The Pac-12 Networks: Broadcasting To You Live From The Future

July 24, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott speaks to the media at PAC-12 Media Day at Universal Studios Hollywood. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

SB Nation's Spencer Hall was on the scene for the launch of the Pac-12's new TV network, an operation far beyond anything else in college sports.

Of course Larry Scott has a standing desk. All people in the future have standing desks because they are healthier, and the offices of the Pac-12 are located in said future.

Larry Scott is neither Apple nor PC: he has one of each on his desk, an Airbook and a Samsung desktop. The office looks freshly occupied, just decorated enough to make you think someone had been there for six, possibly seven months or so. A garden tended by residents of a nearby nursing home sits out one wall of windows, diagonal rows of flowers and vegetables basking in an unusually sunny, fog-free San Francisco day.

The impression that someone just moved in here is not an inaccurate one: the offices at 370 3rd Street were only chosen in December. The high ceilings in the studio downstairs--a space that looks like something between the NBA on TNT set and a hunting lodge--were empty. The executive vice president, as clueless as anyone as to where the network would be, rented a house halfway between Oakland and San Francisco, hedging her bets on a commute between two possible locations.


Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, interviewed by SB Nation's Dan Rubenstein

The PR people ferrying us around the office hummingbird into Larry Scott's office. They return, and Larry is busy.

"Larry needs a minute. Could you please just wait over here?"

He is busy. He's sending emails, god knows to whom: Chinese ministers, Mike Leach, moles at Apple, Google, any other number of Pac-12 namechecks Scott is fond of tossing out, Nike. He could be IM'ing Phil Knight for all I know on one of his two computers. Let's assume he is emailing Phil Knight, and plotting the next shocking Oregon helmet variation involving Daft Punk-style LEDs built into the braincase itself. Let's assume he is doing all of this, because each in turn could be true. (After all, the day before had the Chinese professional basketball team, the Beijing Ducks, wandering through the Pac-12's offices, sadly sans Stephon Marbury.)

He is busy, and everyone else is busy, and should be. Young staffers in pressed shirts and ties work in quadrants of cubicles, impressively put-together for a group of people running on the fumes of a seven-month caffeine and enthusiasm bender, when the guts of the Pac-12 Networks were mostly theoretical, and Pac-12 Enterprises' full-time employees could be counted on one hand.

The digital department, the only department not uniformly wearing business standard clothing, works around a flatscreen streaming Google analytics and traffic graphs. The big spike on the red line marks the spot in time when Pac-12.org switched to Pac-12.com. It looks like an electrocardiogram of a sprinter leaping out of the blocks or a heart attack patient. At this point in the day, five hours or so before the launch of the Pac-12 Networks, either simile could be appropriate.

Seven months ago, the Pac-12 Networks existed on paper only. It is mid-August, and the very extant and functioning Pac-12 Networks will launch in three hours.

***

Rick Neuheisel's disembodied head is yelling at me from a flatscreen on the wall. The volume is on mute, but he's clearly yelling, and his Teutonic blondness and the football coaching rageface he is sporting makes him look like a Panzer commander screaming out silent orders. Poor Rick Neuheisel, locked in the flatscreen where no one can hear him, like a Harry Potter painting, appears in cycles throughout the clean, sparsely decorated offices.

They have sugar-free ginger ale in the employee refrigerator because, duh, future drinks only for the Pac-12.

An orange data drive sits on the desk of executive vice president Lydia Murphy-Stephans. It reads "Oregon-Arizona." It is the entire 2009 Oregon-Arizona game, and it is one chunk of the Pac-12's very short memory. Unlike the Big Ten, the Pac-12 has no archive of at-the-ready game footage, and has had to assemble it in pieces just to put together previews, much less for future broadcast of classics.

"Nothing existed," says Murphy-Stephans. "Unlike the Big Ten, we didn't bring in a media partner, so we didn't have any infrastructure in place. We had no library of footage, no archives to tap into. We owned the rights going forward, but the conference had no reason to create a library of what they had the copyright for. We started with nothing, which has been one of our biggest challenges."

