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Pac-12’s Scott Finds Roundabout Conference Solutions Amid Crises

A Google search for Larry Scott (after scrolling past the Wikipedia entry for the bodybuilder of the same name) will uncover vast criticism of the Pac-12 commissioner. There’s anger about bonus payments paid out during the pandemic—just before layoffs and furloughs—that incorrectly placed Scott’s bonus at the $2.5 million mark, and dissatisfaction with his handling of his players’ #WeAreUnited movement. There are stories about pay cuts while the commissioner still makes millions, and reports of a contract buyout. There are some more forgiving pieces, and then there’s a scathing Salt Lake Tribune  story that starts with the line: “Larry Scott will be tone deaf until the end, whenever it comes.”

‘Tone deaf’ is a characterization similar to others used in those stories—but many of the people who have worked with or for Scott provided Sportico with a more nuanced perception of the Pac-12’s leader as the conference prepared to announce the return of football. Scott himself declined to comment for this story.

“Larry gets a really tough rap,” said a source who worked closely with Scott and the conference on a financial project. “I don’t know why people are out to get him.”

The answer may be a slew of public Pac-12 stumbles under the watch of college athletics’ highest-paid commissioner, which include Scott’s response to the football replay scandal, continued distribution difficulties for the conference’s eponymous media network and reports of an agreement to funnel additional advertising dollars to the Los Angeles Times for increased and more favorable coverage (the conference tells Sportico that deal was intended to “change the narrative and get more stories about less-covered sports”). Also included: Viral stories about the swanky $7,500 Las Vegas suites Scott stays in during the conference’s basketball tournament (comped by the casinos, according to the conference) that characterize him as arrogantly affluent and self-serving, as do the bonus payout reports that surfaced this week.

“Some people characterize him as this selfish, stumbling oaf, but you don’t have to like every single thing he does to understand that he’s a pretty smart leader,” a conference source said. No one will describe his tenure as perfect, but said another, “What CEO in any other industry do you know who people would say that about?”

Since stepping down as chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association to become Pac-12 commissioner in 2009, Scott has overseen the conference’s first expansion since 1978 and the relocation of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to Las Vegas. He started a Pac-12 football championship game as well as a global initiative in China that generates consistent international exposure for his institutions and conference. Scott brought student athletes directly into the conference’s actual governance structure, a first, all while maintaining the Pac-12’s unparalleled success in women’s and Olympic sports. The conference has continued to take home or tie for the most NCAA titles during Scott’s 11 years at the helm—winning more in that time than the Big 12 has since its launch in 1996.

And despite the recent negative press, Scott received praise for his leadership during the pandemic. Through postponement and a return to play plan, he rallied a united front among conference leaders even as college sports, and the rest of the world, continued to divide. Only one of the two Power Five conferences to initially postpone fall football dealt with rumors of infighting, angry coaches, administrators and even politicians and threats of legal action from players and parents—and it wasn’t the Pac-12. That’s not to say there wasn’t any disagreement or disappointment on the west coast, but Scott managed to prevent public chaos in a way Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren couldn’t—all as reports swirled this summer that his job was on the line.

Maybe that’s all because, as U.S. Tennis Association chief executive Stacey Allaster says, “Larry has a gift of rising up when the criticisms are coming fast and furious.” He doesn’t react emotionally, but logically—Arizona State president Michael Crow, the only remaining university leader among the group that hired Scott, can remember seeing Scott visibly upset only once during his entire tenure.

Scott has fallen on the sword of several missteps, some his own doing but many made above even his lofty paygrade. So maybe Scott is maligned, as many say—or perhaps Larry Scott is just an imperfect leader who operates in a space of complicated contradiction.

This summer provides a window into the conference’s conundrum—perpetually ahead but somehow still behind. Many of the early pandemic-related moves Scott made were possible because the Pac-12 was behind to begin with. The frustrating ebb and flow is at least partly a reflection of the commissioner: a forward thinker who plays the long game in an era of continual change while serving as a paradoxically deferential leader.

The first to arrange a loan program amid the pandemic, Scott preemptively started talks to secure what was originally a $1 billion safety net in case the conference ended up in a massive financial quagmire without football, which looked likely when the conference postponed play on Aug. 11. With even a shortened season now on the schedule and television revenues returning, the loan will likely be much less substantial, but soon available as still needed support. The Pac-12 could move swiftly in those discussions because of the relative simplicity of its rights deals, all under the Pac-12’s direct control due to the Network’s setup as a subsidiary of the conference itself, and because Scott was already thinking through cash flow solutions. The Pac-12 had an existing debt problem, in large part because of its $3 billion, 12-year media rights deal that ends in 2024.

