Utah, Pac-12 in holding pattern? What conference realignments mean for the U.

What comes of the Pac-12′s exclusive 30-day negotiating window with ESPN and FOX for next media rights deal will be telling

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and Utah football players during a break in the action, between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1, 2022.

At Big 12 football media days this week, incoming commissioner Brett Yormark declared his conference “open for business.”

At the same time, the Pac-12 remains “tethered together” while also exploring a “loose partnership” with the ACC. The Big Ten, now even bigger after gobbling up the nation’s second-largest media market, appears to be digesting. And the SEC has been quiet as it awaits the arrivals of Texas and Oklahoma.

After two wild weeks, it appears that college football’s latest realignment has entered a holding pattern for now.

So where does that leave the University of Utah?

Is the Big 12 a possibility?

Inside AT&T Stadium in Texas on Wednesday, Yormark was asked whether or not the Big 12 is “actively engaged with the four Pac-12 Conference schools that’s being reported fairly widely?”

The four Pac-12 schools the question alluded to are Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State. A 247sports report on July 3 had the four schools set to meet with Big 12 officials two days later, while CBS Sports reported on July 5 that the Big 12 was in “deep discussions” to add up to six Pac-12 schools.

Behind all of that, The Salt Lake Tribune, citing a high-level Utah source, reported that the July 5 meeting taking place was “blatantly false,” and that the 10 remaining Pac-12 members remain “tethered together” in an effort to find a path forward. That includes Oregon and Washington, the league’s two most-attractive remaining brands after the Big Ten came in and took USC and UCLA.

As rumors and speculation over the future of Utah and the rest of the Pac-12 have remained rampant, Wednesday morning in Arlington, Texas, represented Yormark’s first opportunity to respond publicly.

“As I said in my opening comments, we are exploring all options, and we’re open for business, said Yormark, who officially takes over for outgoing commissioner Bob Bowlsby on Aug. 1. “Optionality is good, and we’re vetting through all of them. I think it’s fair to say I’ve received a lot of phone calls, a lot of interest.

“People understand the direction of the Big 12, and we’re exploring those levels of interest. Nothing is imminent, but we’re working hard to make sure that we position the Big 12 in the best possible way on a go-forward basis.”

That opening salvo from Yormark, specifically that his new conference is “open for business” and getting some level of interest from prospective new members, really doesn’t mean anything yet — let alone that a potential merger with, or poaching of, Pac-12 teams is a certainty. The Pac-12 is in a holding pattern of its own right now.

Pac-12 media rights negotiations

The 10 remaining Pac-12 members are presenting a unified front, but that could be undone by the Big Ten or even the SEC inviting Oregon and Washington.

However, it stands to reason that if the Big Ten wanted Oregon and/or Washington along with the two Los Angeles schools, it would have been done already. Despite whatever discussions may have gone on — whether they be at the president/chancellor level or through back channels — the Big 12 has not invited the other four Pac-12 schools in question, so at least for now, that united front remains.

“There’s metrics, those metrics are good, they’re very valuable to the Pac-12,” one league source said of the Ducks. “To the Big Ten and the SEC, they’re not, in my opinion, additive. Why, right now, would you do that if you’re them? The Big Ten just came in and got the West Coast, right? Would (SEC commissioner) Greg (Sankey) want to extend to there? I don’t think so. I don’t see it.”

On July 5, the Pac-12 Board of Directors announced it had authorized the conference and its commissioner, George Kliavkoff, whose background includes time at NBCUniversal and Hulu, to begin its next media rights negotiations. To that end, the league is now in the middle of an exclusive 30-day window to negotiate with the current rights holders, ESPN and FOX. That window will end on Aug. 4.

The end result of the negotiating period will give an indication as to what the Pac-12 is worth, sans USC, UCLA, and the nation’s second-largest media market. There are a lot of nervous fan bases across the Western third of the country, all of whom want answers and clarity immediately. Answers could be coming before these 30 days are up, but until that period is up and some new dollar figures are in play, conference realignment, at least as far as the Pac-12 goes, is in a holding pattern.

“We have to see where that leads, then we have to examine what it means,” the same league source told The Tribune. “Is anyone going to underpay? Is someone going to overpay? Whatever it might be, so there’s a lull until you get that.”

As far as the reported “loose partnership” between the Pac-12 and ACC, which would presumably include a shared media rights deal with ESPN, multiple sources in the last week have indicated that the idea has legs, but that numerous roadblocks would be in front of the finish line. One source termed the whole thing a “complicated maneuver” that is going to take more time to figure out than everyone would like.

How to weave in the Pac-12 with the ACC and create a shared media rights deal with ESPN is the main thing people are focused on. The ACC’s current deal with ESPN runs through 2036. A complete renegotiation of the ACC’s current TV deal is not expected to be part of this process.

What will ultimately happen to Utah?

Trying to predict how this latest round of realignment will specifically affect the Utes is difficult, especially while still in the middle of the 30-day negotiating window.

If Kliavkoff comes out of the negotiating period with a reasonable number for his 10 schools, they could survive the Big Ten’s Los Angeles poaching and stick together for at least a few more years. Multiple outlets have reported recently that with the LA schools, the Pac-12′s projected average annual value (AAV) was $500 million, or $42 million annually per school. Without the Trojans and Bruins, that projection has dropped to $300 million, or $30 million annually per school.

That scenario assumes that Big Ten or SEC invitations never come for Oregon and Washington, further tethering two of the West Coast’s most valuable, recognizable brands to the Pac-12.

Even if Kliavkoff comes up with workable figures on or before Aug. 4, Yormark and the Big 12 are painting themselves as aggressors. The Utah-Colorado-Arizona-Arizona State rumors are likely to persist, but all of it feels a little toothless without more action at the president/chancellor level.

With things fluid and capable of changing seemingly on a dime, the most-logical scenario currently as it pertains to Utah is the Pac-12 sticking together in some form, whether that be rolling with 10, working out the ACC scenario, or poaching multiple Group of Five schools to replenish itself after the UCLA-USC loss.

Longer term, one Pac-12 source admitted to anxiousness to see what the impending Big Ten media rights deal looks like. Announced in 2017, the current deal with ESPN, FOX, and CBS (basketball only) is for six years, which allowed the league to get back in front of the Pac-12 (expires in 2024) and Big 12 (expires in 2025) to negotiate again, now with the Los Angeles market in tow beginning in 2024.

The intrigue is not with how much money is attached to the next Big Ten deal, but how many years. Another deal of five or six years would stabilize things, but maybe only temporarily as that length lends itself to more realignment chaos on the back end as negotiations pick back up.

At present, Utah does not bring enough additive value to be knocking on the door of the Big Ten, but its value and brand have risen in recent years. If you take those facts, add in the fact that Utah is an Association of American Universities member (seemingly a requisite for the Big Ten), the recent growth of Salt Lake City, the local TV market and fan support among other reasons, a Big Ten invitation way down the road should not be taken off the table of options.

At a minimum, for at least the reasons listed above, Utah is thought to be in a very good position for whatever the future holds, whether that be the Pac-12 surviving, the Big 12 poaching, or any hypothetical in between.

“Utah is healthy, certainly healthier than most of the rest of the Pac-12,” one league source said. “If we’re calling Washington and Oregon the healthiest, the schools in the best spot moving forward, I would have Utah at No. 3. They’re going to be fine no matter what happens.”

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