SBJ/August 20-26, 2012/Colleges

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  • How the Big East got its new commissioner

    Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco
    Photo by: SHANA WITTENWYLER
    CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus was at the PGA Championship in Kiawah Island, S.C., when Mike Aresco, one of his longest-tenured lieutenants, called asking for permission to get out of his contract.

    Aresco had been a vice president at CBS since 1996 and still had a year on his deal with the network. He told McManus that day — Thursday, Aug. 9 — that he was in the running to be named commissioner of the Big East and things were starting to move quickly. This was a potentially career-defining job for him, Aresco told McManus, and he asked his boss’s permission to go for it.

    McManus called his boss, CBS Corp. President and CEO Leslie Moonves, and discussed whether they should let Aresco out of his contract a year early. Moonves and McManus looked at the length of CBS’s college deals, which run into the next decade. Its SEC and NCAA tournament deals, which Aresco oversees as the network’s day-to-day contact for the properties, both expire in 2024.

    They decided that CBS’s college commitments were so buttoned down that they would endorse their longtime colleague and friend officially interviewing for the job.

    McManus called Aresco the next day, Friday, and told him that CBS would not stand in his way.

    “Once I heard what the deal was and what the package was, it was tough for me to convince him that this was an opportunity that he should pass up, at this point in his life and this point in his career,” McManus said.

    Aresco and the Big East, which was infatuated with the idea of hiring a commissioner with such a deep media background, reached an agreement over the weekend. Conference officials and partners were told that Tuesday, the first time that most of them had any idea Aresco was even in the running.

    Mike Aresco (left) and Cincinnati President Greg Williams, who headed the search committee
    Photo by: BIG EAST CONFERENCE
    The hiring was notable as much for the speed with which the two sides finalized their agreement as well as the secrecy with which they conducted the interview process. Even after he was announced as the Big East’s newest commissioner, Aresco still did not want to discuss the hiring process.

    “That’s what we really didn’t want to talk about,” Aresco said last Wednesday afternoon, hours after he had been introduced by the Big East. “The search committee would rather not get into that.”

    But that process of how Aresco became the Big East’s newest commissioner was mainly what conference and media executives talked about last week. As a measure of how secretive the negotiations were, conference athletic directors were kept in the dark until the day before last week’s announcement.

    By all accounts, a tight-knit group of conference executives conducted the search, along with the search firm Russell Reynolds. Cincinnati President Greg Williams headed the group, which included interim commissioner Joe Bailey, USF President Judy Genshaft and Louisville President James Ramsey.

    At a meeting of athletic directors in mid-July, Bailey said the field had been narrowed to 10 candidates. Executives that were considered included MLS President Mark Abbott, UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood and Big East senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli. Sources say Aresco was a latecomer to the interview process, not interviewing until about 30 days before his hiring.

    While surprising, the selection of Aresco drew immediate praise from industry executives.

    “He’s got deep relationships because he’s been in the college sports business for 30 years. And he’s a well-liked guy,” said Chris Bevilacqua, whose Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures was hired with Evolution Media Capital to help the Big East negotiate its media rights deal. “These are tough roads to navigate, because you’ve got a large body of constituents and they all have different needs, wants and desires. It takes a real collaborator, and Mike’s really good at that.”

    McManus saw Aresco as the right fit for the conference.

    Successor may add

    cable to duties


    The job Mike Aresco is leaving at CBS almost certainly will carry different responsibilities for whatever executive takes it over.

    A vice president since 1996, Aresco was charged with maintaining relationships with the network’s college partners. That meant handling day-to-day operations with the college conferences and schools that are on CBS’s radar, including the SEC and the NCAA.

    Now that a cable channel is part of CBS Sports’ portfolio, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus may look for an executive to play a heavy role on both the broadcast and cable channels.

    “The job might be expanded to include a role in both of the divisions as we try to further integrate CBS Sports Network into CBS Sports,” McManus said. “I think the job will actually be a larger one than the one that Mike had.”

    McManus said he has strong candidates in mind to fill Aresco’s job, adding, “I think it will be filled pretty soon.”

    Aresco reported directly to McManus. It seems likely that Aresco’s replacement will report to David Berson, executive vice president of CBS Sports and president of the CBS Sports Network. CBS hired Berson in January 2011 as McManus’ No. 2 executive, overseeing CBS Sports Network.
    — John Ourand
    “It’s a great opportunity for Mike, one he’ll be terrific at,” he said. “He’s the perfect guy for the job.”

    But there are clear challenges that stand in his way, the first coming in the form of the Big East’s media contract. The conference was gutted last year, losing West Virginia to the Big 12 this year, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC next year.

    The league, left without a seat at the BCS table beginning in 2014 when the new playoff structure kicks in, turned down an offer from ESPN for its media rights last year that would have averaged at least $130 million a year and could have grown to $150 million.

    The Big East has a formal negotiating window with ESPN this fall before the deal could go onto the open market, potentially giving Fox and NBC a crack at it.

    Getting back to that $130 million to $150 million level financially will stretch Aresco’s bargaining chops, although industry sources like the combination of nice-guy Aresco teaming with bulldog Bevilacqua. The Big East’s losses are considerable, so Aresco and Bevilacqua will have to lean on the conference’s broader footprint with Boise State and San Diego State, and the huge population centers where its schools are located.

    While the conference in its announcement positioned Aresco as “instrumental in negotiating” CBS’s deal with Turner and the NCAA, as well as the extension with the SEC, industry sources said McManus clearly is the lead negotiator and dealmaker for the network. Aresco was the chief day-to-day contact for CBS with its college partners, primarily the SEC, NCAA and Navy, which enabled him to develop close ties with many of the key decision-makers, including SEC Commissioner Mike Slive.

    In addition, Aresco’s consensus-building talents will be tested. The Big East will stretch from the East Coast to the West Coast in football next year, and there remains the specter of a potential split among the football schools and the basketball schools.

    “Certainly, there’s going to be a learning curve associated with the job,” Louisville AD Tom Jurich said. “This is a new business to Mike, but he’s got all the skills you’d look for.

    “There’s a big challenge ahead; there’s no way to play that down. The TV negotiations are a big part of that. So is the blending of the schools. But the proof will be in the TV contract.”

    As for Aresco, once he finishes responding to the “hundreds of texts and emails” he received, he will focus on the conference’s media issues.

    “Job one is the television deal. No question about it,” he said. “We live in the media age. I think they felt I could make a huge contribution there. I plan to.”

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