Andy Larsen: What the winners of conference realignment have that the losers don’t

With college football and television driving decisions, the rich will get richer at the expense of some student-athletes and fans.

(LM Otero | AP) Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark, right, shares a laugh with former Commissioner Bob Bowlsby at a news conference opening the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

Hey, sports fans! Wow, what a whirlwind of a week!

The whole landscape of college sports has changed drastically, thanks to the decisions of various Pac-12 schools to split up and go elsewhere.

If somehow you missed it: After USC and UCLA decided to join the Big Ten last year, the Pac-12 had trouble getting a new television rights deal. Since they could only get a $23 million annual base payment from Apple, rather than the $31.7 million fees that they’ll earn in the Big Ten, Oregon and Washington decided to leave the conference. In response Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah decided to chase after the $31 million payment from the Big 12, and got the deal done. After all, you can’t just get $7-8 million dollars anywhere.

As ever in sports, there are winners and there are losers.

Winner: Brett Yormark, Big 12 Commissioner

FILE - Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark smiles before speaking at the opening of the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Commissioner Brett Yormark saw the future, securing a new TV deal years before his old one was to expire to ensure prosperity and stability for his conference.

A New Yorker without previous college football experience before being hired by the Big 12 in 2022, he operated as CEO of the Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment Group, working to move the New York Islanders and New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn. One move stuck, the other failed. Nevertheless, he departed with a substantial exit fee for ROC Sports agency, where he acted as COO for about two years.

Yormark’s salary hasn’t been reported, but his predecessor in the commissioner slot, Bob Bowlsby, earned $4 million per year.

Losers: Paige Sinicki, Shannon Cunningham, Morgan Scott, Pac-12 softball players

(AP) Oregon softball players Paige Sinicki and Morgan Scott spoke out about conference realignment.

A two-time Pac-12 All-Defensive infielder, Paige Sinicki chose to play at Oregon to stay close to home, to “allow her parents to come watch the games.” Unfortunately, she’ll be taking trips to New Jersey at Rutgers in her senior year. Shannon Cunningham, from Tustin, Calif., chose to attend ASU so her family could watch her play on her road trips back to her home state. Bad news: The Big 12 has no California schools.

Morgan Scott, a 2023 All-Pac-12 Second Team selection for Oregon, noted that she felt that the additional travel by her school’s realignment would make her life as an amateur student-athlete harder. “The balance of practice, travel, school, and having a social life is already hard enough. Why add even more stress?”

Opportunities for pro softball playing are scarce. For those who do go professional, they can make $3,000-$25,000 per season.

Winners: Jordan Bazant, Eric Shanks, Mark Silverman, Larry Jones, Fox Sports executives

The Mercury News’ Jon Wilner put it well: As a result of the realignment, Fox Sports “will control the media rights for the top brands in the Pacific Time Zone and leave its rival, ESPN, without premium West Coast inventory.” Other than the Pac-12 presidents, “no single entity is more responsible for the Pac-12′s destruction than Fox.”

These are big wins for Fox Sports executives. The Sports Business Journal reports that CEO Eric Shanks, President & COO Mark Silverman and executive vice presidents Larry Jones and Jordan Bazant worked on the deal.

While the salaries of those four executives aren’t public, parent company Fox Corporation paid its top-line executives over $10 million each last year, according to filings. Last quarter, Fox Corp reported a revenue of $3.03 billion, and a net income of $375 million.

Losers: Michael-Anthony Okwura, Exodus Ayers, Pac-12 football recruits

Michael-Anthony Okwura is a three-star defensive lineman prospect from Texas who committed to Cal this June, before talk of conference realignment. When he was offered, he noted that “going there for football and education, it’s a great opportunity.” Cal was ranked the No. 1 public university in the world for its academics.

Unfortunately, he’s now worried about the football side of things. “I am very concerned about the Pac-12 falling apart. I wanted to become a part of a conference that could uphold great competition,” he told Rivals. He said he’s still committed to Cal for now, but would like to see their next move.

