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.