Larry Scott runs a profitable television business. He also brokers multi-million dollar commercial partnerships, acts as a sounding board to – sometimes peacekeeper between – 12 of the world’s most-revered educational institutions and, when required, turns his hand to issues of player welfare, integrity, criminal law and diplomacy.
It’s a job spec all rolled into the title of Pac-12 commissioner, a role Scott has held since 2009 when he joined the west coast conference, then known as the Pac-10, following a six-year stint as chairman and chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association.
Two years into the role, Scott oversaw the addition of Colorado and Utah to form the Pac-12, then promptly signed off on a near $3-billion, 12-year TV rights deal with Fox and ESPN, the US national network and cable sports broadcaster, respectively, that came into effect from the start of the 2012-13 season.
What followed, however, was a gamble that, thanks to the rapidly-changing landscape in media sports consumption, could now prove to be a game-changer.
The Pac-12 Networks, comprising one national and six regional channels, went live in 2012 as the first-ever integrated media company owned and operated 100 per cent by a collegiate conference.
Rivals the Big Ten and SEC are paying out bigger sums to their schools at present, but neither control their content.
The SEC Network is owned entirely by ESPN, while Fox has a 51-per-cent stake in the Big Ten. Essentially, whatever ESPN and Fox deem to be of interest is shown. The rest is shelved.
The Pac-12 Networks carries a minimum of 850 live events a year: men’s American football and basketball aired nationally, and other sports, including a range of Olympic ones, shown on the regional networks or streamed online.
With major digital players like Facebook, Google and Amazon now an integral part of the sports rights conversation, it’s perhaps fitting that the San Francisco-headquartered Pac-12, a 40-minute drive from Silicon Valley, is best placed to take advantage.
“We wanted to be the masters of our own destiny, to control the programming and have a platform to allow our fans, our alumni to be able to see these sports,” Scott explains to Sportcal Insight from his downtown office.
“We felt that it would improve us long-term if we could create our own media company and use that as innovation capital, with a sense that the technology was going to disrupt the market, that there would be new models of distribution and players involved, as opposed to only riding some of that wave when you’ve got third-party parents like ESPN and Fox that might do deals for OTT platforms or with a Snapchat or Twitter.
“Being in the business yourself, we figured we’d be able to learn more, see what evolves, get to know these companies ourselves, and it would be a nice hedge on the future if there were going to be direct-to-consumer options.”
During the nascent years of the Pac-12 Networks, Scott admits there was an education process to go through for the universities.
He notes: “There’s a toggle between maximising your revenue and control. We saw significant non-financial benefits by being able to control our programming and have a distribution platform, and in the future we would develop this know-how, expertise and the relationships so that when our rights do become available [in 2024] and we’re weighing up the different approaches, we are going to be far ahead of the game compared with others that do not own their own content.”
So did Scott have the foresight to plan with such disruption in mind, or has the escalation of digital players’ interest in live sports rights come as a (welcome) surprise?
“Looking back I think our strategic thinking was spot on, but we could not have anticipated the pace of change. It has disrupted and is moving faster than we would have anticipated,” Scott reflects.
“I had an instinct that we should think of ourselves not as a television entity but as a content entity. We got some raised eyebrows when we said we were starting a network and we’re going to control it, but from San Francisco not Los Angeles, which along with New York is considered the hotbed for entertainment.
“I felt that technology companies were going to be as important to the industry in terms of distribution and engagement as traditional entertainment companies. Certainly what has happened over the last few years is proving that.
“Now we are looking at companies based in Seattle, like Amazon, who might wind up being the biggest distribution platform of anyone, or Facebook, which is right in our back yard. And these are all the companies that have alumni from our schools.”
I felt that technology companies were going to be as important to the industry in terms of distribution and engagement as traditional entertainment companies. Certainly what has happened over the last few years is proving that
Scott himself is an Ivy League alumnus, having captained the tennis team at Harvard. A former professional on the men’s tour, excelling in doubles, Scott began his career in sports administration at the ATP, spending a decade as president and chief operating officer of the ATP Properties division.
