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Pac-12, Apple TV+ May Not be the Answer to Each Other’s Problems

Back in 2012, the Pac-12 Network launched in San Francisco, to much fanfare and what seemed like a transformative vision of the future of sports media rights.

The league, helmed by commissioner Larry Scott both then and now, added Utah and Colorado to expand to 12 teams. They decided to own their conference media operations outright, rather than partner with a proven broadcaster like ESPN or FOX (who they already partner with for tier 1 rights). They were streaming directly to fans. The league operated seven regionally-focused feeds that seemed to understand that the primary way fans would be engage with content was through the lens of their specific team/geographic area.

And yet… what’s happened since hasn’t necessarily worked out in line with the grand vision there. The Pac-12 has a long history of football and basketball success, and a passionate collection of fan bases on the West Coast. However, as most in this part of the country will point out, the culture around Pac-12 sports isn’t the same as what you’ll find in the Big Ten or SEC. It’s there, but not necessarily rabid. There’s a lot to do other than watch college sports… and fans are happy to spend their time doing those things instead.

The Pac-12’s product has also lagged on the field (and the court), at least in terms of main revenue sports football and men’s basketball. No conference teams have made the lucrative College Football Playoff since Washington following the 2016 season, and just two Pac-12 teams have made the CFP at all in six years — worst among the Power Five conferences. Just one Pac-12 team (Oregon in 2017) has made the Final Four in the last decade. The league’s had fewer NCAA Tournament teams than any P5 league in the last five years.

The above informs a lot of why the Pac-12 Network has struggled for carriage since its launch, and per-team media payouts continue to lag behind the SEC and Big Ten’s (while barely running at parity with the Big 12 and ACC). For the Mercury News, Jon Wilner’s chronicled a lot of these issues and some of the questionable decisions made under Scott’s leadership over the last decade. The follies range from having no distribution partner for the conference network, to continual tries to expand the league’s audience footprint to China, expensive San Francisco offices and an ill-fated attempt to sell TV rights to a private equity firm.

But all of that would be forgiven if people could just watch the network, which so many can’t at current. It’s why they’re continually looking for different ways to distribute content, and part of how we got here:

The Pac-12 potentially finding carriage with Apple TV+ would be a potential positive for the conference in that it means reaching consumers with the TV product. This wouldn’t necessarily be carriage for the network — which would remain an issue — but would mean additional exposure, which is ultimately what the Pac-12 needs most right now (since more exposure means more dollars).

As Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein notes though, there’s another side to this issue too — the fact that Apple’s looking to solve its own subscription issues by bringing on known inventory that will bring with fans in the door. Relying largely on original content, Apple TV+ has grown most of its subscriptions to-date with free deals through Apple device sales and a Verizon partnership. This makes the long-term numbers murky. And hammers home the point that this subscription entertainment play is a questionable one, at least for now.

Would the Pac-12 really move that needle? Seems doubtful on its own given the challenges with Pac-12 Network and viewership spelled out above. Perhaps many Pac-12 fans are already Apple TV+ subscribers too (could make sense given the markets in question like SF and LA that are already heavy with streaming viewers), meaning that the additional content isn’t really growing the service’s audience — just giving existing subscribers something else they may want to watch.

The Pac-12 wouldn’t be the only add, and that’s potentially key. The WSJ piece mentions MGM as a possibility that would greatly grow the catalog on Apple TV+, and the Pac-12 could be the opening salvo in a move to attract more, valuable live sports rights. But at least on its own, a move to marry the Pac-12 and Apple TV+ doesn’t necessarily solve the issues either party faces. Just punts on them for now, while hoping it later leads to something bigger for everyone involved.