The network, the wiring, the contracts, the people: those are all things the Pac-12 did not have on Jan. 1, 2012, and that is daunting enough. But to give you an idea of how blank the canvas was, consider that the Pac-12 did not even have its own history in one place, and thus had to assemble it, too, going to ESPN, Fox, the NCAA, anyone who had footage the conference could use in putting together.

The Pac-12 had to build everything from scratch--including its memory.

***

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has no time, but we are in his office anyway. In the foyer on a generic file cabinet sits a delivery vase of orange flowers, four bottles of Veuve-Clicquot Ponsardin champagne, and a candy dish. Like all the offices, Scott's is separated from the rest of the workspace by a glass wall so the employees of Pac-12 Enterprises can watch their superiors work away like goldfish.

"They made it easier because there was a proof of concept," says Scott. He is talking with his hands and doing so very quickly, sometimes hunching up and folding his arms when he wants to think carefully about his next words. He is never in this pose for longer than three seconds or so. He is also talking about the Big Ten, which he admits invented the siege campaign of building a conference-owned network.

I ask the backdoor question about the SEC and other conferences, and their impending networks.

"Do you think other conferences think of content the way you do?"

He goes into the contemplative pose, this time for a full two seconds or so. Then, the hands start fluttering and chopping invisible objects in the air.

"I don't really know what other conferences are thinking."

"Do you think the way you think is unique?"

No pause.

"I think our vision for Pac-12 Enterprises is pretty novel, the idea of having seven TV networks instead of one. Forget college sports. There's never been a sports network with this regional and national concept. The idea of having a digital and television network at the same time that are clearly companions, and a sales group internally ... it is very much cutting edge."

And here's where the big vision thing kicks in, something Larry Scott might owe to being an outsider to the world of college athletics, a jungle of oddly aligned interests acting in conflicted, ever-shifting patterns and alliances. Scott got the job of Pac-12 commissioner coming from tennis, and rather than assume anything about what he was looking at in the Pac-12, he went on a hundred-day walkabout around the conference. (Jet-about. Car-about. Whatever.)

So you know, if you're not the guy who knows what he's looking at, why not call up Phil Knight and talk about rebranding the Pac-12, and just chill with the geniuses from Wieden+Kennedy, Nike's custom advertising and marketing commandos, for two unscheduled hours in an afternoon? Why not go to Los Angeles for graphics? Why not go to cable companies first, and find out that while a Pac-12 network would be nice, seven of them with a regional focus in each market would be even better, since they could sell highly targeted local ads at higher prices?

More importantly, why not drive 30 miles down the road and pick the brains of their alumni, the ones toiling away in the datamines of Silicon Valley? Of course Larry Scott is namedropping, but it's namedropping with a multifold purpose: not only does Larry Scott want you to realize the Pac-12 full of wealthy, brilliant alumni with enough money to make you weep at your own poverty, it's full of alumni in powerful places the Pac-12 is all to happy too catch the reflected sunshine off of, and in turn get some of that glow on its shiny new logo.

When digital comes up, Larry Scott's hands start moving again. (Hand motion pattern: defusing and rewiring an invisible ticking bomb.)

"A lot of networks that have launched in the past didn't even think about digital. They did it and kind of cobbled it together after the fact. Frankly, being out here on the West Coast and having ready access to companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, who we talk to all the time, there's a certain DNA in the conference. There's a heavier emphasis on technology and digital than there is with any other conference because of where we're situated, who our alumni are. The reason we put ourselves in San Francisco rather than L.A. was to be closer to those tech areas. We're embracing it in a pretty unique way."

Larry Scott excuses himself to watch some new television, or content, or whatever you call the thing the Pac-12 Networks will generate for anything you care to watch it on anywhere, anytime, and on any device of your choice.

***

Launch might be a deceptive word for what's happening down in the studio. The feed for the Pac-12 Networks, the third conference-affiliated network in collegiate sports, has been up and running for a month, showing nothing but the 21st century equivalent of a test pattern: the conference logo, an big schwoopy wave crashing in the midst of a mountainous pile of lettering. On Wednesday that switched to a countdown to launch, a signal originating in the basement studios of the network.