“Today we’re behind, yesterday we were ahead—and in between has been a challenge. In its day, it was the best contract out there; since then others have leapfrogged over us. But a contract is a contract and we live with it,” Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes said, giving Scott a measure of grace frustrated fans aren’t as inclined to dish out. “In hindsight, maybe it should’ve been shorter. In this business, length of contracts is what creates more revenue.”

The contract was Scott’s doing, a strategic move from an unapologetically ambitious deal-maker that didn’t stand the test of time. He went long with ESPN and FOX for a record-setting deal, one a source who worked with the commissioner during negotiations said he wouldn’t have gotten had Scott not agreed to lengthy terms. The deal nearly tripled the annual television revenues the conference had been receiving but today pales compared to other Power Five payouts.

As other conferences outpace the Pac-12 with their more recent media deals, each of the conference’s institutions receive less money comparatively.

“What Larry doesn’t seem to understand is that his job is to make money for schools to fund the programs that make that money back [like football], so we can use that to fuel success on the field and support other sports,” one assistant football coach in the conference said. The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national championship in football since 2004 when Matt Leinart led the Trojans to a now-vacated title. The coach described Scott as too “kumbaya” and not realistic enough about needing to prioritize the revenue cycle attached to sports like football and basketball.

While Scott takes most of that criticism—and received much praise early on when the rights deal was struck—he didn’t singlehandedly sign off on anything. The conference’s CEO group wanted “someone specifically who could drive a new vision in how they were going to approach media,” said former Spencer Stuart executive recruiter Jed Hughes (now Korn Ferry’s global head of sports practice), who was responsible for placing Scott at the then-Pac-10.

When it came to the creation of the conference’s network, Scott presented the CEO group with a number of media options and, Sportico has confirmed, the CEOs voted unanimously to proceed with an independent network. Scott carried out their vision, ultimately launching the first-ever integrated media company entirely owned by a conference and reserving what one consultant involved in the process quantifies as 95% of its content for the Pac-12 Network, distributing only a fraction to its partners. The commissioner executed the charge as instructed, even though he was ultimately unable to secure sufficient distribution for the content the conference had saved for its own network.

Scott’s bold approach has paid off before, as with the six-year, $88-million Sony Ericsson deal he struck while serving as CEO of the WTA. “The status quo has never been enough for Larry,” said Allaster, who was involved in hiring him in 2003. What Scott, the former Harvard All-American and professional player, secured for the WTA was, at the time, the largest sponsorship in the history of women’s sports and all of tennis—and part of a 250% increase in revenues he oversaw during his six-year stint. The Pac-12 Network and current distribution deal are taking longer to bear fruit.

“In any enterprise, you can grow the trees, harvest them and replant them or you can just clear-cut everything at once,” former Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson said. “Larry came into what was a sleepy, underperforming, somewhat atavistic conference and he pulled it up dramatically with the plan of the Network. While you may be able to complain that he could have done it cheaper, could have done it in a fashion that threw off a little more cash, you would not have the asset value that you have today. To blame Larry for a visionary decision that the board at that time was all in on seems [unfair] because, what, you want to spend more money on waterfalls in your locker room?”

To cushion his schools through the final years of the deal, Scott enlisted The Raine Group in 2019 to examine cash options and what the Pac-12 described as “opportunities to maximize the value of its full portfolio of media assets through strategic partnerships.”

A source familiar with the discussions said there was inbound interest from conference leadership on both straight debt options (similar to what the conference is finalizing now with its loan program) and equity options in the conference’s media enterprise. Ownership of the Pac-12 Network offered Scott leverage that none of his other counterparts had—something the schools now “should be pretty g–d— happy they’ve got,” as Patterson put it.

“There was a lot of foresight into what we were doing,” the same source added. “No one knew the pandemic was coming, but we knew there was a cash problem relative to the other conferences, and we had some really elegant solutions to solve them.”

Unable to get his CEO group on board in time to get a debt deal done last year, Scott used the seeds from those previous conversations to start arranging a COVID-19 relief loan early. After figuring out his financial plan, Scott signed the Pac-12 to a deal with diagnostic healthcare manufacturer Quidel. Although the conference thus was the first in top-tier college athletics to secure access to the kind of daily, rapid-result testing its medical advisors deemed necessary for a return to play, it lagged behind the Big Ten in deciding to do just that.

