Apple TV’s Pac-12 deal intrigued Utah leaders before it doomed the conference

U. President Taylor Randall and AD Mark Harlan said it was “a new type of [way to view] college sports.”

Before the Pac-12 became a thing of the past, the Conference of Champions was considering something futuristic.

“We were offered a media contract by the Apple corporation, which was a technological 23rd century Star Trek-thing with really unbelievable capability that we very interested in,” Arizona State President Michael Crow told reporters over the weekend.

While many details of Apple TV’s pitch to the Pac-12 have not been made publicly known, the conference’s ultimately failed media deal was also intriguing to officials in Utah, U. President Taylor Randall and Athletics Director Mark Harlan said Monday.

“It was a new type of [way to view] college sports,” Randall said of the product. “So that was both intriguing and made us all kind of pause and say, ‘We’ve got to analyze this a little further, right?’ It wasn’t like saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna say yes to a contract that we’ve done for years and years.’

“We took a lot of time, just kind of diving through it, you know. At times you felt like you were more of a venture capitalist in analyzing something.”

Crow described Apple’s offerings this way: “Digitization of all football games, all men’s basketball games and all women’s basketball games instantly, available anywhere in the world at a touch of a button from any device. Digitally manipulatable by the watcher, both during the game and between games and between multiple games. As well as usable by athletes for recruiting and so forth and so on. We thought there was some risk, but huge opportunity.”

The Athletic reported that the deal’s base was $23 million per school, nearly $8 million less than the Big 12′s TV payouts. There were incentives that could potentially get the deal’s worth higher: If the Pac-12 sold 1.7 million subscriptions, it could meet the Big 12′s number closer to $32 million, according to multiple reports. But the prospects of that happening were a risk.

In the end, the risk outweighed the reward for too many key members of the conference. After hearing the pitch, Oregon and Washington announced they would join the Big Ten Conference. Utah would soon after join Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado in seeking a new home with the Big 12.

“I will just tell you we expended every energy to try to figure out how this deal could move forward. It was an innovative construct. It certainly on its upside had the promise to do something very different to the way we view television. I think everybody in the room caught that view,” Randall said.

“… All of us had to make a decision about that and get to a certain comfort level. And we just couldn’t get the whole group there.”

It was originally believed that Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff would present multiple options for a media rights deal, some with more linear television options rather than a streaming service like Apple. But that did not materialize.

“Our commissioner did everything he could to bring options to us in a pretty difficult media market right now if you’ve been following what’s going on with Disney and the like,” Randall said. “So I appreciated his efforts. And what he brought to us was a creative solution. And again, as we mentioned, it’s unfortunate we couldn’t get them on over the finish line.”

He added: “At the end of the day, each university was plugging in the numbers and kind of making their own decisions. And obviously, the outcome is where we are today.”

Harlan and Randall did mention the other factors in leaving the Pac-12. Harlan pointed to Utah being on ESPN and Fox in its new conference. It would lead to more visibility, he said, than Apple TV.

“I will say that the thing I’m most excited about with this television dynamic … is it’s obviously with two of the major providers in Fox and ESPN that have been obviously partners that we know well,” Harlan said.

But while Utah will leave for the Big 12 next year , the Utes made it clear they didn’t want to leave the Pac-12 if they had a choice.

“The Pac-12 experience for the University of Utah, I would like to even think it’s been more profound than it has been for many other members,” Harlan said. “It changed this university. I saw it from afar working in other Pac-12 schools. I saw the rise of Utah academically and certainly athletically. It’s been a special, special ride.”

Randall said he would’ve overlooked a couple of million if it meant being a stable environment for Utah.

“You’re looking broader than just the dollars and cents. You got to keep an athletic program healthy,” he said at one point. “So it’s got to meet some minimum viability, for sure. But on the margin, you’re not going to choose for a million or two. You know, here you’re thinking about the long-term view of the university and where you need to position it.”

Randall and Harlan declined to get into specifics about when they decided to make the move. They deflected when asked about Oregon and Washington officials not showing up Friday morning on a call to vote for the new media deal.

They did say they began exploring conference options last summer, looking not just at the Big 12 but beyond.

“I want to keep lots of conversations, just relatively private, but we explored a lot of options,” Randall said of the Big Ten and ACC as potential landing spots if the Big 12 didn’t work.

Regardless, Utah is now in the Big 12 and its future is secured. Was it all about money? Maybe not all, Harlan said.

“When athletic departments communicate revenue, it can get a little complicated, quite candidly,” Harlan said. “There’s so many different buckets, and sometimes you’ll see a lumping of, for example, the television deal, combined with how many units come from a basketball tournament or how many tickets you sell at a championship game, and so it is confusing.”

But as Randall said, it was a big part. And when Utah plugged in its own numbers, it was clearly time to go.

“You have to do what’s best for the institution that you’re at, and this place is special, and we’re going to do [what’s best] for Utah,” Harlan finished.