Q-and-A with Pac-12 commish Larry Scott: Beyond ‘Brandini the Magnificent’

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In the three years since taking over as commissioner of the Pac-10-turned-Pac-12, Larry Scott has “emerged as the pivotal player driving an unprecedented geographic and financial transformation of college athletics.”

At least, that’s the way the 46-year-old Harvard grad and former tennis pro was described in a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine piece.

At a time when many wonder if college sports has become sidetracked by power-hungry leadership, Scott has been the communicator de lux in not much implementing change, but optimizing opportunity.

Adding two new schools to the Pac-10, negotiating the largest TV rights deal in college football history (12 years, $3 billion) and about to launch a conference seven-channel network, as well as trying to expand a footprint into China by staging games there as early as 2013 is all part of Scott’s agenda.

The Pac-12 may not be creating much of a self-serving buzz heading into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but Scott, who makes a reported $1.5 million a year in a contract just extended to 2016, remains more than willing to stay focused on ways to make that happen sooner rather than later, as he conveyed in our Q-and-A while at Staples Center:

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Q: Reporters often are in the position of trying to pin you down for answers about issues in college sports – and I’ll eventually get to that point — but from the start of your time as the Pac-12 commissioner in 2009, you’ve come across as being media savvy, accessible, giving a good quote. And as a result, reporters, and the general public, often feel they’re part of the process. Is that communications trait you’ve always had? Was it something you saw as a way to maybe separate yourself from sports administrators who you noticed kept things close to the vest, or even see the media as an enemy at times?

A: Interesting question. I haven’t been asked that before (laughing). I’ve always tended to want to be very transparent and open as appropriate with the media. I subscribe to the philosophy of having good relationships and being seen as candid as possible. When someone’s uncomfortable talking about something that’s proprietary, I’ve found journalists understand that if you’re open and honest rather than trying to dodge questions.

Q: I don’t think that’s something from your background in college. You weren’t a communications major. Were you on the debate team or anything like that?

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A: No, I was an European history major, so there’s no training there. But I’ve been roles over 20 years where I’ve dealt with media from my tennis playing days to being an executive with the ATP, where in my first role I was 26 years old, and in positions where I’ve dealt with the media for a long time. Especially with athletes. I’ve tried to help them deal with the media and you subscribe to the philosophy of rather than looking at it kind of defensively and in what can go wrong, or treating media as an adversary, we kind of looked at it the other way around, as a positive.

Q: Any athletes or commissioners or administrators who’ve been media savvy that you admired how they handled things and maybe you took after their approach?

A: Um, I can’t point to one but I’ve always tried to watch closely how other people feel positively and other cases where they don’t. I’ve always been pretty studious about trying to learn from other people and they’ve all got their own personal style and you’ve got to figure out what you’re more comfortable with and what’s true to yourself. You can’t really adopt some style that fits someone else. That’s I guess a rule I’ve always tried to follow. Just be genuine.

Q: Some of the adjectives you can find in stories written about you will be like “aggressive” and “proactive.” Are you OK with those, as well as others such as “bold” and “daring”?

A: Again, I haven’t really thought about that in how I describe myself. I think everything’s relative. Those types of words probably get used because there’s a contrast, or perceived contrast, for how the conference has been seen historically, and probably the environment of college sports generally. But it probably is a similar thing said about most who come from professional sports into the college space, when you’re doing things more pro-actively and progressively in pro sports. I’m not sure those adjectives are unique to me. Maybe more someone coming from by background to a conservative, tradition-laded industry.

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Q: Here’s a story in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane where you’re called “Brandi the Magnificent.” And I found that interesting because I found a link to that story on your own Facebook page (linked here).

A: Well, since I don’t have a Facebook page, I find that curious. It must be a fake one.

Q: It’s one that seems to have a lot of links to stories about you, or that you’d be interested in directing people to about the conference.

A: I haven’t seen it.

Q: Does that mean you don’t look much at your own Wikipedia page at all?

