Recently, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott fixed what was unquestionably the worst TV rights situation in college sports by getting his conference a new deal that pays it $250 million per year. The old contract paid just $54 million a year, a value that was laughable even before the round of negotiations that the SEC kicked off in 2009.
Just less than two years ago, the SEC announced 15-year deals with CBS and ESPN that combined pay the conference $205 million annually. The new Pac-12 contract is nearly 25 percent larger, despite it being a less valuable conference.
The Pac-12 is essentially the ACC of the West. Its sole advantage over the SEC's little brother is USC's status as a traditional power, though FSU and Miami (when good) provide a lot of that for the ACC. Scott trumpeted UCLA's status as a basketball power as being important, but UNC and Duke provide similar value to the ACC. The Pac-12 even has the disadvantage of having a number of games played late at night, largely after east coast viewers go to bed.
So how did the Pac-12 get $100 million more per year than the ACC's deal and pass up the SEC? It's a story that would make Adam Smith proud.
It's a simple matter of competition. The SEC had ESPN and Raycom battling during its negotiations, and the ACC had ESPN and Fox duking it out. The Pac-12 meanwhile had ESPN, Fox, Comcast (NBC and Versus), and Turner all tossing out bids. Ultimately, ESPN and Fox teamed up on the Pac-12 deal to keep Comcast from getting a major foothold in college sports.
Comcast already has deals with Notre Dame (through NBC) and the MWC (through Versus), but ESPN and Fox don't want it to get primary rights to a BCS conference. They found a way to put aside their differences and unite against a common enemy. They're both very wary of the aftermath of the Comcast-NBC merger (which has a not-too-faint smell of corruption now), as they have to work out deals to keep their networks shown on Comcast cable service while also competing against Comcast-owned networks. That merger also just got approved this past January, which means Comcast wasn't a factor in all previous TV negotiations.
So essentially, the reason the Pac-12 beat out the SEC's deal has very little to do with the Pac-12 itself. It was always going to get a windfall as the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 have in recent years, but the added element of the ESPN/Fox vs. Comcast competition raised the stakes (and the payout). The SEC also had what in hindsight looks like the misfortune of going first, as every subsequent deal has been larger than previously expected thanks to the new reality the SEC TV deal wrought.
Once the Big East gets its new contract, we probably won't hear much about TV negotiations for another few years (barring another round of conference realignment). By then we'll have a better understanding of how the Comcast-NBC merger affects the landscape as well as what Comcast will do to boost its sports presence other than televising the NHL.
Next time, the SEC also won't be going first. The Big Ten's most recent contracts were announced in 2006 for a 10-year length, and the ACC's contract announced in 2010 goes 12 years. The Pac-12's new contract also has a length of 12 years, and the deal that saved the Big 12 last year extends 13 years. All of those expire before the SEC's current contract does, meaning Mike Slive (or his successor) will have the benefit of the rest of them running prices up before it makes its next long-term commitment.