The Pac-12 Conference is projected to fall far behind other Power 5 conferences over the next five years in revenue-sharing and won’t even reach $38 million in payouts per school until 2023, according to budget documents recently provided by Pac-12 member Washington State.
By comparison, the Big Ten is expected to provide payouts to schools this year that exceed $51 million. Even the Atlantic Coast Conference soon is expected to rocket past $40 million after previously ranking last in school payouts among the Power 5.
And that’s a problem for the Pac-12, which recently also has struggled on the national stage in football and men’s basketball.
“I think if you look at the overall athletic budgets of the top 25 largest (public) athletic budgets in the country, I think the Pac-12 only has two schools that are even on that list,” Washington State President Kirk Schulz told USA TODAY Sports. “I do think it’s harder to compete for coaches. It’s harder to build facilities. It’s harder to do the things we would like to do with less revenue coming in compared to (other leagues). I do think it puts us at a disadvantage.”
Some Pac-12 school officials recently have grumbled dissatisfaction about the payout disparity and accepted that it wouldn’t improve dramatically until around 2023-24, when the league’s current TV contracts expire with ESPN and Fox. The recent budget projections from WSU put the next five years into stark specific terms.
This year, the payout estimate is $31.5 million. It then is projected to go up incrementally to $32.7 million in fiscal year 2019, $35.3 million in 2021 and $38.1 million in 2023, according to the payout projection range confirmed by WSU officials.
The Pac-12 shares television revenue equally and generally only has slight differences among members with payouts.
Every other Power 5 league either has exceeded the $40 million payout mark already or is projected to get there in a year or two at most, with contract terms that are expected to increase that amount annually.
“As I told our fans, we’ve got to stop worrying what the Pac-12 is providing to the conference and start doing some of our own creative things to bring in additional revenue,” Schulz said.
In the meantime, the Pac-12 has seen a number of coaches and athletic directors taking the same jobs at other Power 5 conference schools that offered more, including basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, who left Cal last year for a bigger contract at Missouri. Football coach Willie Taggart was making $2.9 million guaranteed at Oregon but moved last year to Florida State, where his contract is $30 million over six years.
Schulz doesn’t blame league leadership for the league’s position and said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott “continues to do a great job for our conference.” Instead, he noted the cyclical nature of the revenue landscape for conferences, which make most of their money from media networks broadcasting their football and men’s basketball games.
For example, in 2013-2014, the Pac-12’s $374 million in total revenue ranked first in the Power 5. But then the market spiraled upward. At the same time, the Pac-12’s television venture, the Pac-12 Networks, failed to meet financial expectations after battling distribution challenges.
The Pac-12 declined comment on the projections and referred USA TODAY Sports to a news release last month that noted member distributions have increased 63% since 2012-13, when the average was $19 million.
Other conferences still have had bigger percentage increases since then and now have much rosier trajectories. The Southeastern Conference reported an average payout of about $41 million for fiscal year 2017. In the ACC, recent payouts have ranged from $25 million to $31 million. But that is expected to increase significantly after next year, when the ACC and ESPN launch the ACC Network. Florida State athletic director Stan Wilcox said at a university board of trustees meeting last year that the average payout is projected to increase by $10 million to $15 million after 2019, which would put payouts above $40 million.
“They’re saying this network should have the same kind of return that the SEC Network has had in their first couple of years," Wilcox said then.
In the Big 12, the league recently announced an average distribution of $36.5 million for fiscal year 2018. Unlike other conferences, the Big 12 payout figure doesn’t include individual schools’ separate media rights deals for some games not selected by its big broadcast partners. Those separate deals boost those members’ revenues even more and is almost $20 million more at Texas alone, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said at league meetings on June 1.
Bowlsby also said his league is projected to reach about $40 million per school next year, not including the schools' separate media deals.
“We have escalators in several of our revenue streams, and so it could be that or more,” Bowlsby said.
Gordon Gee, the president of Big 12 member West Virginia, was sitting right next to Bowlsby when Bowlsby gave this estimate. He reacted to it with a statement that Pac-12 members only wish they could make.
“Well, I plan on spending $40 million,” Gee said to Bowlsby. “So get it up there, OK?”