LAS VEGAS — It was a perfect evening Saturday for the Pacific 12 Conference, the kind of night it will look back on and wish it could replicate in the years to come.
Arizona defeated UCLA 61-59 to win the men’s basketball championship. T-Mobile Arena was packed and rocking with 14,022 on hand. Bill Walton was chirping on ESPN as only Bill Walton can.
Sunday brought more good news. The “Conference of Champions” received four bids (UCLA, Arizona, USC and Arizona State) to the men’s NCAA Tournament. Both the Bruins and Wildcats were seeded second, the Trojans a No. 10 and the Sun Devils an 11 seed and playing a First Four game Wednesday against Nevada in Dayton. The Pac-12 is sending seven teams to the NCAA Women’s Tournament (Stanford, Arizona, Utah, UCLA, Colorado, USC and Washington State).
But moments like this may be fleeting. There is so much uncertainty surrounding the Pac-12, you have to wonder where things are going and how it will be down the road.
UCLA and USC are gone, having announced both are leaving for the Big Ten in 2024. Rumors abound that the Big 12 is interested in poaching other Pac-12 schools for its conference. San Diego State and SMU have reportedly been offered membership in the Pac-12 to replace UCLA and USC. Somehow, UNLV is not in the mix, even though the conference conducts its football and men’s and women’s basketball championships in Las Vegas thanks to a healthy subsidy from Las Vegas Events and the fact current commissioner George Kliavkoff had lived and worked in Vegas for 35 years with MGM Grand.
We’ll get to the Rebels in a moment. But first, the Pac-12 remains a conference in flux. It has no television deal moving forward and the clock is ticking. Until that issue gets resolved, what school in its right mind would want to join, or, for that matter, stay?
The pie for televising college sports has shrunk. The Pac-12 is looking at a combination of ESPN, Amazon and Apple TV to generate revenue. And while many fans have cut the cord for cable, all three proposed outlets in a new deal are available to anyone with a smart phone.
The Pac-12 has its own network but it’s not readily available and frankly, its quality is lacking compared to some other conferences that created their own networks.
But what will it all amount to in the end for the schools? They’re not going to get the kind of dollars the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and even the Big 12 generate for its members. Until that gets done, everything else is on hold.
I would have loved to ask Kliavkoff about that, adding or not adding UNLV and other topics concerning his conference. But he decided to not make himself available. Traditionally, the Pac-12 commissioner would meet with the media on the final day of the men’s basketball tournament, give a “State of the Conference” speech and over 30-40 minutes, try and answer questions from reporters so fans could have an idea what’s going on. The other four leagues that were in town last week for its tournaments all made their commissioners available.
But Silent George opted to remain hidden behind the curtain in Wizard-of-Oz fashion. But at least the Wizard could be heard, even if you couldn’t see him. Silent George wasn’t heard from all week. Not a peep out of him.
It makes me wonder if he’s in over his head. He was blindsided last summer when UCLA and USC announced they were leaving the Pac-12. He missed the boat in trying to get a lucrative media rights deal. He had no experience in sports management, something his predecessor Larry Scott did have. The fact he doesn’t think UNLV, a university he has seen grow up-close during his time in living and working in Las Vegas, is worth adding to the Pac-12 is a joke.
Now he may very well believe UNLV is worthy of inclusion to fill the void. Perhaps he ran the idea up the Pac-12 flagpole only to have some of his bosses — the presidents — nix the notion. It has been rumored that Stanford and California were not enamored with the idea of having UNLV, believing the academics didn’t fit the conference’s footprint of having research institutions.
If that’s the case, perhaps they need to go back to class and study up. UNLV carries a ”R1” research rating as a university from the Carnegie Foundation, one of just 146 universities nationwide to hold that distinction.
It has a medical school, a law school, a dental school, the Desert Research Institute, a top-flight Hotel Management school, a top-tier Business school and Architecture school. It is in one of the fastest growing media markets in the country and has athletic facilities that are on par if not superior to many in the Pac-12, including playing football in a state-of-the-art NFL stadium, the same place, incidentally, the Pac-12 plays its football championship game every December.
I don’t know if UNLV president Keith Whitfield had reached out to any of the presidents in the Pac-12 to extol the virtues of his university. I couldn’t talk to him either as he was tied up with Nevada Board of Regents meetings all week. I’d like to think he didn’t pull a Kliavkoff and stay silent.
But maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe Whitfield and UNLV just need to remain patient, stay in the Mountain West and see if the Big Ten and Big 12 poach more Pac-12 schools. Maybe Washington and Oregon head to the Big Ten in the next few years. Perhaps Arizona and Colorado and maybe Utah leave for the Big 12. Maybe the Mountain West survives and it takes in the remaining Pac-12 schools. Yeah, that’s a crazy notion, but who ever thought USC and UCLA were going to the Big Ten?
Why not try and get in the Big 12 if you’re UNLV, you ask? It might not work financially if the Big 12 is forced to divvy up its TV revenue pie to add a non-Power Five school like UNLV. There might be some resistance from the current Big 12 members. But perhaps that could be negotiated and UNLV gets more dollars than from its current Mountain West TV deal, which is just over $4 million annually.
Geography certainly doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. The ACC proved that several years ago when it brought Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College into the fold. The SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M. The Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland. The Big 12 is adding BYU and is even considering bringing in Gonzaga, which doesn’t even play football anymore, to help sell basketball as a separate media rights deal from football. Being in the Pacific Time Zone seems to be on Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark’s agenda.
I dealt with Yormark when he was running the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and he was bringing championship boxing events to Flatbush Avenue. He knows the business of sports. Do not underestimate this man.
At some point, the clouded Pac-12 situation will come into sharper focus. The presidents are expected to meet in a couple weeks to vote on a media rights deal. San Diego State and SMU have a little time left to announce their intentions and I would imagine both will agree to join the Pac-12.
But if I’m Las Vegas Events, I’m re-evaluating my relationship with the Pac-12. The league may not think UNLV is worthy of membership but it is fine accepting money to stage its marquee events in Vegas? Kinda hypocritical if you ask me.
LVE pays the Pac-12 $1.5 million — $1 million for the football championship, $500,000 for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. That’s a lot of goodwill and support for a conference that doesn’t think much of the city’s university. Maybe LVE president Tim Keener and Co. should turn off the spigot if the Pac-12 doesn’t reconsider snubbing UNLV for membership. The Big 12 probably would love to come to Vegas and take over T-Mobile Arena in March, though I’m guessing many Kansas fans won’t like it.
Perhaps Silent George will come out from behind the curtain at some point and actually say something. I’m guessing he will. After all, even the Wizard of Oz eventually showed his face and actually spoke.