Big 12’s $31.7 figure.

But not only is that not a guarantee, but it’s certainly not a forgone conclusion – “a layup” – that some Pac-12 sources suggested during 11 months of protracted negotiations. 

Is Arizona key to Pac-12’s future?

There have been no public statements of Pac-12 fidelity by the handful of schools that remain a flight risk to follow Colorado to the Big 12.

Arizona is the lynchpin. 

If the Wildcats commit to the Pac-12, it could spur other Four Corner schools Utah and Arizona State to do the same, thus stabilizing the league. But if Arizona jumps to the Big 12, a chain reaction could occur that could put the very survival of the Conference of Champions in peril.

All along, despite the Pac-12’s internal talking points, industry sources maintained that it was difficult to envision a viable pathway to guarantee $31.7 million annually and secure a tier-one linear partner. In the end, the league got neither.

A Big 12 source with direct knowledge of the league’s strategy told On3 that the league is open to expanding to 16 during this realignment round if the right additions were made.

“Nobody had any idea when they [Pac-12] peeled back the curtain who was going to be there,” one veteran TV source said. “I don’t know what they are doing. ESPN has all it needs and has plenty of products in the windows that matter. Late night? Yeah, some Saturday windows here and there, but that is not a tier-one plan. And what are they going to pay for it? And are streamers willing to spend a fortune on college product with all the instability?”

Months ago, Neal Pilson, the former CBS Sports president, told On3 that the only reason the Pac-12 should give a tech streaming company the bulk of its inventory is if it can’t make an acceptable deal with a linear network.

“You’re not talking about college kids; you’re talking about alumni and fans of the Pac-12 who are used to watching it on linear television,” Pilson said. “And they don’t know how to connect their large TVs to the Internet. They will be forced to watch on their laptops or their phones. And you’re going to see a significant decline in their total audience if they move their package principally to Apple or Amazon.” 

Uncertainty is not ideal for media rights deal

Once a deal is secured, George Kliavkoff and the league CEO Group will immediately shift to expansion. SMU and San Diego State states are expected targets, with the Mustangs eyeing a more feasible path toward joining in 2024. 

A veteran TV source on Tuesday said the Pac-12 has advised Apple and other potential media partners on likely replacement schools so the media companies can assess based on myriad possibilities. That said, the source added that the ongoing membership uncertainty is “certainly not an ideal” circumstance for securing an advantageous deal for the league. 

So as Arizona and others assess, much of college sports twists in the wind.