Deion Sanders’ debut with Colorado will boost Pac-12, just not enough to help ongoing media rights talks

Back in December during a conference in Las Vegas, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff was asked if the spectacular aura of Deion Sanders at Colorado would add value to the league’s media deal. CU’s new coach had been hired days before.

“He absolutely adds value to the league,” Kliavkoff told reporters.

While there may be added value when it comes to the perception of the league and the Buffaloes themselves, there’s not any actual monetary value being brought by Coach Prime. That’s the conclusion of several media rights consultants with whom CBS Sports spoke ahead of Sanders’ debut at Colorado in Saturday’s spring game, which has thankfully (and temporarily) overshadowed the Pac-12’s continued media rights slog.

It’s to the point that any discussions related to the actual playing of football is a win for the conference at this point. To that end, Coach Prime has absolutely owned the spring — not just at Colorado but around the entire country.

You can talk about the quarterback battles at Texas and Florida all you want. Sanders is literally trying to reinvent a football program.

“This city is going to shine,” Sanders said recently. “I don’t understand why you’re shocked or puzzled. You didn’t know me five months ago. You know me now.”

Colorado’s spring game is sold out for the first time in program history. The expected crowd of 45,000 (paying $10 each) is bigger than the last nine CU spring games combined. (The Buffs drew slightly less than 1,800 last year.)

There is a genuine buzz surrounding the program. Sanders moves the ratings needle — Colorado’s spring game is one of only two such contests ESPN is televising, the other being back-to-back national champion Georgia — but he won’t move the bottom line.

“Great story that will drive ratings, but given rights fees are long-term contractual revenue sources, team performance in the short run is not a factor,” said media consultant Patrick Crakes. “What is a factor is brand and relevance on national or super regional level. That’s what matters to pay TV [cable] distributors. So, it’s a slight positive at the moment, but in the medium and long run when it comes to rights fees, probably no impact.”

The Pac-12 continues to be in a wait-and-see mode for a new TV deal.

Meanwhile, there’s a reason they refer to Sanders as “Prime Time.”

He won the press conference in December, naming his son Shedeur the quarterback starter right then and there. Deion went 27-6 in three seasons while reviving Jackson State before trying to resuscitate what may be the worst Power Five program.

Sanders followed through with his promise bringing in his “Louis.” There were 42 new faces as of this week.

“I’m coming, and when I get here, there’s going to be change,” Sanders promised in his first meeting with the team.

But even Coach Prime can’t lift an entire conference at a crucial crossroads. Too bad. The Pac-12 has a great story to tell this season amid the media rights hubbub.

USC’s Caleb Williams is the defending Heisman Trophy winner. Utah is an emerging national power. Washington and Oregon are each coming off 10+ win seasons. Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a 2023 Heisman candidate himself. Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham is the nation’s youngest FBS coach.

Colorado gave up a bit of its identity — some would say, academic soul — in hiring Sanders. It relaxed some of its transfer standards. That’s what happens when there have been two winning seasons since 2006.

“Kirby Smart and Nick Saban don’t have to sell the legitimacy of Alabama or Georgia football,” said Josh Pate, host of “The Late Kick with Josh Pate” streaming on 247Sports. “Deion Sanders has to package and sell Colorado. He’s got to get you to take Colorado seriously.”

Realignment roulette

The news this week that the Oakland Athletics are preparing to move to Las Vegas should be setting off alarm bells.

How does one ignore Vegas’ college football future now that the city has emerged as a sports capital? Two men’s professional teams (Raiders, Golden Knights) soon to be three (A’s). Five leagues holding their conference basketball tournaments there each year. Plus major neutral-site games already being scheduled; LSU and USC open the 2023 season Sept. 1 at Allegiant Stadium.

It’s already a Pac-12 hub with the conference’s basketball tournament located in Sin City. Kliavkoff joined the league from Vegas where he was previously an MGM Resorts executive.

The Final Four arrives for the first time in 2028 after the NCAA Tournament debuted in Vegas last month with the West Regional. Don’t forget the WNBA Aces, XFL Vipers and NBA G League Ignite.

While UNLV doesn’t carry the cachet of other realignment candidates, its profile has been elevated alongside the city’s overall sports profile.

“I think something is going to happen. I don’t know what it is. But I think something is happen and I think something is going to happen rather soon,” said Jim Livengood, who is basically the godfather of college sports in Las Vegas.

Livengood, a former UNLV athletic director who also held the role at Arizona, has been aggressively involved in bringing sports events to town.

“I think they’re sitting in a great spot,” Livengood said of the Rebels. “Not only is it an institution that has improved themselves academically … athletically, I don’t think there is any question the new football staff has a great chance to hit the ground running.”

One must assume the Pac-12 would be interested in making a play for UNLV as they are already considering expansion with the likes of San Diego State. The Big 12, which is also exploring its expansion options, has not indicated any official interest in the Rebels. When Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark recently said his conference was open for business, it’s wise to assume UNLV, among other similarly positioned schools, picked up the phone.

UNLV: Think of a buy low, sell high situation. While the school doesn’t bring pro rata (equal value) to the Pac-12 or Big 12, grabbing the Rebels may be investment in what Las Vegas is becoming — a sports mecca. It was thought at one time the Pac-12 would relocate to Las Vegas.

“If a Pac-12 kind of a thing were to happen, I can think of a lot of reason why it would be great for us,” said former UNLV quarterback Steve Stallworth, who has spent three decades in Las Vegas event management. Stallworth calls Las Vegas a “suburb of LA” — given the number of tourists from there — that would be a natural home for the Pac-12. 

“I don’t think it’s necessarily just a sports destination, it’s a sports capital based on everything that’s going on,” said Robby Findlay, an influential UNLV booster who is director of operations for the Findlay Auto Group.

All that makes the Barry Odom hire enormous. The former Missouri coach — most recently Arkansas defensive coordinator — has a lot of responsibility. Not only to turn around the program but possibly make it presentable for a new conference. The Rebels have posted one winning season since 2000. Since moving to Allegiant Stadium in 2020, UNLV is 7-23,

“We have all the pieces to the puzzle,” Stallworth said. “Now, have we made the right personnel decisions? It comes down to that. … You have to want to win from the top. I’m talking about from the governor to the regents to the [university] president. I think we’re closer in that regard. Are we there 100{515baef3fee8ea94d67a98a2b336e0215adf67d225b0e21a4f5c9b13e8fbd502}? I don’t know.”

Fresno State: Somehow, calls from the Fresno State administration to the Big 12 have been misconstrued as interest from the Big 12. At this point, there is no Big 12 interest in the Bulldogs, seemingly not even as a fallback option if other expansion falls through. Even with Yormark desiring a presence in the Pacific Time Zone, Fresno State doesn’t move the needle with San Diego State and Pac-12 schools possibly still in play. Complicating matters: Try to imagine Stanford in the same Pac-12 with Fresno State.

Boise State: Once the best of the best of the Group of Five, the Broncos have slid. Boise State is the No. 98 television market, somewhat isolated in Idaho and no longer the emerging power it was under Chris Petersen. The Big 12 already has BYU in the Mountain Time Zone. Like Fresno, Boise might qualify as Pac-12 backfill if the league loses teams.

Memphis: Through the years, the school’s boosters have never stopped trying to move up. Memphis’ name surfaced for the Big 12 in 2016 when the league was exploring expansion. Tigers booster and FedEx CEO Fred Smith even promised a lucrative sponsorship for his company for the Big 12 football and basketball championship games. Two years ago, the Big 12 spoke loudly when it expanded to Cincinnati and Houston from the American, not Memphis.

Francis McGee

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