TUCSON, Ariz. — Dr. Robert Robbins, in his sixth year as president at the University of Arizona, recently talked with athletic director Dave Heeke about the school’s potential move from the Pac-12 to the Big 12.
“We were just sitting around and white-boarded, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’’’ Robbins said.
At one point, Robbins and Heeke walked into historic McKale Center, where red Final Four and Pac-12 men’s basketball championship banners hang from the rafters, and said: “Wow, if this goes one way, Kansas will be going to McKale, and we’ll be going to Phog Allen (Fieldhouse).”
Robbins on Monday relayed this after he was asked about future rivalries. With Arizona, along with Arizona State, Colorado and Utah, off to the Big 12, effective 2024, new conference rivalries will develop. Robbins said he’s glad that the Arizona State rivalry will continue — “We didn’t want to get into a situation where we just kept the Territorial Cup,’’ he said, jokingly, referencing the football program’s win over the Sun Devils last season.
And in the other major sport: “Storied programs, Kansas and Arizona basketball, people will want to show for that one.”
College realignment is so football dominant, it’s easy to lose sight of the complete picture, even at a school like Arizona, where the Wildcats are a national basketball brand. Years ago, those living outside the West turned on ESPN late at night, saw the saguaro on the court and associated it with the Pac-10. Identifying the Wildcats with the Big 12 might take time, even in this chaotic sports climate.
With the Big 12 news still settling in, Robbins and Heeke talked with news reporters for 30 minutes at the school’s football facility. The theme was undeniable. Arizona is excited for a new start in a new place. In basketball, that means joining the nation’s top conference. In football, it means continuing to build under third-year coach Jedd Fisch.
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Describing what he liked about the Big 12 and commissioner Brett Yormark, who’s been on the job for a year, Robbins kept returning to the same adjective: aggressive. As a heart surgeon, Robbins said it’s a quality he admires.
The Arizona president may not have meant that as a dig at Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, but it could be interpreted as such. When Oklahoma and Texas announced in 2021 that it planned to leave for the SEC, Robbins said several Big 12 officials contacted him. With the Big 12’s future so uncertain, those schools needed a stable home. Robbins loved the idea.
“I thought that would’ve been a great day, to take the eight remaining schools (and) bring them in and we’ll be the Pac-20,” he said.
The Pac-12 decided against it.
Robbins said he spoke with Yormark about the Big 12 at the Final Four in Houston. In conversations and media interviews since, he stuck with a similar message: “I can’t think about entertaining an offer from the Big 12 (when) I don’t even know what our (media-rights) deal looks like.” He kept saying, “We have another year! We have another year!” But then no media deal surfaced. Robbins on Monday poked fun of himself, recalling when he said a deal would be done by Tax Day.
“I didn’t say what year,” he said.
Kliavkoff last week finally provided the framework for a streaming deal with Apple. The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel reported it was a five-year deal with an annual base rate of $23 million per school (a counteroffer lifted it to $25 million), with incentives based on projected subscribers to a Pac-12 streaming product similar to Apple’s MLS League Pass.
“The keys were the $23 million a year per school and no games on linear access,” Robbins said. “I think those were the two things that were problematic for people when they were evaluating the long-term sustainability of the contract. And, of course, that it was subscription-based.”
Beginning in 2025, the Big 12’s deal with ESPN and Fox is worth a reported $31.7 million per school. The financial gap and visibility were hard to ignore.
“We were trying to think, ‘Well, it’s going to be like selling candy bars for little leagues,’” Robbins said of the Pac-12’s subscription model. “… You got to try and convince 3-5 million people every year to sign up for $100 a year to watch on a streaming-only app.”
On Saturday, during an impromptu press gathering at football practice, Arizona State president Michael Crow said the Sun Devils and Wildcats, fierce rivals, were in lock-step throughout the process. Robbins agreed. But the details on this are fuzzy.
Crow said he liked the Apple deal’s potential and suggested the money associated with it was not necessarily a deal-breaker. He was ready to sign off and try to keep the Pac-12 together — at least until Oregon and Washington on Friday decided to leave for the Big Ten.
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By then, media outlets already had reported that Arizona was in deep discussion with the Big 12. Robbins on Monday called those reports false. He said the Pac-12 presidents on Friday morning expected to come together and “sign in blood our grant of rights over to the Pac-12 Conference.” Then he got a call from an Oregon or Washington president (he didn’t specify which) that started with: “I just wanted to give you a heads up …”
Heeke said moving to the Big 12 was about stability, both financially and competitively. Fisch used the same word last week when asked what was best for Arizona and his football program, which is trying to make a bowl game for the first time since 2017. At a press gathering Monday afternoon, basketball coach Tommy Lloyd said the move was exciting but he wanted to focus on this season, a final chance to add a Pac-12 banner.
“The next episode is this year,” he said. “We got to play this thing out and go out hopefully winners. I always say the goal for every team is an undefeated season. That, of course, is not possible, but that’s where we all start.”
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(Photo: Zachary BonDurant / USA Today)