Assessing the impact of yet another departure

Assessing the impact of yet another departure

If a school participates in a conference for 12 years, wins no major championships, churns through five football coaches, then decides to leave, was it really ever there?

We jest, but not entirely.

Colorado’s strange journey from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 and back to the Big 12 — the move became official Thursday — reflects the school’s unique geography and dynamics.

Also, CU’s departure is, at this moment, more about the psychological toll it could have on the remaining Pac-12 schools than any material damage sustained by the exit.

The Buffaloes can be replaced, and easily so. They have made little competitive impact and lack the brand value and media market to kneecap the Pac-12 as it negotiates a broadcast contract.

But Colorado’s departure looks bad, especially for commissioner George Kliavkoff, and counts as yet another body blow for a conference that has taken repeated hits over the past 13 months. (Some would say 13 years, but that’s a topic for another column.)

Could the Buffaloes’ move back to the Big 12 undercut faith in Kliavkoff’s leadership? Seems likely.

Will it cause any remaining presidents to rethink their allegiance to the conference? Seems reasonable.

In conference realignment, everyone’s together until they aren’t and nothing matters without a signature. Kliavkoff has yet to secure signatures because he hasn’t finalized a media deal to present to the presidents.

From our corner of the galaxy, this much is true:

Of the 10 current members, Colorado is the only school the Pac-12 can lose in the realignment game without triggering either mass panic or a rush to the door that decimates the league.

If either Oregon or Washington left, the other would follow.

Arizona and Arizona State could be a package deal.

Utah would not leave alone.

Other thoughts on the developments in Boulder …

— A critical difference between this departure and the L.A. thunderbolt, beyond the loss of big brands (USC football, UCLA basketball) and enormous market value (Southern California):

The aftershock, or lack thereof.

The Big 12’s pursuit of Colorado was months in the making and no secret inside the Pac-12. The Buffaloes’ interest in possibly returning to the Big 12 was well known, too.

The Hotline spoke to a bevy of conference and campus sources last week at the Pac-12’s preseason football media event in Las Vegas, and many expressed concern over the Buffs’ uncertain status.

Our strong suspicion is that Kliavkoff has accounted for CU’s possible exit in his media rights negotiations and will pivot to Plan B.

— The timing of Colorado’s departure is a bit odd in that chancellor Phil DiStefano was willing to wait more than a year for Kliavkoff to present a media rights deal but not a few more weeks?

We say that because last Friday, Kliavkoff said he would present a deal to the presidents in the “near future,” which the Hotline took to mean before the start of the football season. And we weren’t the only ones with that read on the timeline. “It must be done before kickoff,” one athletic director told us.

Why didn’t DiStefano wait a bit longer? The pressure and frustration in Boulder was obviously greater than anywhere else in the conference, which is understandable.

The Big 12 is part of Colorado’s athletic DNA.

— Kliavkoff’s entire strategy while pursuing a media rights deal hinged on the patience of his presidents.

The conference waited through a 90-day exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and Fox last fall, then took its media rights to market, then held firm through a difficult macro environment for any potential partners and, finally, in the past six weeks, has experienced an uptick in demand for its inventory.

“What we’ve seen is the longer we wait for the media deal, the better our options get,” Kliavkoff said last week.

Of course, the best deal of all is a done deal. Any approach that depends on university presidents remaining patient is a fraught approach — as we noted seven months ago in our look at the need for urgency and risks of waiting for a deal.

Meanwhile, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark took the opposite tact, locking down an agreement with ESPN and Fox last fall (in a renewal of the league’s current deal).

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