Pac-12's left-field commissioner hire is a dice roll for league's leaders

The Pac-12 announced the hiring of a new commissioner on Thursday afternoon. If first impressions were marked by number of Google impressions, the completely anonymous George Kliavkoff hit it big on introduction.

Around college athletics, the hiring was greeted with a resounding cry of, “WHO?”

We’re ready to give George Kliavkoff a fair chance. He’s certainly accomplished from his time as the president of entertainment and sports for MGM resorts. He brings extensive experience in the television and digital space. He’s undoubtedly a bright guy with a strong résumé.

He’s already outshined his predecessor, Larry Scott, in his ability to stay on message and hit some red meat topics that likely had USC message board posters giddy.

But winning the news conference and becoming a successful major conference commissioner are two drastically different things. And while it’s far too early to criticize Kliavkoff, as we’re barely done googling him, it’s fair to say the Pac-12 CEOs took a significant risk in hiring him.

The Pac-12 CEOs are the same group that hung on to Larry Scott about a half decade too long and hid in their ivory towers as Scott hoodwinked them into thinking he’d be an effective television executive. As Scott’s salary soared over $5 million and the Pac-12 Network’s distribution undercut its finances, the league became a punchline because of the ambivalence of the Pac-12 CEOs.

MGM's George Kliavkoff (C) presents the Colorado Buffaloes with a championship belt after a game in the MGM Resorts Main Event basketball tournament on Nov. 26, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

That’s why it’s so stunning that they didn’t make a more conventional and safe hire. As a group, the Pac-12 leaders — athletic directors were completely boxed out of this process — essentially went from the penny slots to the $10,000 minimum tables. It’s fair to ask whether they’re equipped to suddenly find a jackpot.

The Pac-12 CEOs saw the sheer competence, relatable experience and television savvy of Oliver Luck and punted. They had their pick of a handful of high-profile athletic directors and didn’t chase any of them. They went through a prolonged process that meant the Pac-12 CEOs would have a decisive say. Perhaps that makes them invested, which would be a nice change.

Considering how passive the CEOs were as Scott was cashing in, the Pac-12 Network was collecting cobwebs and the league was cementing itself as the caboose of the Power Five, it’s an odd group to band together for a high-risk hire. After napping the past five years and becoming the presidential group the others around college sports used as a cautionary tale, the Pac-12 CEOs suddenly decided to become the smartest people in the room in college athletics.

Dynamics in the Pac-12 CEO room have changed. USC pulled itself out of various federal investigations to have a pulse. Washington State president Kirk Schultz, who is well respected in the athletics presidential world, emerged as the alpha. But the Pac-12 CEOs choosing a leader with limited athletic director input underscores the foolishness of presidents making major collegiate athletics decisions in the first place.

There’s a renewed sense of investment by the Pac-12 leaders, who have mercifully muzzled the power of longtime Scott protector Michael Crow of Arizona State. As one league source put it: “Nobody can afford for this hire to be a repeat of history.” Rallying around an obscure hire, at the very least, will represent a fractured league rallying again.

The biggest issue facing Kliavkoff will be that he needs to ace a crash course in college athletics in a short period of time. That means learning the cultures of 12 different schools, as the institutional whims of Arizona and Stanford aren’t exactly consistently in line. The rocky baptism by COVID-19 of Kevin Warren in the Big Ten provided a portrait of what can happen when an outsider steps into the commissioner seat without a holistic understanding of how college sports work.

When Warren went through his rough patch this summer, a veteran commissioner explained to Yahoo Sports that it takes at least a year for even the most skilled executive to fully gasp how a conference works. How to deal with the presidents, Kliavkoff’s bosses, will be one of the biggest challenges. One of Scott’s biggest early failures was ignoring the athletic directors, which caused years of friction and animosity and eventually led to Scott’s caricature of being arrogant and aloof. He catered to the presidents; they kept giving him more power and bigger raises. Everyone else lost.

From there for Kliavkoff, there are the dual challenges of the Pac-12 Network and the new Pac-12 television deal that’s up following the 2023 football season. The Pac-12 Network has been a sputtering mess since Scott issued one of the defining mistakes of his tenure: failing to partner with ESPN or FOX. That led to dwindling revenues and tall tales of some sort of billion-dollar payday from exclusive ownership. We’re now realizing this is as realistic as Mike Leach hosting a Salute to Pac-12 Officiating in Key West.

Kliavkoff’s opening remarks were basically the opposite of things Scott would have said. He’s going to prioritize distribution of the Pac-12 Network on “every place and every platform” where fans could consume it. He promised a push for playoff expansion and ditched the tired “Conference of Champions” rhetoric and acknowledged the Pac-12 needs to be better in the sports that matter. If nothing else, there’s new energy at a place long paralyzed by the same old problems.

But let’s not get Pollyannish here. This hire comes with considerable risk, and it comes from a CEO group using this hire as a potential reputation overhaul.

After years of presidential apathy, the Pac-12 presidents have bellied up to the high-stakes table. It’s nice to see them engaged, but we’re still left wondering whether a group that’s been largely asleep in the box can suddenly find a unicorn leader outside of it.

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