How close was Arizona to sticking with the Pac-12 Conference and not making a massive change? Less than 12 hours before officially announcing a move to the Big 12 for 2024, school president Dr. Robert C. Robbins said he thought the UA and the other eight remaining Pac-12 schools were prepared to agree to a media rights deal with Apple.
“We were showing up together to sign in blood our grant of rights over to the Pac-12 Conference,” Robbins said Monday.
That was despite concerns about the deal, which Robbins confirmed would have paid each school about $23 million per year, would be streaming only, and would put the onus on schools to get fans and alumni to sign up for annual subscriptions. Those things were apparently very problematic to the presidents of Oregon and Washington, whom Robbins said reached out to the other schools about 10 minutes before a planned meeting with the Pac-12 and Apple.
“I got called by one of the presidents who said ‘look, this is tough, but we came to an agreement with the Big 10 ten minutes ago, and I just want to give you a heads up … that we’ll be taking our talents in the Big Ten,’” Robbins said.
With Oregon and Washington gone, joining Colorado a week before and UCLA and USC a year earlier, the desire to keep the Pac-12 together was dead. Arizona had to act quickly in order not to be left behind, and in conjunction with ASU and Utah joined the Big 12 as a package deal on Friday evening.
“It was about the future,” UA athletic director Dave Heeke said. “It was about stability, both financially and competitively. That was what was at the root of where we’re headed to today. Our intention all along was to see what the Pac-12 could pull together, what that deal might be. Ultimately, though, the environment in college athletics is moving quickly. It’s changing. We’ve got to be able to adapt, we need to make sure that we can put the university and our athletics program in a position to be nationally recognized, nationally competitive, to allow our student-athletes to compete at the highest level.”
Under the deal with the Big 12, Arizona is expected to get a full share of the media money to the tune of about $31.7 million per year. That’s for a package that includes both linear (TV) and streaming, which Robbins said was important for both fans and families of student-athletes.
“I think people, certainly families who can’t travel, want be able to see their loved ones on TV,” he said.
Though most of the activity happened in the last week or so, Robbins said the groundwork for Arizona’s move actually began more than two years ago when Oklahoma and Texas announced their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. That’s when he said he started developing relationships with presidents and chancellors from other Big 12 schools, but with a different motive.
“They were looking for a home, and I thought that would have been a great idea, to take the eight remaining (Big 12) schools and bring them in to be the Pac-20,” Robbins said. “It didn’t turn out that way.”
A new wave of conversations began after UCLA and USC announced their move to the Big Ten, but the only time he spoke to Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark in person was at the Final Four in Houston. But it wasn’t to hash out a move for Arizona.
“I’ve been consistent in what I’ve said in the press: I can’t think about entertaining an offer from the Big 12, I don’t even know what our deal looks like and I want to give that my full attention and see what the deal looks like,” Robbins said. “And I think all the presidents and chancellors in the Pac-12 did that. And I think Oregon and Washington certainly did that. And at the end of the day, I think it was just not a strong enough deal for everybody to stick together.”
Robbins said the idea of teaming with Apple, and its technological advances, was very intriguing. But in the end that wasn’t enough to offset the potential pitfalls of the deal. Most notably, that it would be non-linear and subscription-based.
“We were trying to think well, it’s gonna be like selling candy bars for Little League or Girl Scout cookies,” he said. “You’ve got to convince 3 to 5 million people every year to sign up for $100 a year to watch on a streaming only app.”
Robbins describes Yormark as “very engaging, very aggressive. As a heart surgeon I like that,” and that mindset permeates all facets of the Big 12, as evidenced by the ability to add four schools in a 10-day span.
As for all the logistics of changing conferences, that’s all still to be ironed out. Heeke said he’ll put together a transition team within the athletic department that focuses solely on next year while others can handle the 2023-24 athletic year.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of unknowns, we just got to kind of dig down into that,” Heeke said. “And that’s going to take some time. Now, we only have about 10 months, so it’s got to move quickly.”
Asked about the travel component of being in a league that spans 10 states across three time zones, Heeke said a lot will depend on how the Big 12 decides to schedule each sport.
“We’ve looked at that, and examined the different travel distances and the hours involved, and how would we go about doing that, and quite frankly, it doesn’t have a significant change,” he said. “There is, depending on how we go in the future, how we look at the different scheduling models, how it can be divided up, there is a chance that it could be savings. It can save us some some costs as well. We like the alignments, the programs, the destinations, it offers good opportunities for our teams to compete, but also opportunities to travel and do those things into those cities without a significant amount of travel.”