The signal is everything here, and has to be because of the Pac-12's tremendous geographical space. The studio in San Francisco is the node for the network, connected to each member school by gigantic Internet connections. From there the signal bounces along more gigantic connections to Denver, where master control coordinates the broadcast.

"We work like they're on the other side of that wall," says Hal Reynolds, senior VP of technology. Like everyone here, he is a senior vice president of something, but his role here is clearly that of battle engineer, field medic for wounded technology, and the obvious casting choice for "guy who matches the right wires and gets the escape pod to work in space thrillers."

The Pac-12 Networks is his 15th network launch. He sits at the broadcast board bouncing the signal around for us like an excited geek. The signal can come from the schools in the form of content piped up from Pullman, from Boulder, from Tempe, just waiting for them in the form of practice reports, raw video, and whatever else the schools want to make. It can bounce out to cable partners in the form of seven different networks, each tweaked to conform to regional content demands, each with its own ad partners selling hyperlocal advertising on those seven networks. It can go live with ease; it can live-edit those live programs into easily digestible hour-long recaps on the fly, and the repost as soon as the live event is over.* They can then make this available online immediately. The only real limitations are the speed of the human hands cutting up the footage and the limits of fiber-optic technology.

*That is correct: hour-long game summaries on tap for the East Coast-based football addict.

"Live is the easy part." This is what Hal Reynolds says because he is an engineer, someone who does not have to worry about identifying player numbers, figuring out what the hell just happened on a play, or any of the other mayhems of live sports coverage.

"For live, you just park a big truck out, hook it up, and that's it. The hard part is setting up all this," he says, gesturing around him.

"Have you ever done a setup this quickly?"

"No, no," he says. "This is the fastest setup I've ever done."

"Did this look like the Batcave six months ago?"

He takes this question very seriously. Like most engineers his brain is probably literally calling up the images to compare, making notes, diagrams, point-by-point comparisons, and then translating it back to the thoughts of a normal human being.

"Yes. Pretty much, yeah."

A voice barks from the studio console behind him. "Let's turn that down." He turns a knob, and then another. A voice from the studio keeps on woofing away from the speakers.

"Hmm. That knob ... isn't doing what it's supposed to."

The clock ticks away behind him. Fifteen minutes to launch.

***

Larry Scott stands at the dais.There is no button, at least no physical button to start the Pac-12 Networks. Instead, there is a button on a touchscreen television, meaning when Larry Scott pressed that button, he literally used television to "turn on" the show. Turning on your television with a television is a geeky recursion joke from an XKCD comic, but here we are watching it happen as a room full of people just sit there and watch nodding, grinning, and then nodding again.

After some thank yous and remarks by Scott and others, a plague of sport coats breaks out in the lobby of the Pac-12 offices. Wealthy alumni, school officials there on expense account, television people with their second wives, young staffers awkwardly grabbing free drinks, and Rod Gilmore, looking small and lonely without Joe Tessitore stitched to his hip, all pass through a mob scene of handshaking and business card exchanges. The sport coats always appear at these things, appearing from nowhere for the shots of gazpacho with truffle oil handed out by caterers, and for the open bar, and for the chance to simply bask in presence of other sport coats.

A staffer walks through the conference room for media and announces: "We ran our first ad!" The network, in theory, has officially begun paying for itself, and for the brilliant future Larry Scott has lined up for the conference that already has taken the new money from Scott's TV deals, and with it purchased better coaches, facilities, marketing, and all the other amenities necessary for survival in college sports.The Pac-12 Networks, combined with those new TV deals, are projected to earn more revenue than any conference in collegiate athletics as a result of Scott's reengineered media apparatus. It is only seven months old, and already a beast in the making.

In almost every sense, it is a coup worthy of a plague of sport coats and an open bar soiree. The first ad I see on a flatscreen: a spot for Samsung wall unit air conditioners. It is the kind you might find wedged into the window of a football player, or a volleyball player, or a basketball player sitting in a modest dorm room or off-campus apartment somewhere in the Pac-12's constellation of universities. The AQV09NSD model costs around $1,100, or roughly 1/17th of a Division I scholarship athlete's allowed cash stipend for the year.

While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel:

Check out the SB Nation Channel on YouTube

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