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Pac-12 turns away from PE despite league's financial struggles

Adam Lewis

The Pac-12 won't receive an investment from private equity after all.


an interview published Thursday in The (San Jose) Mercury News, conference commissioner Larry Scott said the leadership council, comprising university presidents and chancellors, has opted against selling a minority stake in the league's media rights to a PE firm in exchange for an upfront cash infusion.

Previous reports had indicated the Pac-12 was seeking between $500 million and $750 million in a deal that would value its media rights at some $5 billion. And in June, the conference reportedly received multiple offers of $750 million or more that either reached or exceeded that $5 billion valuation.

The plan now, according to Scott, is to pursue an investment from a strategic partner that would both have an ownership stake in the league and could perhaps help bolster the fortunes of its struggling television network. There are contenders waiting in the wings, but whoever they are, they won't be from PE.

"We've narrowed the field," Scott told longtime Pac-12 scribe Jon Wilner. "[The council members] were not interested in doing something with a pure financial institution, even though we had a lot of interesting offers at the kind of valuations we were hoping for and really great terms. They don't want to do something with a private equity or financial firm."

Early this year, the Pac-12 hired the

Raine Group, a merchant bank and advisor specializing in the technology, media and telecom sectors, to explore potential sale opportunities. Scott has often touted how the conference's main office location in San Francisco could lead to potential partnerships with the city's booming tech industry, but nothing has so far come to fruition.

"The charge I was given by our schools was to narrow the focus to those that might be strategic partners—to media companies, tech companies that could possibly help with an infusion of capital to our schools financially but also could maybe help in other ways," Scott said.

In the meantime, the conference is expected to distribute about $33.5 million to each in school in 2019, which is well behind its Power Five counterparts in the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and ACC. And unless Scott strikes some sort of investment with a third party, that disparity is likely to grow until the league's current media rights deal with

ESPN and

Fox concludes in 2024.

Despite the daunting circumstances, Scott has been pleased with the sale exploration process.

"We know we've fallen behind when it comes to network distribution, network revenue. But our strategy, and what is likely going to happen, has really been validated by this process and the interest we've had," he said.

It always seemed a long shot that the Pac-12 would actually team up with private equity, given that no firm has ever partnered directly with a college conference and Scott's leadership has been

widely criticized as ineffective. However, the move

might have made sense if an outside investor could help institute strategic changes to the Pac-12 Network, which has distributed an average of just $2.8 million annually to the 12 member institutions since it launched in 2012 and failed to reach a deal with

DirecTV. But that ship has apparently sailed.

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