Exodus Ayers, a defensive back commited to Oregon State, had similar worries. “It’s really hard to say: if the demotion of Power Five happens then my dreams would be ruined and I would look for a new school,” he said. Ayers was named the 2022-23 Gatorade New Hampshire Football Player of the Year, was an honor-roll student, and volunteered as a community center recreational leader.

Winners: Realigned college administrators

University of Utah President Taylor Randall, left, and Mark Harlan, Director of Athletics, University of Utah laugh during a news conference addressing the move from the Pac-12 Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, in Salt Lake City. The Big 12 is adding Arizona, Arizona State and Utah as members next year, completing its raid of the Pac-12. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

As The Athletic columnist David Ubben wrote, college administrators are some of the biggest winners here. “Presidents, chancellors and athletic directors will be congratulated by regents and rewarded with more money that (for now) will continue to not trickle down to athletes,” he wrote. After all, they successfully navigated their schools through a tumultuous time, and earned them $7-8 million more per year.

Unfortunately, the schools themselves cannot pay athletes a salary through the NCAA’s model, but for the executives, “those paychecks aren’t going away,” Ubben noted.

Losers: Realigned equipment managers and staff

Thanks to the Big 12′s new national footprint, the Utes will have to travel far further routes, including to the University of Central Florida near Orlando. That makes jobs of equipment managers across all sports far more complicated — rather than being able to take a truck full of equipment to the game, a flight may be necessary.

“It’s miserable to fly equipment,” Penn State equipment manager Spider Caldwell told The Athletic. “Myself and some student managers were literally under the plane in the cargo hold. We rode the conveyor belt up and you’re hauling trunks, too, not just bags, but sideline trunks, and to make them fit you have to flip them and turn them upside down. Then, you have to make sure the weight in the plane is all balanced so you’re shifting stuff around.”

If teams do decide to go the cross-country drive option, they may need to get duplicates of equipment — they’d have to leave Tuesday or Wednesday to drive thousands of miles in time, meaning that the teams couldn’t have that same equipment for their Wednesday or Thursday practices. As for sports that play multiple times per week... well, there’s no easy answer.

According to Utah’s public employee compensation search database, Utah equipment manager staff make roughly $40,000-$50,000 per year.

Winners: George Kliavkoff, Pac-12 Commissioner

(Lucas Peltier | AP) Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks at the NCAA college football Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Most have put Kliavkoff among the losers here. That’s thanks to his naive inability to secure a better media rights deal for his conference while falsely insisting for months, if not years, that he had the situation under control.

But consider this: in doing so, he was able to not only enrich himself, but his friends. In failing to negotiate a better deal, he hired an advisory group called Sports Media Advisors, run by Doug Perlman. Perlman was a classmate of Kliavkoff’s at University of Virginia law school. (Yormark, meanwhile, hired industry leaders WME Sports and IMG Media — you can consider them winners, too.)

We don’t know Kliavkoff’s exact yearly salary, but we do know he was paid $1.8 million in 2021, after being hired on July 1 of that year. That implies a yearly salary of $3.6 million. He also signed a five-year contract with the conference. It’s unclear what happens to his remaining salary now that the conference has collapsed, but former commissioner Larry Scott received a $1.5 million severance payment to go away when the conference fired him.

Losers: Pac-12 fans

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah fans celebrate after Julia Jimenez hit a grand slam home run, giving Utah a 7-1 lead, in NCAA Softball Super Regionals action between the Utah Utes and the San Diego State Aztecs, on Saturday, May 27, 2023.

Fans of Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State now have no idea when or where their teams will play next year. So that’s unfortunate.

But even for fans of schools who did find a home, they’re looking at massively increased travel costs to go to a team’s away games. We have average airfare data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. To get from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles or Phoenix, the average one-way cost was about $200. To Seattle? About $220.

The Big 12 is largely made up of schools from smaller cities, but even getting to those in bigger cities with major airports is going to be more expensive. To get to Houston, for example, average one-way fare is $320. To Cincinnati, it’s $370. But then to get to the smaller cities is even tougher: visiting West Virginia University likely means flying into Pittsburgh (one-way average fare: $366) then driving 80 miles south.

As a result, Utah fans are going to either have to spend more or skip more trips, lowering the team’s away support.

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