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When UCLA and USC announced they would be leaving the Pac-12 Conference for the Big 10 Conference, no one was more surprised than Pac-12 administrators. “None of us got the word until everybody else did,” says Rick George, athletic director at the University of Colorado Boulder, “which is really disappointing.” The latest dominoes to fall in college sports’ continuing saga of conference realignment, the California schools’ departures set off a wave of speculation in the media: Would the Pac-12 collapse? Would it merge with the ACC? Would it expand? Would some of its institutions, including CU, make a run for the Big 12?
At almost the same time, the Pac-12 has opened negotiations for a new TV deal. The conference is currently in a window in which ESPN and Fox have exclusive bargaining rights, but once the auction opens to all networks, Jon Wilner, who covers the Pac-12 for the Mercury News in San Jose, California, believes the conference could rake in more than $300 million annually, up from $250 million. And that haul would only have to be split between 10 schools, not 12. Would that be enough to save the Pac-12? We put that question and others to George as he prepared for the Buffs’ season opener against (future Big 12 brethren?) TCU on Friday at Folsom Field.
5280: Do you feel like the Pac-12 is secure with only 10 teams?
Rick George: I feel really good about the strength that we have in our 10. The important thing is that we stay aligned. We’ve moved up our negotiating window with ESPN and Fox, and we’re going to continue down that path.
A lot of people believe losing USC and UCLA critically weakens the Pac-12. What gives you so much optimism that the remaining schools can still field a powerful conference?
There are two conferences that haven’t negotiated their media rights yet—that’s us and the Big 12. I think there’s a lot of value in our 10. Plus, we’ve got the Mountain and Pacific time zones, which are really valuable time slots, and we feel good about that.
Is keeping the 10 teams aligned dependent on hitting a specific number in your TV negotiations?
Well, I don’t know that it’s just about that. Certainly, that’s a factor. But the Pac-12 has a 100-year history, and it’s important to us to maintain the history and tradition of that conference. And I feel strongly that we’re stronger together.
You have said that CU won’t explore moving to another conference until TV negotiations are complete. But are you speaking with other conferences while the negotiations are going on?
We’re not exploring anything at this point other than starting our football season on Friday and having a great year. And again, where I’m putting all my energy is keeping the 10 remaining Pac-12 teams together.
Are you worried about the Big 10 snatching the University of Oregon as well?
Those rumors have been out there since the day they took USC and UCLA. I don’t listen to all the rumors.
What’s at stake for CU within the larger context of realignment?
Our focus is on having a winning football season and winning more consistently, year after year. All this other stuff that’s going on with realignment—Has it stopped, or is there more to come?—all those things are certainly on my mind, but at the end of the day, our focus is on this football team and having a successful season.
So what’s at stake for CU is putting a winning team on the field and hoping for the best in the TV negotiations.
We’ve got to let [Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff] and his team do their thing. We do have input on those discussions, but at the end of the day, I have total confidence in George and his team. People need to be patient, and we’re going to be that.
From a macro level, how do you feel about the direction college football is headed?
I don’t like it. There’s a lot of uncertainties in our industry right now because NIL is out of control. [Editor’s note: Since summer 2021, the NCAA has allowed athletes to earn money on their names, images, and likenesses.] Then there’s talk about, Does football separate from the other sports? Well, I just don’t think that works because football is important to the entire sports department.
Because it helps pay for the other sports, right?
Yeah, it’s certainly the number one driver, and we’re committed to making sure that Colorado football gets back to where it should be. We’re going to be very aggressive in that approach, but there are certain thresholds that we’re not going to cross, and pay for play is one of them.
Are you talking about CU specifically or college sports in general?
That’s my position on our industry. We’ve got to remember that intercollegiate athletics historically—and hopefully long into the future—is about being a student athlete and getting a meaningful degree that’s going to set you up long after your playing days are over.
But with name, image, and likeness opportunities, it seems like the genie is out of the bottle. How do you get the industry back on track?
Everybody likes to hide behind NILs, but we’ve got three rules that haven’t changed: Inducements are still illegal as part of the NCAA, tampering is illegal, and booster involvement is illegal. None of that’s changed. Just because we have an NIL doesn’t mean that you can go out and do whatever you want. When we get a new CEO of the NCAA, we need to think about who we are as an industry.