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How TV money and leadership decisions led ASU to the Big 12

Despite its departure, ASU leaders "tried to save" the Pac-12 until the last moment


ASU then-freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) rushes the ball in the second half of the Territorial Cup on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, at Sun Devil Stadium.

ASU President Michael Crow said "overlords of media empires" were among the many forces driving conference realignment last week, which was perhaps one of the most chaotic and consequential weeks in the modern history of college sports.

The week featured the complete dismemberment of the Pac-12, the “Conference of Champions,” which has existed in some form since 1915. By the morning of August 4, Oregon and Washington announced their departure from the conference in favor of the Big Ten, beginning in the 2024-25 academic year. Less than 24 hours after, ASU had joined the Big 12 alongside UA and the University of Utah, leaving the Pac-12 a shell of itself with just four remaining members.

The week-long avalanche of realignment began to snowball when CU Boulder bolted for the Big 12 on July 27 little over a year after USC and UCLA committed to the Big Ten in June 2022, robbing the Pac-12 of its two premier football and basketball brands in its largest sports media market: Los Angeles.

READ MORE: BREAKING: ASU, UA leaving PAC-12, joining the Big 12 conference 

But the story of the Pac-12’s demise really began with the rise of the most dominant force in American college sports: television.

The Supreme Court's 1984 decision in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma ruled that the NCAA’s televising control, which limited schools’ TV appearances in an attempt to encourage live attendance of games, violated antitrust law. This allowed conferences and schools to negotiate their own television rights deals.

In the subsequent decades, the rights to college games on TV became increasingly valuable. Fast forward to 2011, the Pac-12 — fresh off the additions of CU Boulder and Utah and a new commissioner — had its chance to cash in on the mad dash by TV networks. 

Larry Scott, the former Pac-12 commissioner’s reign got off to an encouraging start. The Pac-12 signed a 12-year media rights deal with ESPN and Fox in 2011 worth $2.7 billion, which was triple the value of its previous deal and was the largest deal in college sports history at the time.

However, things quickly veered off-course when Scott pioneered the Pac-12 Network in 2012, a TV channel that would broadcast Pac-12 sporting events not shown on ESPN and Fox. However, instead of partnering with a television company, Scott kept the network’s production costs in-house, a first for an athletic conference network. 

The conference was also unable to strike a deal with DirecTV, a premier cable provider at the time, to carry the Pac-12 Network on its cable package, which limited the network’s reach. 

By 2021, the Pac-12 Network was down to less than 15 million subscribers. The SEC Network and Big Ten Network, which are co-owned by ESPN and Fox, respectively, were believed to have over 50 million subscribers at the time. The conference was footing the bill to produce the network’s games but was unable to garner the subscribers necessary to make it profitable. 

Scott’s reign remained expensive through his tenure as commissioner. He maintained an expensive conference headquarters in downtown San Francisco, was paid a higher salary than his counterparts in other conferences, and allowed the conference to fall behind in revenue distribution through the duration of its deal with ESPN and Fox. 

Althroughout this, Crow remained an ally to Scott. He is the longest-tenured university president in the Pac-12 and chaired the Pac-12 CEO Group (made up of the conference’s university presidents) that hired Scott.

Scott’s choices dug the conference into a hole that George Kliavkoff fell into when he replaced Scott as Pac-12 commissioner in July 2021. Kliavkoff was unable to salvage the conference’s dire financial position quickly enough to prevent the departure of USC and UCLA, which caused the Pac-12’s market value to plummet.

Apple nearly gives Pac-12 a lifeline

On August 1, Kliavkoff presented to Pac-12 presidents a potential media rights deal with Apple, the Athletic reported. The five-year deal would have paid between $23 and $25 million annually per school (dependent on subscriber metrics), with most games hosted on the company’s Apple TV streaming channel.

The Apple deal became the conference’s best option after a deal with traditional TV partners with $30 million annual payments dissolved in the wake of Colorado’s departure from the conference in late July.

“We had multiple media partners spend months discussing media deals only to drop out at the last minute, mostly due to the rapidly changing sports media environment,” Washington State University president Kirk Schulz said in a press release

Ultimately, the lack of linear, non-streaming TV distribution and the low yearly payout relative to other conferences made the Apple deal untenable for many of the conference’s members. 

“I think the keys were the $23 million a year per school and no games on linear access,” UA President Robert Robbins said in a press conference regarding the school's move to the Big 12. “I think those were the two things that were problematic for people when they were evaluating the long-term sustainability of the contract. And, of course, that it was subscription-based.”

The issues with Apple’s offer ran deep enough that UA and Utah had already formally applied for Big 12 membership by the time the Arizona Board of Regents met on the following Thursday night. The meeting ended with ASU still on board with the Pac-12.

“We were offered a media contract by the Apple corporation which was a technological 23rd-century Star-Trek thing of really unbelievable capability that we (ASU) were very interested in,” Crow said at an ASU football practice on Saturday. “We thought there was some risk but huge opportunity.”

Despite UA and Utah having already begun the transition to the Big 12, many members of the conference believed that the Apple deal would be signed and the conference’s remaining nine members would commit to staying together at a President’s meeting the next morning. But when Oregon and Washington announced their intentions to join the Big Ten early Friday morning, followed by UA and Utah announcements that evening to join the Big 12, ASU’s hand was forced.

“We were trying to save it (the Pac-12),” ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson said at an ASU football practice Saturday. “We stayed in the trenches as long as we could until it became clear that it was no longer in our control.”

Despite Crow and Anderson’s attempts to save the Pac-12, there was one newcomer at ASU who had been anticipating the move for nearly a year.

“I’d like to say I had a plan,” ASU's new football coach Kenny Dillingham said. “If you’ve noticed how we’ve been recruiting that part of the country since I’ve been here, I knew that (a move to the Big 12) was an option.”

Edited by Shane Brennan and Jasmine Kabiri.

Reach the reporter at and follow @_alexwakefield on Twitter. 

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