When the Pac-12’s seven-game football season kicks off on Saturday, Nov. 7, some new signage will accompany the teams finally taking the field. That’s because, within a one-week span, the conference announced a trio of corporate sponsorship additions to its roster.
First was a multi-year partnership with Pacific Seafood, the first-ever Official Meat and Seafood Provider of the conference. Next came the addition of an Official Bank in Pacific Premier Bank, followed by business communications company Nextiva becoming the Pac-12’s Official Communications Partner. The deals mark more than needed revenue sources and new supporters; they’re also proof of concept for the conference’s sales strategy shift. Just before the pandemic, the Pac-12 altered its market approach—and now, it appears to be paying off.
“What I noticed when I first showed up was the previous regime—because we’re a network—was really focused on selling ads and advertising spots,” said Steve Tseng, executive vice president of sales for Pac-12 Networks, who joined the conference a year and a half ago. “It was very transactional, and that’s fine, but at the end of the day, you’re never going to be able to get above that certain media package. The whole linear role is declining with cord-cutting. The IP is actually what should be driving these conversations.”
Tseng turned the conference’s revenue focus to “selling the conference’s footprint” and expanding the scope of deals done.
“The Pac-12 is a great brand [with] a great footprint on the West Coast at our 12 universities. In the metros where we operate, as well as our alumni and student bodies, it’s second to none if you’re a brand that wants to touch the West Coast,” he said. “We may not have the biggest numbers like the SEC and the Big Ten, but our audience is very desirable. We’re also trying to sell truly fully integrated packages—not just spots and dots—which allows us to increase our margins. You throw in some digital, some social, the traditional sponsor assets, which are signage and tickets and hospitality and [things] like that. Then we’ve been finding new assets, creating new opportunities for partners to reach that audience.”
Nextiva, for example, not only has rights to IP and assets at the conference level—notably, the Pac-12’s football championship game and its Las Vegas-based basketball tournament—but the communications company also has rights to the same at each individual institution. The partnership grants Nextiva visibility across the six-state scope of Pac-12 football and basketball, which extends from Washington to Arizona. Pacific Premier Bank will have a “significant presence” across the Pac-12 Networks’ on-air and digital platforms and programming, the conference said, which reach those same markets. Pacific Seafood’s deal, which makes the company an official football championship partner, also includes mutually beneficial branding. The sponsor gets signage rights at major conference events, while the Pac-12 receives eventual conference logo placement on the seafood company’s products in grocery stores across the West Coast.
The trio of new additions join the Pac-12’s existing partners, which include Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, GEICO, New York Life and Redbox. More deals and renewals are expected in the coming weeks and months, the conference said, but it’s clear from the list of existing sponsors that some already understood the benefit of the West Coast reach that the Pac-12 is now actively selling. For example, New York Life, the conference’s basketball tournament presenting sponsor, only sponsors two other properties: the ACC and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, both of which take place on the opposite coast.
New sponsorships also help on the revenue side in a year when athletic departments across the country are struggling. During the 2019 fiscal year, the conference’s revenue distribution landed just upwards of $32 million per school, behind the likes of the Big Ten or SEC. The majority of that came from the conference’s top-tier television contracts with FOX and ESPN, which it should still be able to fulfill given the modified football season plans. Commitments to its next level of media distribution partners (who carry the games the aforementioned partners do not) are going to be tougher to meet because, as Tseng says, “there’s not enough games.” Sponsorships and partnerships comprise the second major revenue source, where deals like the recently announced trio help the conference mitigate losses.
Conversations with the new sponsors started pre-pandemic, but activations weren’t attainable until sports returned. All of the Pac-12’s existing partners, outside of New York Life, have already re-upped, albeit some with modified terms. As with all dealmaking put on pause by COVID-19, the conference had to play the waiting-and-adjusting game.
“We’re not going to play hardball with anybody. We’re going to be really flexible, depending on the business situation of each of our partners,” Tseng said. “Some were hurting more than others—and you’d be surprised which brands really were hurting, where we actually gave money back in some instances or we’d say they don’t have to pay for another three months until sports starts again. Flexibility is definitely the name of the game today.”