Utah Utes athletic director Mark Harlan preaching Pac-12 togetherness as media rights decision looms

Harlan made his first public comments on Friday at Pac-12 media day since UCLA and USC announced they were leaving the conference in 2024.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah's new Athletic Direct, Mark Harlan, talks to reporters after a news conference at the Rice-Eccles Stadium, Monday, June 4, 2018.

Los Angeles • Any Pac-12 athletic director who has talked to a reporter or looked into a television camera in the last month has preached one thing they believe to be paramount above all else right now: Togetherness.

In the wake of UCLA and USC announcing their respective defections to the Big Ten in two years, the 10 remaining Pac-12 schools need to be aligned, working side by side to find a collective route forward.

On Friday morning, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan made his first public comments since the UCLA/USC news dropped on June 30, throwing college athletics into disarray, not to mention uncertainty.

“In the last month, what I think has been very rewarding is to see how close we’ve been working the remaining 10 to really come up with paths that make a lot of sense going forward,” Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune during Pac-12 media day at The Novo Theater.

“We’ve been meeting as ADs two or three times a week, and we’ve been meeting our presidents and chancellors twice a week,” he added. “It’s been a lot of information sharing, and I think there’s a lot of belief, supported by data, that our remaining 10 are very strong. We’re in a lot of large media areas as we know, with incredible brands, so the focus on the future has been something we believe can be very bright. I think staying together is the very best option as we work with our media partners going forward.”

Five days after the UCLA-USC news, the Pac-12′s Board of Directors authorized commissioner George Kliavkoff to begin negotiations for its next media rights contract. The current one, a 12-year monstrosity that is a partial reason as to why the Pac-12 is in the shape it’s currently in, ends in 2024.

The league is currently inside a 30-day period in which it can negotiate exclusively with its incumbent media partners, ESPN and FOX. That window ends on Aug. 4, at which point there should be a better idea of what exactly the Pac-12 is worth.

Kliavkoff reiterated Friday morning that a digital media partner is likely to get a piece of the media rights, but the primary rights are expected to remain on linear TV, likely ESPN.

“I think the timeline is a little bit different than what people are thinking,” Harlan said. “Nothing is going to happen today or tomorrow. You had the league announce it has activated the windows for our incumbent media partners, so we’re right in the middle of that process. Once you go through that process, you can go to the open market.

“I was a strong supporter, as was President Randall, to go ahead and trigger those because we thought that was in our best interest, to see where we were and the kind of value that we believe we can get from that.”

Utah’s own best interest, not necessarily that of the 10-school group, has been an under-discussed topic for the last month.

No stranger to realignment as charter members of the WAC and the Mountain West before joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes are not the most-attractive realignment option from the league left on the board, but they are thought to be in a better, more advantageous position than a handful of other remaining members.

The Big Ten is not coming for Utah in this round of realignment, nor is the SEC. There has been rampant speculation about the Big 12 trying to make a play to poach anywhere from 4-6 Pac-12 schools, a group that includes Utah, but as Harlan and Kliavkoff both indicated Friday, their own consultants and data argue that staying in the Pac-12 is more prudent than leaving for the Big 12.

Harlan, recognizing that narratives are a part of this process, went as far as to say Friday that most of what he’s read in the media, specifically in regards to the Big 12′s potential poaching, is false.

As he sees it through the viewpoint of Utah’s own best interest, not just that of the group, the move is still to try and save their current home.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is the student-athletes at the University of Utah and as such, President Randall and I have been working very closely on this matter, but in that regard, the best thing for the University of Utah is to be with these other nine great institutions as we move forward,” Harlan said. “That is our plan.”

Harlan sheds some new light on FY2021 deficit

Utah’s fiscal 2022 came to a close on June 30, but Harlan was not in a position to offer specifics on how his athletic department finished.

With full 2021 football and 2021-22 basketball seasons played, complete with crowds again allowed inside Rice-Eccles Stadium and the Huntsman Center, Utah will surely finish in the black. That follows a $31 million budget deficit in fiscal 2021, which included truncated, fanless football and basketball seasons thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In regards to the fiscal 2021 deficit, Harlan offered some new details.

That $31 million from the previous fiscal year did not affect the one that just ended. The deficit is ‘in a different subset of a category.” As Harlan has said publicly on a number of occasions, the deficit is being financed through central campus. More specifically, the athletic department has worked with the university to combine its COVID deficit with other university deficits that were associated with the pandemic.

“We get good financing on that, on that process, and we certainly are participating to make sure that we help refund the process,” Harlan said. “It’s a collaborative effort with some leadership, which is another reason why we can be so successful at the University of Utah. When you have an administration that supports athletics at the level that we do it, it’s certainly a big part of our success.

“We have a great relationship with President Randall and Cathy Anderson, the CFO of the university. Again, it doesn’t affect this fiscal year. It’s just kind of a separate piece we’re working on, but as I’ve said before publicly, it’s not slowing us down at all.”

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