What can we learn about George Kliavkoff's approach as Pac-12 commissioner from the interview process?

“Diversity and women’s sports issues are not called out separately, but there is plenty of opportunity for the candidates to bring them into ‘Values’ and ‘Change Management'"

Welcome back to Out of Bounds, a free, weekly newsletter about college athletics. Feedback, tips and story ideas are always welcome at andrew [dot] wittry [at] gmail [dot] com or you can connect with me on Twitter.

July 1 is a pivotal date in college athletics, when a handful of state laws pertaining to name, image and likeness rights go into effect, but also because it’s the official start date for a recently appointed Power 5 conference commissioner.

What you need to know

  • Earlier in May, the Pac-12 announced that sports business executive George Kliavkoff has been appointed Pac-12 commissioner, effective July 1, when he’ll replace Larry Scott.

  • The Pac-12’s position description for its next conference commissioner noted how the conference has won 529 NCAA championships – more than 200 more than the next-highest total for a single conference – with 305 championships in men’s sports, 193 in women’s sports and 31 in combined sports. As seen throughout the position description, the conference prides itself on the academic excellence of its member institutions and their athletic success in Olympic sports and women’s programs.

  • In part of Kliavkoff’s response to a question that was asked about women’s basketball during his introductory press conference, he concluded by noting, “We’re focused on the revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.” Many of the measures of success in big-time college athletics and its associated mainstream media coverage are tied to some combination of revenue, football and men’s basketball, and some of Kliavkoff’s answers reflected this. How will Kliavkoff balance those considerations in a conference whose trademarked brand – Conference of Champions – pertains to its success across a breadth of sports?

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During the Pac-12’s interview process to select its next commissioner – a search that resulted in the hiring of George Kliavkoff, the president of entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts International – the five-person search committee and executive search firm TurnkeyZRG developed a set of core questions to ask each candidate. The search committee consisted of University of Oregon President and search committee chair Michael Schill, University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, Washington State University President Kirk Schulz and University of Colorado Chancellor Phil DiStefano.

The six topics of the core questions included the candidates’ values, strengths and weaknesses, football, revenue growth, change management and talent management. “I just want to make sure that we cover the most important questions for everyone,” Schill wrote in an email to the group, a copy of which Out of Bounds obtained via a public records request.

Diversity and gender equity weren’t specifically addressed in those core questions, although the omissions appeared intentional. “Diversity and women’s sports issues are not called out separately, but there is plenty of opportunity for the candidates to bring them into ‘Values’ and ‘Change Management,’” Schill wrote. “If a candidate doesn’t do this, I think that says something about the candidate and we should surely bring that up.”

In the Pac-12 commissioner’s position description that the conference developed with TurnkeyZRG, which was obtained by Out of Bounds, the desired candidate was described as someone who is “inclusive, equitable and empowering.” The position description also stated, “At TurnkeyZRG and the Pac-12, we do not just accept difference–we celebrate it, support it, and thrive on it,” and that for the the conference, “the parity and equal success of men’s and women’s programs are perhaps its proudest achievement.” A copy of the position description, which provides insight as to how the Pac-12 views itself and the role of its commissioner, is available at the bottom of this newsletter.

“It may help to have it handy and serve as our ‘North Star,’” TurnkeyZRG Chairman and CEO Len Perna said of the position description in an email.

After the all-Pac-12 women’s basketball national championship game that saw Stanford defeat Arizona, USC defeated UCLA in this month’s beach volleyball national championship and Stanford’s women’s golf team enters the final round of stroke play at the NCAA championships on Monday with a 20-stroke lead over second-place Duke and the conference has four of the top five individuals through three rounds.

While there’s a push for improved gender equity across college athletics after the inequities that were highlighted during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, and later the response to conditions at the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament, Kliavkoff didn’t mince words in his opening press conference about the hierarchy of the sports that the conference sponsors.

In response to a question about whether the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament could be held in Seattle in the future and about potential synergies between the WNBA and women’s college basketball, Kliavkoff concluded his answer with, “But again, I want to be clear. We know where the bread is buttered. We’re focused on the revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”

A month after two Pac-12 women’s basketball teams played for the national championship, the Pac-12’s next commissioner is clearly focused on football, which the Pac-12’s presidents and chancellors are aware holds a diminished status compared to its Power 5 peers. Cauce, the University of Washington president, was the search committee member assigned to ask each candidate a big-picture question about football.

