Big East Fully Embraces Importance of TV In Hiring Mike Aresco as Its New CommissionerPosted by Chris Johnson on August 15th, 2012
Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
For years the Big East has sat back and watched as conference realignment marginalized its position in the modern college athletics landscape. This realignment – driven almost entirely by football-oriented television rights contracts – prompted Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two league forerunners with longstanding rivalries and successful track records, to bolt for the ACC, a league that in May announced a restructured broadcasting rights deal with ESPN worth $3.6 billion over 15 years. Longtime affiliate West Virginia and near-member TCU also deserted the struggling league in favor of the Big 12 – another league cashing in on the recent power conference TV contract frenzy by agreeing to a $1.2 billion deal with Fox. The Big East in response embarked on a nationwide courtship to increase its membership before entering a crucial 60-day negotiating window with ESPN this September to secure a lucrative TV rights deal of its own. It has since added Houston, SMU, Memphis and Central Florida, with Navy, Boise State and San Diego State also joining as football-only members. Once a bastion of exemplary conference leadership and stability, the Big East has morphed itself into an amalgam of disparate parts with no geographical unity or identity. More importantly, its bargaining hand heading into the crucial negotiating period to determine its future status in the major conference pecking order lacks substance. And so the expectation was that the Big East, now a shell of it former self and withering at the expense of TV rights-motivated inter-league poaching, would muddle its discussions with ESPN and further diminish its standing within the power conference structure.
The floundering league took major strides Tuesday toward securing a far sweeter deal than it otherwise may have anticipated when it announced the hiring of Mike Aresco as its new conference commissioner. Aresco’s latest position comes on the heels of his stint as vice president of programming at CBS Sports, before which he worked in the programming department at ESPN. The Big East scrambled to fill the vacant position after former commissioner John Marinatto resigned in May amid concerns that he was ill-prepared to lead the league into its critical television negotiations period. The clear hope is that Aresco will work in conjunction with Evolution Media Capital (EMC) and Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures (a group that recently negotiated the Pac-12’s groundbreaking $3 billion TV rights deal) in striking a similarly advantageous package. If the Big East and ESPN cannot reach a deal within the exclusive 60-day negotiating window, then the league’s TV rights will be open to the highest bidder.
On the surface, this is an altogether smart hire by a league that realized its dire circumstances, determined the quickest and most efficient way to address its plight, and acted accordingly. At a time when it desperately needed a trump card in arguably the most important two-month period in recent league history, the Big East acquired an industry savant who without question provides the greatest chance of maximizing broadcast rights revenue. Whereas three months ago the conference faced the prospect of damaging its long-term stability with a rudderless negotiations approach, the league now looks primed to land a deal somewhere within the vicinity of the ACC’s monumental contract. Provided Aresco lives up to his billing – he pioneered the earth-shattering deal between CBS and the SEC last year, then led negotiations for the network’s long term deal with the NCAA Tournament for men’s basketball – the Big East is well on its way to reestablishing itself among the power conference elite and in turn safeguarding its membership against any future conference realignment. You may wonder how, but the answer is in the numbers.
With a landmark deal in place, league members in the future will be hard pressed to leave behind the lucrative TV rights payout Aresco implements in the new contract. Even if a move to another conference makes more geographic and/or competitive sense, the anticipated long-term windfall should supersede those concerns. The Big East knows this all too well, having watched three of its members make fiscally-driven inter-conference moves, which is why the hire is ironic on so many levels. The very force – TV rights-related conference realignment – that stripped the Big East of much of its prestige and nationwide renown and compelled three league stalwarts (West Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh) to join new conferences served as the determinative factor in its conference commissioner selection process. The league sought stability by embracing as its new leader a facilitator of the main realignment propellant (TV rights deals) that transformed the Big East from a close-knit regional stronghold into a transnational hodgepodge of many mid-major castoffs. Still, for its immediate future, with so much riding on the next few months, plucking Aresco was the right move. He’s the best man for the make-or-break endeavor looming on the horizon.
What’s worth considering here is the grander implications of the hire, a broader approach that considers the repercussions beyond TV rights negotiations. For a position as high-ranking as commissioner of the Big East Conference – a position that entails quite a bit more responsibility than TV negotiations and demands a leader capable of handling administrative affairs and procedural duties beyond the negotiating period this fall – it’s alarming that the league would be so unilaterally focused in its hiring process. After all, Aresco has never worked in sports administration at any level, nor does he have any experience in anything outside of television programming and broadcast rights negotiations. So, in an insularly motivated immediate sense, hiring Aresco is an undeniably savvy move. As for the Big East’s long-term prospects, it’s difficult to forecast a stable and coherent leadership structure sustaining itself in a positive way under a commissioner who rose to his position based solely on his ability to negotiate a favorable TV rights deal this fall. The Big East may have solved its most pressing concern, but its singular focus in the hiring process – essentially ignoring anything not dealing with the upcoming TV negotiations – could ultimately prove nearsighted and costly.