Member Unification, Rights Deals Pave Way for Pac-12 Enterprises

For the past 18 months, media-rights executive Chris Bevilacqua and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott have played a painstakingly precise game of chess, preparing for the launch of a conference media network unlike anything prior.

The vision for Pac-12 Enterprises — which includes a lucrative first-tier deal with Fox and ESPN, a conference TV network, and a conference digital network — could very well change the way major collegiate conferences look at their video rights and how they utilize and monetize them.

The Pac-12 network promises to be much more than just a television channel; it will be a three-tiered media venture and, in a time of conference chaos in the NCAA, it started with a declaration of unification among Pac-12 members.

“That allowed the Pac-12 to have some long-term certainty in terms of maximizing their economics,” says Bevilacqua, CEO of the newly formed Bevilacqua Media Co. “We had an incredibly compelling package to take into the marketplace, and nobody was ever worried about anyone leaving the conference, because they had all unanimously committed to each other for at least the next 12 years. Their TV rights are here whether they stay or not. There’s a high disincentive for anybody to leave.”

This week, Pac-12 Enterprises took another significant step in its development, concluding a six-month negotiation process with the conference’s acquisition of important TV, digital, and sponsorship rights previously held by IMG College and Learfield Sports. It’s not quite the final move, but Pac-12 officials are feeling really good about the value it gives.

According to a Sports Business Journal report, the deal will require the conference to pay IMG College and Learfield roughly $15 million a year for the rights, but it paves the way for the launch of the Pac-12 TV network next year, while also putting the conference in control of vital distribution categories, including wireless and multiplatform video distributors.

The conference essentially bought back all the local rights for its 12 member schools, which gives them access to a large pool of live games that will make a television network possible. Included in that purchase are rights to what Bevilacqua states is the most important of all college live-game rights: football and men’s basketball.

The conference’s primary media partners, ESPN and Fox (with which the Pac-12 negotiated a $2 billion rights deal in May), get first choice of football and men’s hoops games. Any games not selected then drop into the conference’s third-tier rights and are thus available to the conference, which would typically be sold off to local television affiliates. However, the Pac-12 will keep all of them in-house and will provide the network with as many as three football games and eight men’s basketball games per school per season.

“Once that foundation [with Fox and ESPN] was set, we had only licensed under 5% of all of the inventory,” says Bevilacqua. “So we had 95% of all of the rest of the inventory across 30 different men’s and women’s sports, and, at that point, we were very comfortable that we were in a position to essentially build a Pac-12 media company from the inside out with all of the valuable intellectual properties that they had.”

The geographical distribution of Pac-12 members suggested a hybrid local-national structure for a conference TV network.

The Pac-12’s unique footprint was the inspiration for the revolutionary idea of supplementing an overarching national Pac-12 television network with six regional channels that will cater to the clustered pairs of member schools (see map).

“Geographically, they were in pairs of two,” says Bevilacqua, “so I think it really resonated with the distributors in those markets because you were basically getting a two-for-one deal with programming that was of high interest in those dense local markets. So you had the tonnage, the local rivalries, and all of the stuff that goes around that, and we came up with a unique local-national hybrid structure that really fit the needs of the members as well as the needs of the distributors. That’s a pretty powerful combo.”

The current game plan is for about 350 games to air on the national platform and another 500 to populate the regional feeds. The remaining games will be used to program the planned digital network.

Aside from the obvious programming advantages this format provides, it is also a strong business model for advertising and marketing.

“The cable [operators], in particular, are very focused on their local businesses, and you start thinking about creating not just the programming but the deep local marketing relationships that you want with the distributors in that market,” says Bevilacqua. “Overall, it’s a very good match.”

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