In the waning moments of Washington’s 39-28 win over No. 11 Michigan State on Saturday, George Kliavkoff stood on the northwest sideline inside Husky Stadium, donning a blue blazer and a growing grin. To his right, a chant briefly rose through the student section, intended to rankle their easily identified target:
Big Ten! Big Ten! Big Ten! Big Ten!
Kliavkoff, to his credit, never turned his head.
Still, the Pac-12 commissioner has undoubtedly heard the noise in recent months, as conference realignment looms, ever-present, over college football. USC and UCLA have agreed to leave for the Big Ten in 2024, and Stadium reported this summer that both Washington and Oregon have had discussions with the conference as well. The Big Ten announced its seven-year, $7 billion media rights deal with FOX, CBS and NBC on Aug. 18 — a deal that will eventually distribute between $80 and $100 million annually to its 16 members.
The Pac-12, meanwhile, continues to negotiate its own media rights deal—though the final figure will undoubtedly fall short of its prospective poacher.
But in a podcast with John Canzano and the Pac-12 Hotline’s Jon Wilner this week, Kliavkoff said: “Listen, I think if schools (were going to leave) for the Big Ten, they would have left for the Big Ten already.”
Granted, though Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has heavily hinted he favors further expansion, it would require presidential approval to make those moves — and the Big Ten’s current members don’t seem swayed. But even if the opportunity arises, is the Big Ten still the best move for Washington?
“All we’re talking about these days is just money. That’s all we’re talking about,” former UW coach Chris Petersen said on 93.3 FM KJR Tuesday. “We’re not talking about what’s better for the greater good of the game or what’s better for the kids. And I get it, when your budget is going to increase how-many-fold when you go to a different league.
“So how do you fund the sports department? ‘Well, we better get as much TV money as we can.’ So that’s what’s really driving things. So when I look at this expansion thing, and you’ve got the two teams from southern California going into the Big Ten, it’s like, is that better? No. I don’t think it’s better for much of anything, other than that they’re going to get a bunch of money for it and pay a lot of bills.”
Will they, though? It’s possible (though unlikely) that the University of California Board of Regents could block the Bruins’ Big Ten bolt. Kliavkoff told Canzano and Wilner he has asked for media rights projections both with and without UCLA.
More intriguingly, he suggested the Bruins would actually make more money if they stay.
“We think the incremental money they’re going to receive from the Big Ten media rights deal will be more than 100% offset by additional expenses,” Kliavkoff said. “So you end up taking that money that you earn and it goes to airline and charter companies and coaches and administrators. It doesn’t go to supporting student-athletes.”
He added: “We are sure they are financially better off staying and we are sure that there was no other criteria in the decision other than financial.”
Of course, it’d be unwise to take Kliavkoff at his word, considering his position. But it does raise questions regarding how significant the revenue leap would be for any West Coast addition — Washington included. It’s also undeniable that the Big Ten offers long term stability that the Pac-12 can’t counter, as UW’s current conference remains in a fight for its life. If UW/Oregon/Stanford/Cal leaves for the Big Ten — or if Arizona/Arizona State/Colorado/Utah leaves for the Big 12 — the entire conference could swiftly crumble.
On that last point, when asked if he still guarantees that none of the remaining Pac-12 members will bolt for the Big 12, Kliavkoff said: “Yes, that’s still the case.”
The soon-to-be expanding College Football Playoff also provides a compelling argument for Pac-12 survival. When the CFP eventually expands from four to 12 teams — whether that’s in 2024, 2025 or 2026 — automatic bids will be awarded to the six highest ranked conference champions, all but guaranteeing a Pac-12 presence. The Pac-12 should provide a much more direct path to the CFP, with the alternative being an annually brutal Big Ten schedule.
The Pac-12 has also impressed in non-conference play — with Washington (39-28 over No. 11 MSU), Oregon (41-20 over No. 12 BYU) and Washington State (17-14 over No. 19 Wisconsin) picking up wins over ranked opponents. As a whole, the Pac-12 was 25-10 in non-conference play and 13-9 against FBS competition.
“There’s always a lot of talk about, ‘The Big Ten will (crush) the Pac-12 every single year.’ We’re just so sick and tired of hearing that,” UW safety Alex Cook said after the MSU win. “I personally don’t really care for that. I just know whoever lines up is going to get our best, and whatever the result is, is the result. But I’m so glad that we’re able to put the Pac-12 in a better standing.”
Suddenly, Kliavkoff can point to progress.
“We’re sitting at a place where both of our LA schools are undefeated after non-conference,” Kliavkoff said. “They got there in different ways, but I would say USC is certainly showing a top-10 offense. That came from investments that they made in the last year, not before that. That’s great for the student-athletes at those two schools.
“Look at Utah. Utah is one play away from being a top-five team. I was in ‘The Swamp’ and saw that interception. It was crushing. But they’re really one play away from being a top-five school right now. And then we’ve got four schools in Washington and Oregon that are collectively 11-1. Oregon State’s looking fantastic. I was very fortunate to be at Camp Randall to watch Washington State beat Wisconsin in a really tough place to play and win. I was fortunate this past Saturday to be in Washington to watch Washington, with a statement win against a ranked Michigan State team. That was fantastic. And Oregon lost to Georgia, the consensus No. 1 team in the country, in basically a home game in Atlanta for Georgia.
“Just look at the progress we’ve made with the football product. If you think about, ‘Are schools going to leave for this conference or that conference?’ …man, with the expanded CFP, with the investment and the success that we’re having, I can’t think of a better path to a national championship than being a part of the Pac-12.”
So that’s the Kliavkoff pitch: CFP access, regional rivalries, improved on-field play, and a competitive media rights deal with widespread distribution set to be completed in “the near future.”
But what say you? In a Twitter poll with 2,122 responses this week, 54.2% of responders preferred Washington join the Big Ten, while 45.8% sided with a surviving Pac-12.
On Saturday, No. 18 Washington (3-0) will look to stay undefeated against Stanford (1-1) inside Husky Stadium. And from the student section to social media, the noise won’t subsidize any time soon.