“What question do you want me to ask about football?” she wrote to Schill and Schulz. “Something like – The PAC12 has been described by some as having lost it’s (sic) relevance in football because it hasn’t made the play-offs for the last 4 or 5 years. What do you think is needed to change that perception (or reality)? What are your thoughts about how to address?”

“I think that is a good question…,” Schill responded. “stressing reality…”

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Was Kliavkoff chosen from a pool of three finalists?

The Pac-12 presidents and chancellors on the search committee conducted interviews with three candidates via Zoom on April 28, according to a schedule obtained by Out of Bounds, although it doesn’t include the names of the candidates. Kliavkoff was presumably one of the three, and at least one of the candidates was a woman, based on an email Schill sent.

The day before the Zoom interviews, Bay Area News Group’s Jon Wilner reported that NBA President for Business Operations and Chief Innovation Officer Amy Brooks was “one name being actively discussed, per sources.” Within 45 minutes of the story being published, Oregon Senior Associate Athletics Director, Communications Jimmy Stanton sent it to Schill.

Structure of the conference office

The Pac-12 is open to its conference office molding itself after professional sports leagues, according to the position description for the Pac-12’s commissioner.

“While historically intercollegiate conference offices have been focused on sport operations and the business of the ‘collective,’ the Pac-12 is open to a more modern conference structure and approach which can be seen in several professional sports leagues. Those leagues offer members best practices, benchmarking, market intelligence, business intelligence, sales support, content support, etc. to assist members in their unique local markets. If a similar approach can help Pac-12 member schools vis-à-vis student-athletes, coaches, administrators, alumni and followers, the Pac-12 is open to it.”

The position description also noted that the commissioner should “bring an ambitious and entrepreneurial approach to identifying and creating new revenue growth opportunities not only for the Conference collectively, but also for the schools individually. This may mean building consensus and followership around new ways of structuring the economic, financial, and business relationships within the Pac-12 itself.”

Different versions of the phrase “also for the schools individually” appeared several times in the position description, as it pertained to media partners, sponsors, co-branding opportunities and licensing. The conference hopes Kliavkoff will “install a more detailed approach to finance and financial matters,” wherein member schools will share financial information with the conference, which will make sure the data is “aggregated and anonymized” in an effort to improve performance.

Speaking for the Pac-12

The Pac-12 wants its next commissioner to “preserve, protect and defend the Pac-12,” according to the position description, and given the conference presidents’ acknowledgement that Pac-12 football has taken a hit, preserving, protecting and defending the Pac-12 was bound to materialize in the form of a push to expand the College Football Playoff.

In seven years of the College Football Playoff, a Pac-12 team has only appeared in the playoff field twice – Oregon during the 2014 season and Washington in the 2016 campaign.

At Kliavkoff’s opening press conference, he said, “I will be pushing to expand the College Football Playoff. I believe that it’s not good for college football and for the vast majority of college football fans when 20 of the 28 CFP bids, 71%, go to just four schools.”

Given how outspoken Kliavkoff was about football-related topics, it will be worth tracking what role he takes in the public spotlight and what issues he addresses when he’s there. “While the role requires some public speaking at certain sporting events and industry events, the Pac-12 isn’t necessarily desirous of an ongoing ‘spokesperson,’” according to the position description. “Everything has its time and place. The Commissioner and communications team should discern when and how to deploy communications effectively for the collective.”

In the campaign to improve Pac-12 football, the time and place was Kliavkoff’s introductory press conference.

Another bullet point in the position description stated that the Pac-12 “envisions more of a thought leader than a spokesperson.” From the stated importance of football and men’s basketball to Kliavkoff’s desire for the College Football Playoff to expand, Kliavkoff was certainly a spokesperson for the conference’s two most profitable sports.

The position description for the Pac-12’s conference commissioner noted that the conference’s member institutions offer opportunities in more than 40 “competitive-level” sports and Kliavkoff’s tenure will likely be defined by the Pac-12’s ability to close the gaps in revenue and conference distributions, the accessibility of the conference’s television programming and its number of College Football Playoff berths compared to its Power 5 peers, all while operating in a conference that has branded itself as the Conference of Champions because of its history of success across its large offering of athletic programs.

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The Pac-12’s commissioner position description

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew [dot] wittry [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter.