Commissioner’s Corner: Larry Scott – PAC-12 Conference

Pac-12 Commissioner, Larry Scott contributes to ADU’s Commissioner’s Corner to discuss a number of items relative to his role leading an FBS Autonomy 5 conference. Scott touches on his interaction with conference Presidents, the importance of the Pac-12’s presence in Asia’s Pacific Rim, and the position the conference will be in after the NFL TV contracts are negotiated. Further on the TV front, Scott points to emerging rights, specifically virtual reality & data, as another bucket of cash waiting to be monetized.


The CEO makeup within the Pac-12 is quite different than when you took office in 2009. What acute pressures do Presidents/Chancellors face today that most impact your job?


One of the best parts of my job is getting to work with presidents and chancellors who are themselves highly accomplished leaders. They are responsible for running organizations with multi-billion-dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees. I’m always very conscious of the difficulty of their jobs, from the challenges they face answering to so many different stakeholders to navigating a complex political environment. Fortunately, at all institutions in the Pac 12, academics and athletics are in a very healthy balance, and each of the respective leaders knows how much sports helps enrich the experience of the student-body.  It’s a testament to their leadership that the Pac-12 is the “winningest” conference in college sports by a long shot, with 513 NCAA titles across a breadth of women’s and men’s sports.  The Pac-12 has led the nation in NCAA titles for 13 straight years, 17 of the past 18 years and 52 of the past 58 years.  And we’ve done so while providing a world class education to our student-athletes and preparing them for successful lives and careers post graduation.  All of this is a result of our schools’ and Presidents’ commitment to athletic and academic success.


While athletics is only a small part of their responsibility, sometimes it gives rise to the most pressing challenges. Whether it be discipline issues, poor performance or some sort of controversy, it is my responsibility to help them navigate any such issues and help prevent them from happening in the first place. With the rise of social media and the nanosecond news cycle over the last decade, crisis management is an ever-increasing part of a conference commissioner’s responsibilities.


Many in the media point to the Pac-12’s Asia-Pacific Rim strategy as a long-term play. What data is currently available to indicate progress on this initiative since its launch and what data points are most important for future growth?


It’s a long and well-established tradition for teams to do foreign tours and for students in general to do study-abroad type programs. Taking it on as a conference initiative stems from my very earliest days arriving on campus. The light bulb went on when I spoke to USC president Steve Sample, who was very much a globalist and saw Los Angeles as a gateway to the Pacific Rim. I thought about how the Pac 12 fit into that vision and how our group of universities could work collectively to expand our footprint beyond North America. With the growing priority of globalization, coupled with athletics being the proverbial “front porch” of the university, it became obvious that harmonizing these two areas could create a very positive outcome for the future of our conference members.


As I visited our campuses, I heard about these foreign tours and how they were the most memorable and coveted experiences of our student-athletes. Due to the pressures of being a student-athlete from a time demand standpoint, very few of them ever had chance to travel, much less study abroad. Hence we realized that creating more opportunities for our student-athletes to travel might be the single biggest thing we could do to enhance their overall college experience.


We began with one all-star event in China and now annually support around ten events/foreign tours per year internationally, including a regular season men’s basketball game in China.  Additionally, we have significantly expanded our international media exposure, which will support the growth and popularity of college sports and the Pac-12 around the world.  This includes a deal with Alibaba in China that will see over 175 Pac-12 events broadcast and streamed annually to Chinese audiences.


Since the beginning, our rational has not changed – it’s still about supporting the efforts of each university and providing experiences that the student-athletes wouldn’t otherwise have. We continue to seek partnerships – with the media, brands, and other entities – that will allow all of our student-athletes, not just football and basketball, to enjoy such experiences.


How much influence can a Commissioner really have over the actions of Men’s Basketball Head Coaches in the league? What measures can you effectively take to ensure no other Pac-12 leaders end up involved in the FBI investigation (or the next iteration of scandals)?


At the core, commissioners don’t hire and fire coaches, and that’s where the accountability lays first and foremost. But as a commissioner and a conference you are responsible for creating policy and setting standards. When the arrests of last fall occurred, we immediately jumped into the fray by creating a task force to try to very transparently understand what was going on within the world of college basketball and create a roadmap for the future of our conference and college athletics in general. Our core question was and continues to be: how do we use the disturbing events of last year to act as a catalyst for beneficial change? If we aren’t evolving our rules creation, governance and enforcement procedures, then we aren’t doing our jobs.


That being said, I think the criticism around basketball is fair. As I dug into the sport after the events of last year, I noticed that there were many attempts at reform. But nothing has really changed because of many entrenched interest holders who have done everything in their power to resist. It’s up to conferences like the Pac 12, who understand and appreciate the importance of evolving with the times, to help lead the charge in changing the sport for the better.


The silver lining of the FBI investigation is that it created the necessary consensus that the status quo was no longer an option, and that reforms had to be developed and implemented to better support our student-athletes.  Our Pac-12 Task Force and ultimately the Rice Commission did just that, and we are sitting here today talking about the implementation of a new set of meaningful rules and structural changes to better support the system.


With the leagues current media rights contracts set to expire by 2024, how are you approaching what may be one of the most pivotal negotiations in the history of the PAC 12 and college athletics as a whole?


Representing a conference that has been around for over a century, I have to approach anything we do from a long-term strategic and mission driven standpoint.  As the only Conference that owns its own media company, we are pursuing a strategy of ownership and control of our media, that leverages the technological shifts occurring coupled with the ascendance of college sports rights. We have the opportunity to, by 2024, do something first that is going to reshape the landscape of college athletics as we know it.


All the data that I see points to the popularity of college sports increasing (especially football). The legacy media companies (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and Turner) are all stronger than ever before and they’ve all declared that sports are essential to their strategy. Beyond the traditional broadcasters, the major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google (who we will eventually just view as just media companies) have themselves made it clear that they too want a piece of the global sports media rights market. I am very confident that these entities, with bigger market cap than the traditional media companies, will prioritize sports and will be big bidders in future rights. Fortunately, the NFL’s rights go to market before ours, and as a result I think the landscape will sort itself out and it will become clear who stands above the rest.


It’s also important to note that there are emerging rights that are going to be very valuable to our conference, including Virtual Reality and Data. We’re going to have a chance to set the market for that type of inventory before anyone else gets a chance to do so.


Student-athlete mental health continues to be an issue of paramount importance around the industry. Do you foresee a day when conference may regulate the extent of mental health services offered to student-athletes?


Student-athlete health is number one on the priority list of the conference, pure and simple. We have allocated significant resources towards it, and the vast majority of our coaches and administrators spend their time focused on addressing the physical and emotional well-being of our student-athletes.


Certainly, in the last 5 years, mental health has become an even more significant priority in our league, driven primarily by a national raising of awareness of the issues young men and women are facing daily. Because of its importance, the conference office has looked to support, amplify and scale the efforts of our members institutions. We’ve created a health and wellness board that has a representative from each school that not only reviews best practices, but also issues grant to the tune of $3.6m a year for mental and physical health related projects around the conference.  Our schools are also taking a real leadership role in this space, including Oregon State’s DamWorthIt initiative to raise awareness of mental health issues. It’s also important to note that many of our campuses are home to world class leading research hospitals and our athletics departments have an opportunity to work with those facilities to help address the mental and physical health issues our student-athletes may be dealing with.