Off Campus: New Big East commissioner recognizes league's challenges

Mike Aresco: "We live in a media age."
Mike Aresco: "We live in a media age."
Posted: September 09, 2012

New Big East commissioner Mike Aresco is a deal-maker, a negotiator. He began his career at ESPN nearly three decades back, when the sports network was still in its toddler stage. Aresco was one of just two in-house attorneys at ESPN before he moved to the programming side.

Early in his career, Aresco was the point man in negotiating the original contract between ESPN and the College Football Association, the first television contract that was done outside the auspices of the NCAA, the sport's governing body. Aresco later worked on a slew of complex college deals as head of programming at CBS Sports, where he worked for 16 years.

Aresco and the Big East college presidents who hired him figure that his experience as a grown-up at the table when many important deals were negotiated prepared him for his new role in charge of one of college sports' best-known brands, but one that is battling for survival.

"We live in a different age," Aresco, 62, said this week over the phone. "We live in a media age. We live in an age of media deals."

In moving outside the conference for the first time in hiring a commissioner, the Big East put its needs and priorities on the table.

"When they called me, nobody had ever hired a pure media person," Aresco said, although he pointed out that the Big East and television, and ESPN in particular, were early partners. "They've grown up together. . . . The Big East was almost perfectly made for TV at the time."

Aresco, who began at the Big East this week and plans to be at Saturday's Temple-Maryland game at Lincoln Financial Field, immediately has to negotiate a new television contract - a key to the future of the league. He also has to find deals with bowl games that will keep the Big East in the top layer of conferences, when most of the bowls already have deals in place that don't include the Big East.

The new television contract, whatever its value, will be vital to the interests of new all-sports member Temple. That's true on every campus, obviously. Rutgers, for instance, used $18 million in general funds for athletics, its new president said this week. Another way of saying that: Rutgers lost $18 million on athletics last year. The good news is that's an improvement; the school lost $19 million the year before.

There is a general confidence around the conference, and a belief throughout the industry, that Aresco and outside consultant Chris Bevilacqua will get maximum value for the Big East, whatever that value happens to be. Bevilacqua last year helped negotiate a 12-year deal for the Pac-12 with ESPN and Fox worth $3 billion. This week, the Big 12 reached a deal with ESPN and Fox Sports on a 13-year contract reportedly worth $2.6 billion through 2024-25.

In a first-week meeting with Big East staff, Aresco said, he stressed that "problems can become opportunities." He didn't have to list the problems. The Big East was the hardest hit of all the top six leagues in the recent seismic shifts of membership. It stayed afloat as a football league by creating a nationwide confederation of schools, all the way out to Boise State and San Diego State. Aresco will attempt to sell this coast-to-coast (with a couple of stops in Texas) structure as a plus in television negotiations.

As commissioner, Aresco also needs to be mindful of an intangible that filtered through a lot of the recent conference shifts. Some of it was fear-based, as schools worried about being left out while the biggest deals were being made.

Aresco saw it all from a front-row seat at CBS.

"The scramble, the uncertainty," Aresco said of moves across the college football landscape. "Sometimes, I think, the lack of trust."

The best news for the Big East right now is there appears to be competition for its product. In addition to the traditional networks involved in college sports, NBC has launched its all-sports network, and Fox reportedly is turning Speed, a network it owns devoted to motor sports, into an all-sports channel. The Big East first has an exclusive negotiating window with longtime partner ESPN.

"Live product is at a premium," Aresco said. "Good live product is at a real premium. We're a national conference. We have a lot of product, and it's good product."

Asked about specific, big-money deals other conferences have gotten, Aresco said: "I want to be careful here. We're happy to see deals like that come down. They strengthen the marketplace. I don't want to use any other conference deal as a benchmark. Every conference is different, with different markets and different nuances."

Few leagues are as quirky as the Big East. News came out this week that the conference will study branding and possibly even change its name as it shifts into being a national football conference. Don't expect any name change, but you could see why the league would possibly look at it for football, which is an easy geographic punch line. (San Diego State is going to the Big East! Where does the league go next? Tokyo? Bangkok?)

Meanwhile, the Big East basketball name can't (and won't) be touched. That brand has great value. Temple didn't spend the last quarter century just looking to get into a league with Connecticut and South Florida and the rest. It wanted in the Big East. Villanova has equity in the Big East name.

Aresco obviously knows all that from his years at the other end of the table. In some ways, the name is a window into all sorts of issues the commissioner faces. The new Big East is a weird hybrid, with some schools coming in only for football, others that don't play football, and others in for everything. The size of markets and how much the schools carry those markets vary, the types of schools and their institutional missions vary, their historical football and basketball performances vary, and their historical ties to the league vary.

Aresco talked about new rivalries, including Villanova vs. Temple, as being central to the continued growth of the league as it looks to stabilize. He is aware that a far-flung football league is an issue, that if fans can't travel, rivalries have a harder time developing.

All the more reason for the Big East to bring in a television man adept at bundling rights and emerging platforms. After the most unstable period in the conference's history, the new man is the face of stability. Aresco won't be judged on the television contract alone. Keeping the league free of more defections is vital, but all these issues are connected, and when the dominoes start falling, nobody knows when or where they'll stop. Everyone hopes there is some calm now, but any one school can start an avalanche.

"I knew there would be no honeymoon in this job," the new commissioner said.


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com, or follow @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus

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