He jumped ship in 2003 to the WTA, where he went on to play a major role alongside Billie Jean King in achieving the long-sought goal of equal prize money for women in tennis’ grand slam events.
Scott is effusive in his praise of, and admiration for, King’s fight for equality.
Asked about his role in that journey, Scott, modestly, responds that he was merely “picking up the baton on what I hoped would be the last leg of the relay race that Billie-Jean started in 1973,” (and which was depicted in the excellent ‘Battle of the Sexes’, the 2017 biographical sports comedy-drama film loosely based on the 1973 tennis match between King and self-proclaimed chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs).
During his tenure at the WTA, Scott succeeded in getting equal prize money for the French Open and Wimbledon, the final two grand slams that had yet to do so, and for the major tour events by 2007 (it had been around 85 per cent of the men’s prize money when Scott joined).
Working with King to “cross that finish line,” Scott says was “certainly one of the proudest achievements of my professional career.”
How was it achieved?
“I really engaged the players themselves in the importance of it from a principle standpoint, from a fairness standpoint.
“For the folks at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it was not just about being the right thing to do and wanting history to judge you that way, but also being good for business.
“We were able to, through the success of the play and the advocacy of leading players like Venus and Serena Williams, of Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, engage the players in understanding the impact of this equality issue on young girls and females in society at large.”
Is the sports business landscape any better represented now, I ask? After all, there is just one female president of the 28 summer sports on the Olympic programme (triathlon’s Marisol Casado), for example.
“No way,” he injects. “But it’s not restricted to sport. There’s a long, long way to go in corporate boardrooms as well. I have sat on a lot of boards, I have run boards. Three of the best I have ever sat on are mixed gender, with the diversity of opinion and perspective. All-men boards are never as good.”
It was those experiences at the WTA – he still sits on King’s Women’s Sports Foundation board – that attracted Scott to the Pac-12, albeit the approach came “randomly” from a company that was looking into possible leadership changes in men’s tennis while at the same time having been hired by the Pac-10 presidents and chancellors to “find candidates from outside the college sports industry to… take a fresh perspective, reposition it and create more value, particularly from TV.”
Scott says: “One of the attractions for me in going from the WTA to the Pac-12 was that it has a long history of standing for equality and opportunity for women. We are the winningest conference in the country in terms of women’s sports, we send more female athletes to the Olympics than any other, so it was a very natural transition for me.”
After more than a decade in global tennis, Scott assumed the days of collecting passport stamps was over – “I even explained to my wife, ‘it’s college sports, it’s the US, I won’t be travelling as much’” – yet within a few years he had set up Pac-12 Global, an initiative aimed at expanding the conference’s and its members’ footprint around the world through live events and content distribution.
Pac-12 Global was the catalyst for several international athletic events and student-athlete cultural exchange programmes, leading in 2015 to the Pac-12 staging the first-ever regular season basketball game – collegiate or professional – in China.
The Pac-12 China Game is now an annual opener to the college basketball season, while the conference has also made inroads in Australia, with men’s basketball and American football games a regular occurrence.
Scott’s commercial instinct kicked in, and in October last year he struck a significant deal with Alibaba for the Chinese e-commerce group to carry the Pac-12 Networks across linear and digital channels in China.
Around 175 live events and 100 hours of programming are now being shown annually in the country. Alibaba also continues as the sponsor the Pac-12 China Basketball Game through 2020.
Tracing the story back to his first few months in office, Scott says: “I was stunned when I started visiting our campuses at how much the leadership of our universities were talking about globalisation, how much pride they took in multi-national, multi-cultural campuses. They looked at themselves as global brands. That’s when the light went off for me that sport could be a great connector and enabler to support the universities’ broader mission.