A: I have not seen that, certainly recently.

Q: Do you find much of a need for Twitter then?

A: I do not. It’s been recommended to me by various people but I’ve decided I’m not quite ready or it doesn’t feel like something I’m comfortable with. When I’ve looked at the possibility, it seems as if it’s people who look at themselves as brands or celebrities and I don’t really look at myself that way. I feel I’m generally, for someone in this position, pretty communicative and accessible and I don’t feel I need my own channel. There’s already so much interest in what we’re doing, if there’s something I want to communicate it’s not particularly hard to do so through the media or otherwise. For me I haven’t found it to be a real factor and I’m not out there trying to build a personal brand so . . . Again, it comes back to wanting to be genuine. When I feel there’s something significant to communicate, I’ve got a lot of ways to do it and I don’t want to feel like I need to be putting stuff out there just to be putting stuff out there, which in the times I’ve looked at Twitter, it feels like more of what happens sometimes out there. Sometimes, less is more.

Q: So then as far as looking at the Pac-12 as a nationwide brand, how do you see it at this point?

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A: I feel like we’ve started to make process. It’s a journey and we’ve got the ship started to be pointed in the right direction in that regard, but there’s a lot more to do. Some of the steps we’ve taking in getting our football coaches back East, being more flexible with our TV broadcast partners to get more national windows, being more proactive from a communications and marketing standpoint are good first steps. The next big steps will happen next year when our new media agreements with Fox and ESPN begin, which are all national windows for football and basketball. And when we start our own TV network, which will have national distribution. So I think in terms of repositioning the conference as a truly national brand and program, it’ll be more obvious next year. Next year will really be a game-changer with our new media platforms, and there’s more work to do beyond there. I’m happy with some early progress we’re making but it’s an ongoing effort.

Q: So now in putting the Pac-12 ahead of the curve on making changes, or being more creative in how things can look going forward, do you find yourself as a popular guy among other conference leaders who now want to pick your brain about ways to implement new ideas, especially by those who tend to like to keep things the way they are but don’t know how to go about being a bit more progressive?

A: I’ve learned a lot from other conferences and commissioners, actually. People are probably paying attention to what we’re doing, but in my first six months I spent a lot of time with my colleagues in the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big East. I had a pretty steep learning curve when I came into this role as someone from outside of college and I tend to be pretty analytical in terms of learning from other people’s experiences before putting anything in place. And I I’m ready, I tend to work quickly and aggressively if appropriate. But I spent a good bit of time trying to learn from others and if they’re learning from what we’re doing, that would be great. The relationships among conferences and commissioners tends to be pretty collegial and collaborative. We talk a lot.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about collaborative changes to the BCS, and a New York Times story recently made it sound as if you’d endorse a four-team playoff rather than a two-team or eight-team format. Ultimately, do you think the four-team plan is what will happen after all the talking is done and numbers are crunched?

A: It’s really too early to tell. I don’t think we’re anywhere close on a consensus about anything. And this one of those situations where everyone has to agree. You know, there’s no entity or majority rule. It’s really a voluntary situation where everyone participates. I think we’re too far away still. I’ve been saying I think around the summertime is when we’ll know.

Q: It also said in that Times story that you’d be more in favor of an overhaul of the entire bowl system, that there are too many sort of 6-6 teams filling bowl bids and watering down the product. Is there any gameplan you have in mind for that?

A: Like a lot of things we’ve done with the conference, I’ve been studying the BCS and studying the bowl system since I arrived and like some other things in our own conference I’ve got some pretty clear ideas on what I think would improve this situation and what I think would make our sport of college football even more popular with fans. I’ve got to listen to fans a lot too and have a good read on the pulse. My comment before about Twitter would apply to the bowl system as well: Less is more sometimes.