With extenuating circumstances in states including Oregon and California, it was ultimately Scott’s “creative diplomacy,” as someone close to the conference calls it, and conversations with California governor Gavin Newsom that got the Pac-12 the green light. While waiting for the right time to return ruffled some feathers, “Larry doesn’t fear or back away from taking an unpopular stance,” as Deborah Antoine, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation explained of Scott, who joined the WSF board in 2012.

“Larry came into what was a sleepy, underperforming, somewhat atavistic conference and he pulled it up dramatically with the plan of the Network.”

Throughout it all, Scott has continued to support underrepresented sports, using the Pac-12 Network to give women’s and Olympic sports unprecedented airtime. Of the 850 linear events the network typically airs, roughly 665 feature Olympic sports. On average, 54% of events aired on Pac-12 Networks feature women’s sports, compared to only 4% of national media coverage.

As longtime Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer puts it, “Pac-12 Networks catapulted our women’s basketball league from being an afterthought to being No. 1; the exposure Scott secured undoubtedly made everyone else better. Before that, we had great teams and great players, but until we had Pac-12 Networks, people didn’t know about us.” Eight or nine of the Pac-12 women’s basketball teams were expected to have made the NCAA tournament this year—far higher than the three who participated in 2009, the year Scott joined the conference. Scott’s demonstrated advocacy for women’s sports also includes being one of few board members to serve a second term on the WSF and driving the movement to achieve equal payout for women at Wimbledon.

While his defenders say he isn’t self-focused, they concede that he isn’t always self-aware or sufficiently sacrificial (like taking just a 12% pay cut on his $5+ million dollar salary before laying off or furloughing 94 of 196 total employees between the conference office and network). He is a practical executive at the end of the day—sometimes at the perceived expense of empathy. As someone within the conference told Sportico, “[Scott] was the one who approached the CEOs and offered to take a pay cut. They didn’t ask him to do that. Does it look bad that he’s still making millions? Sure. But at the end of the day, a million or two wasn’t going to save tons of jobs when we’re talking about the deficits everyone was looking at. Larry knew that—we all did.”

Scott offered up his own reduction based on what others within the industry were taking. Big 12 administrators, including commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who makes upwards of $4 million according to the most recent numbers, took 10% salary cuts (but also eliminated all year-end bonuses), as did many at Pac-12 institutions. When reminded that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave up his entire salary this year to minimize league layoffs, the same source said: “Larry’s four isn’t Goodell’s $40 [million]. I’d rather have Larry take s—t for his salary than take s—t for the things Goodell has.”

While Scott’s salary was not slashed to nothing, but a source within the conference confirmed that despite the lavish bonus rumors, he actually received the “minimum bonus required by his contract,” and dictated by the presidents given the benchmarks he met. All told between his salary and bonus cuts, Scott will take a combine 33% total reduction for 2020. Of the other bonus payments distributed—those of which were given to network staffers were awarded two months early and approximately one month before staff cuts were made—30 were given to network employees later terminated or furloughed who otherwise would have gone without given the timing of the announcements.

Over the years, the things Scott has taken heat for have shifted—he once was criticized by his athletic directors for not actively listening or engaging with them—but Scott intentionally shifted his style to rectify those perceptions about two years ago, said Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, current head of the conference’s AD council.

“He started to really work on his relationships with the athletic directors. That really changed the course for him in terms of being much more effective as our leader,” Anderson said. “It brought him closer to the field, if you will. Before, he was up in the stands, observing. Now he’s leading much more directly and quite frankly much more candidly. Over the last six months, as he’s had to lead us through this pandemic, he’s done an exceptional job in terms of communicating, listening and soliciting input from the relevant stakeholders so that he was not standing alone.”

While there are still some who haven’t felt the same efforts by Scott—like players involved in the #WeAreUnited movement and a former Pac-12 Network employee who spoke to Sportico about frustrating feelings of apathy from the commissioner at times—Oregon State’s Barnes adds that Scott, the conference’s “clumsy and impersonal” commissioner, often calls him both before and after meetings. “Larry is perpetually seeking feedback,” he says.

These paradoxes are partly a product of the man, but also partly of the position he’s in. Those on the inside point to the process, even as those on the outside judge the results.

“Anybody in a role like Larry’s is subject to massive amounts of criticism on an ongoing basis, just as he’s subject to constant review by the board. That’s the job. He knows that,” said Arizona State’s Crow. “Having said that, Larry works for 12 university presidents. He is an excellent deliverer of the policies we determine, of what we ask him to do. If people are going to be angry or frustrated, they should focus that on the board.”

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