“When we started bringing teams to China it was very much with the universities’ mission in mind, not commercial. I had it in the back of my head, based on my prior experience in tennis that if there was a strong appeal for sports and strong brands, this could result in commercial opportunities.
“What we learned in China was there is a huge interest in basketball and a huge interest in the US education system, in particular the elite academic brands, and that if we could craft an approach there could be real commercial value and, sure enough, that’s what we found with Alibaba.”
The globalisation approach is now two-pronged, Scott adds: “The Alibaba deal is vertical; you’ll see us do a lot more in China, not just with basketball. Elsewhere, we’ve already done football in Australia, and I think we’ll look at Mexico, given its size and proximity, and the UK, given the success the NFL has had there of growing the appeal of football.”
A media company with global ambitions: does the Pac-12 see itself as a pioneer among its peers?
“The Pac-12 is seen as pushing the envelope on innovation,” Scott agrees. “I think it goes to the spirit of our universities. The west coast has tended to have more of a pioneering spirit. It’s where a lot of design and innovation happens. There’s more risk-taking, whether it is through the companies built here, like Apple or Amazon, or the whole venture business that is based out of here. Certainly, there’s a pioneering spirit and a tolerance for some risk that is inherent.”
The college basketball world was turned upside down last 29 September when the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York laid out findings from an FBI investigation that uncovered mass corruption, bribery and wire fraud involving some of the sport's top programmes, including at two Pac-12 schools, USC and Arizona.
No universities were charged, with the allegations focused on assistant coaches, Adidas executives and agents who, according to the FBI, colluded to pay prospective student-athletes' families to ensure the players signed with Adidas-sponsored schools and then signed with Adidas once they turned professional.
Scott’s response was immediate, establishing a task force to address issues “that are threatening the integrity of collegiate athletics and to protect our student-athletes.”
The group is expected to present its findings to Pac-12 administrators and athletic directors by the end of March.
Reflecting on the response to the case, Scott says: “Any commissioner’s role is a combination of acumen, good management and good business skills on the one hand, but then diplomacy and political skills. And more often than not it’s the soft skills of diplomacy and political skills that wind up being more important.
“You need to be intellectually agile and can adapt quickly. You have to adapt to a lot of crisis that you don’t have a playbook for. I believe in values and character-based leadership. You may not have ever seen a situation before, but if you’re pretty clear with your members about what your values are going to be and how you’re going to handle things, I think that helps to weave your way through all the complexities around a particular issue.”
The scandal reopened the debate about whether college athletes should be paid. The argument goes: ‘College sport is a billion-dollar enterprise built off athletes, yet the only people who don’t make money are the athletes themselves.’
They are not and should not be employees. There’s a white line that you cannot cross without losing the fundamental nature of the appeal of college athletics
Scott is quick to reject the notion: “Those that are competing are students first and foremost. They are not and should not be employees. There’s a white line that you cannot cross without losing the fundamental nature of the appeal of college athletics, which is that these are students that are the same age, going to the same classes, and they’re doing it for their school.
“Often what gets overlooked is that 98 per cent of the students that participate in sports at universities are never going to attempt to play professionally. They are doing it to get an education, and often they are getting their education paid for through scholarships.”
Eleven months ago, the commissioner’s contract was extended until 2022, and Scott hopes the conference stakeholders will see fit to keep him in place for 2024 when the broadcast deals expire.
“I’m planning to still be here,” he jokes. “It’s been a dynamic and exciting place to be and I think there’ll be a lot of change and exciting things to work on.
“I think the value of the Pac 12 is going to continue to ascend, and I also think there will be more competition for rights than right now. We had three entities bid for our rights in 2011 when we went out to market, ESPN, Fox and NBC. It would not surprise me if we’ve got half a dozen to a dozen different bidders for our rights in 2024. I suspect all three companies I’ve mentioned will still be around, plus there will be other media and technology companies with different platforms or that are programmers in their own right.”
“But anyone that tells you definitely that they know what the case will be in 2024, I wouldn’t trust as a good source.”