May 28, 2024
The chair of the Pac-12 board suggested that keeping Apple out of college football could have been the reason Fox funded the Big Ten's raid of Washington and Oregon.

One of the Pac-12’s longtime media partners had strategic reasons for taking the step that decimated the conference, according to a university president with knowledge of the media rights negotiations.

Washington State’s Kirk Schulz, chair of the Pac-12 board of directors, suggested late last week that Fox might have lured Washington and Oregon into the Big Ten in order to prevent the Pac-12 from signing an agreement with Apple.

“We’ve got just a couple networks that are making the real decisions about who goes where based on the dollars they want to put into it,” Schulz said during a conversation published on the university’s YouTube channel.

“I do think if I was Fox and ESPN, I’m not sure I want Apple in the marketplace, frankly. I don’t want somebody with pockets that are that deep as a rival if I can afford it.”

Pac-12 presidents were expected to sign a grant-of-rights contract with Apple that would have kept the conference together. But a few minutes before their crucial meeting on Aug 4, Washington and Oregon announced they were joining the Big Ten.

The tectonic development prompted Utah, Arizona and Arizona State to seek shelter in the Big 12, leading to the collapse of the conference.

Fox owns the Big Ten’s media rights and was responsible for the $375 million (approximately) that Washington and Oregon will receive over six years (2025-2030) of the conference’s media contract.

Fox has not made a deep push into the streaming market, preferring to focus on delivering sports content over its linear networks. Meanwhile, Apple has distribution deals with Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer and was attempting to break into the college football space through an agreement with the Pac-12.

“Was it a strategic move on their part to say, ‘If we kill the Apple deal, that gives us five or six years without them in college football?’” Schulz said.

“People can say, ‘Kirk, put on a tin-foil hat; that’s kind of (a) conspiracy theory.’ But on the other hand, I can see making a business decision — I’m not talking about the value of the schools or any of that — that might be seen as more strategic to have a corner on the marketplace.”

The theory that Fox wanted to block Apple has traction across the Pac-12 footprint and support in the broader sports media space. But Schulz is the first Pac-12 executive to address it publicly.

During a wide-ranging discussion with former journalist Enrique Cerna, a member of WSU’s board of regents, Schulz acknowledged that the Cougars were “standing in line like everybody else to collect that check” from media companies. But he expressed concern over the role Fox and ESPN play in conference realignment.

(The full interview can be found here.)

“The more you pull competition out of the marketplace, the easier it becomes for some of those funders to really, really call the shots,’’ he said.

“We’re sort of down to really two dominant players that are really determining what happens with expansion. I don’t mean necessarily that any one of them is calling a commissioner and saying, ‘Go get these two schools.’ Maybe that’s happening; I don’t know that.

“But what is happening is the commissioner calls them and says, ‘We’d like to add X and Y,’ and (the networks) get to make the decision, ‘Do I give a pro-rata amount for that?’ Or do I say, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to give you any money.’ I would argue that’s the golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules. And that’s where we are right now.”

(Fox executives were not available for comment.)

Washington and Oregon needed more than cash to make the jump into the Big Ten, however. They also needed approval from the conference’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors.

That same group approved invitations for USC and UCLA in June 2022, thereby creating an existential crisis for the Pac-12. For most of the intervening 13 months, the Big Ten presidents seemed unwilling to take the final step — membership offers for the Pacific Northwest powerhouses — that would lead to the Pac-12’s destruction.

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What changed in early August, other than Fox’s willingness to fund the expansion?

Arizona’s application for membership in the Big 12 played a key role in the process, according to a source.

The Wildcats weren’t the only school to seek a lifeboat; Utah and ASU would follow them into the arms of the Big 12. But in an attempt to secure a home in case the Pac-12 collapsed, Arizona formally applied for membership in the Big 12 in the middle of the week — before Oregon and Washington rejected the grant-of-rights agreement on that fateful Friday morning.

The Big Ten became aware of Arizona’s application to the Big 12, according to the source.

“So (Big Ten commissioner) Tony Petitti tells his presidents, ‘We aren’t the ones,’” the source said. “They felt like they weren’t the ones to fire the kill shot.”

That triggered the Big Ten presidents to approve membership for Washington and Oregon without guilt — and with Fox’s cash as their carrot, the source said.

Arizona’s application was approved by the Big 12 on Thursday evening, according to a Yahoo report, even though president Robert Robbins awoke Friday morning prepared to join ASU and Utah in signing the Pac-12’s grant-of-rights.

But by then, the Big Ten’s hammer had fallen.

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