Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is still getting to know the issues facing the 12 institutions he now leads. He just finished his trips to all 12 schools with a visit to Arizona State on Oct. 8. What he found in women’s basketball was exceptional.
“As a conference, all of our schools and athletic departments have made women’s basketball a priority, and their collective investment continues to pay dividends,” Kliavkoff said at Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Media Day. “We proved again last season that the Pac-12 is the gold standard in women’s college basketball as Stanford celebrated another national championship and Arizona made an incredible run to the finals.”
Kliavkoff has a history with women’s basketball going back to his college days.
“I was at Virginia a long time ago in the early 90s,” he said. “I happened to be at Virginia when Dawn Staley was there and the Burge twins. It was a great, great time to be a fan of women’s college basketball.”
He’s continued work with and around the sport in his professional life. At his last position with MGM Resorts, he oversaw the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces and sat on the WNBA Board of Governors.
“I am particularly proud of the fact that I sat on the board of governors during the summer in which we redid the collective bargaining agreement and really, I think for the first time, did the right thing for the female athletes in the WNBA,” Kliavkoff said.
That experience making historic deals will come in handy as Kliavkoff and the world of women’s basketball take on the current questions around the sport and gender equity. The NCAA recently released its report on gender equity that included several suggestions that would affect women’s basketball. Kliavkoff said that the conference is in agreement with most of the suggestions.
“With maybe one exception, we agree wholeheartedly with every one of the recommendations,” he said. “We love the fact that March Madness now applies to both the women and the men. We really like the idea of there being a structure within the NCAA so that the two groups that are working on the men’s and the women’s tournament are sitting together, not apart. We like the idea of separating out [the women’s basketball tournament] and selling [it] separately and not bundling with all of the other sports...because I think women’s basketball is maybe the biggest growth sport in collegiate athletics right now and deserves that prominence.”
Currently, the media rights for the Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament are bundled along with those for the Women’s College World Series, the Men’s College World Series, and over 20 other sports’ championships. A deal lasting 14 years gave the rights to all of those championships to ESPN in 2010.
The gender equity report by the NCAA concluded that this deal might be hindering the growth of women’s sports, especially basketball. The inferior facilities and amenities offered to the women at the tournament and the WCWS are often blamed on those events not bringing in enough money. The deal itself hamstrings the sports, though, by keeping the events from getting what many economists believe they could if they were broken apart and the rights sold on the open market.
As for the one NCAA recommendation that Kliavkoff is not yet sold on, the idea of holding the Final Four for both men and women in the same city isn’t one he endorses at this point. That could change, though.
“My gut tells me that that may actually be doing a disservice to the women not a service,” he said. “But I don’t know enough to make that conclusion so we’re doing all of the work necessary, not just within our conference but with the folks who know the most about women’s college basketball around the country, to get input, to be able to thoughtfully take a position for the conference on that.”
Equity comes in a lot of forms for both players and coaches. Those issues were championed by Pac-12 representatives during the women’s basketball tournament this spring. The disparity in facilities was highlighted by an online video shared by Oregon’s Sedona Prince. Meanwhile, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes became a representative for working mothers, especially in coaching, who juggle caring for their children and earning a living.
“We’re really proud of that,” said Pac-12 Senior Associate Commissioner Teresa Gould. “That started with one of our student reps and one of our coaches. I think that is so indicative of what we foster on our campuses in terms of using your voice to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.”
What does feel right is the increase in attention paid to women’s basketball, especially Pac-12 women’s basketball. Off the court, it can have an impact on many women who don’t even play sports. On the court, it can give athletes the strength to bring their own concerns up with those who can help.
“Pac-12 coaches have advocated for gender equity in our sport, for more opportunities for women in coaching, including working moms, for social justice and anti-racism, and many other important issues of our time,” Gould said. “It is no wonder these coaches not only develop great teams on the court, but also tremendous human beings off the court. This goes for student-athletes as well. In addition to shining on the court, they have used their visibility and collective influence to create awareness and advance important conversations.”
There are also championships waiting to be won, and there’s no reason the winners of those titles shouldn’t come from the Pac-12. The commissioner believes that it’s relatively easy to find even more fans to fill the arenas and watch them do it.
“I learned quickly that anyone who’s not a fan of women’s basketball hasn’t seen it yet,” Kliavkoff said.