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Q: Speaking of less, there’s more talk about fewer people in the stands at college basketball games – regular season, conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament. USA Today reported that the Pac-12 has gone from an average of 8,700 a game four years ago and dropped 16 percent to about 7,200 this season. But at the same time, TV ratings keep climbing. Some theorize that more people are taking advantage of having more games on TV and then picking and choose the best to watch from home. So if you’re now in a position to launch a conference-wide network, how do you avoid that being a factor that contributes to keeping fans wanting to stay home and watch rather than attend? Do you consider local blackouts or something like that to address the issue?

A: I want to make our football, basketball and Olympic sports much more accessible, in a way of super-serving our fans who have a real desire not just in the local markets but nationally, a huge push is really important for our conference in terms of recognition, recruiting and serving our fans, when you see how our alumni is spread out all over the place. We’ve got leading athletes in softball, rugby, golf, track and field, on and on. So I tend to think of television as a truly national platform for us and important in that regard. But I’m also focused on how we continue to retain fans attending our events and improving on that. I do think it’s foolhardy to think about restricting TV coverage to try to improve live attendance. Rather, I look at it from a different perspective, which is we should broadening TV exposure as much as possible for the demand but we should also think of innovative and creative ways to improve the fan experience in our venues. I haven’t spent a lot of time on that yet as a priority, but I’ve got a lot of ideas and visions developing for what we can do in our conference and do a much better job of the game-day experience at our venues, embracing technology and other things. So that’s the path forward, long time. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Broader TV exposure and increasing attendance can work in synchronicity.

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Q: Just a couple more local questions: The way USC has responded over the last two years to the NCAA football sanctions, it seems there could have been much more complaining and protesting about how the Trojans program was treated in comparison to others also punished for various infractions. But would seem to agree that the approach they took, more along the high road, has turned out to be more productive?

A: Yes, I’m a big admirer of the way (new university president) Max Nikias, (new athletic director) Pat Haden and the whole leadership team at USC has handled a very difficult situation with a lot of commitment and class and leadership in the face of what I know has been a lot of anger and pressure in their fan base to react differently. And long term they’re focused on the right things and how USC is successful playing by the rules and continues to be a championship program across the board with class and respect for what that leadership stands for. So, I know it’s been a very difficult time but there’s some superb leadership provided by the university and how they’re emerging, they’ve won a lot of admirers and plaudits across the country from NCAA leadership and other university and collegiate leaders. When you don’t agree with something – and they haven’t agreed, and I’ve found myself in the same situation – trying to take the high road is not always the easiest thing to do.

Q: And then there’s the way UCLA came out on the other end of the Sports Illustrated story on their basketball program last week – and you had even said you thought there was no real news there – but that said, did it send any alarms off in your office about how the infrastructures of schools can get off balance with athlete discipline problems? Does it reinforce any game plans you already have in place that might address institutional problems that coaches can have with athletes?

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A: Well, we’re in constant dialogue with our schools, but dealing with individual discipline situations is really within the responsibility of the school. But I think the people I’ve talked to across the country and in our conference can relate to some of the challenges with managing discipline issues. Some of the issues and problems with student-athletes aren’t necessarily different from the general student population but because college athletics are under such a microscope, with that comes responsibility and higher standard you seem to have to set. That just comes with the territory. There’s a bit of a cautionary tale for anyone who deals with this day to day.

Q: The other big news at UCLA is the renovations going on at Pauley Pavilion. What sense do you have that this could be one of the more elite facilities in the country and how that reflects on putting the Bruins back into the national spotlight?

A: We’re very excited about it. UCLA is a storied program, Pauley has been an iconic venue and for our conference, UCLA has been the gold standard. A strong, vibrant UCLA basketball program is great for the conference members. The fact there’s so much excitement around a new Pauley Pavilion is helpful and hopefully an important component in the resurgence of UCLA basketball.

== More:

== A transcript of the Q-and-A session Scott had with the media on Wednesday during a break in the Pac-12 tournament (linked here).

== The Bloomberg BusinessWeek story on Scott from last December: (linked here).

== An extensive June, 2011 feature on Scott by the Sports Business Daily (linked here) that includes his Harvard tennis team photo.

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