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Volume 21 No. 39
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Tough negotiator knew when to walk away

Mike Slive’s reputation as a tough negotiator is rooted in several episodes dating to his days as an attorney who represented universities in cases against the NCAA, and continuing through his time as commissioner of Conference USA and the SEC.

One of Slive’s tactics, whether he was negotiating a TV deal or meeting with the conference’s athletic directors, was to take a break when things hit a stalemate.

Slive set the tone when the stakes were high.
Photo by: R.D. Moore
That was the case when the SEC and ESPN were in the midst of an exhausting, 14-day negotiation over the terms of the conference’s media contract at law offices in Charlotte. The stakes were high — the deal, when combined with the CBS contract, wound up being worth more than $3 billion over 15 years — and so was the tension. When they reached an impasse one day, Slive nudged Larry Templeton in the ribs and said, “Let’s go for a

SBJ Podcast:
Writer Michael Smith and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss Mike Slive's impact on college athletics, his management style and what the former SEC commissioner's future holds.

walk.” Templeton, the former Mississippi State athletic director who became one of Slive’s closest friends, agreed.

“I’ll never forget this: Our SEC attorney, Robert Fuller, said, ‘Commissioner, we really need to stay here and work through this,’” Templeton said. “And Mike said, ‘I said we’re going to take a break.’ So we leave and go for a walk through the streets of Charlotte. After about 30 minutes, I said, ‘Commissioner, shouldn’t we go back?’ He said, ‘No, let them sit in the room without us. We’ll figure it out in the morning.’”

Sure enough, Templeton said, the next morning Slive went into a private room with ESPN’s John Skipper, and they emerged together with a deal.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, I guess we’re packing our bags,’” said Vanderbilt AD David Williams, who was on the SEC’s TV committee. “Sometimes you just have to show that you’re capable of getting up and going home.”

A new approach

Those 2008 negotiations were groundbreaking, not only for the value of the deal but also for its length. ESPN had never done a deal as long as 15 years. Neither side wanted to be tied up in a long-term deal like that without some flexibility to react to market conditions. Slive proposed what became known as a “look-in,” a new concept that would allow both sides to take stock of the deal in five-year increments.

“In that negotiation was born the look-in, and it’s now in several of our deals,” said ESPN’s Burke Magnus. “It was

Mike who created this concept of a look-in.

“This has been widely misunderstood; it was not a renegotiation, nor a commitment to do anything. But what it did was — and this is quintessential Slive — it forced the two sides at a minimum to get into a room.”

Magnus also credited Slive with setting the tone for the talks by saying, “We don’t want to be a property, we want to be a partner.”

“It created a level of collaboration with the SEC,” Magnus said. “That was all Slive. To that point, the deals in college would get done, you’d put the contract in the drawer, and you’d go your separate ways. We’d talk if there was an issue, but we weren’t having quarterly meetings. I give Mike the credit for changing that.

“In many ways, it changed our approach to acquisitions in the college space. The personal side can get lost in the day-to-day, but Mike always brings it back.”

Holding firm

Eric Hyman, the AD at Texas A&M, was at TCU some 15 years ago when the Horned Frogs jumped from the WAC to Conference USA. With the move came a significant entry fee to get into the new league, Hyman said.

“I’m relatively conservative financially, as everyone knows, and the fee to get into CUSA was, I thought, substantial,” Hyman said. “I had this idea that we’d negotiate down this exorbitant fee, but in his mind, it was the right fee.”

Hyman thought they would reach a mutually agreeable number, but that wasn’t the case.

“I thought we’d wheel and deal, but I walked out of the meeting with my pockets picked pretty good,” he said, laughing. “I’ve joked with him that he could have come down a penny, just to make me feel like I saved something. It was an eye-opening experience.”

Smartest guy in the room
A phrase we often heard from people describing Slive was “smartest guy in the room.” Here’s a sampling:

“He’s the best thinker in the room and he doesn’t speak until he’s ready to speak.”
— Chuck Gerber, SEC television consultant and former ESPN executive

“There’s never been a question in any negotiation that he’s the smartest guy in the room, and he’s also several steps down the road in the process.”
— Larry Templeton, SEC consultant and former Mississippi State AD

“Mike is usually the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn’t act like it. When he says something, he means it.”
— Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman

“He’s the smartest guy in the room because of the way he over-prepares, which is what he always does. He has such wisdom because he studies every side of an issue.”
— Jay Jacobs, Auburn AD

“He’s so thoughtful and intelligent, but he’s never the loudest guy in the room. As smart as he is, he doesn’t try to dominate the conversation.”
— John Swofford, ACC commissioner

“Most of the time, Mike is the smartest guy in the room, but he never acts that way, and that’s a great trait. You always feel comfortable with him because of his willingness to listen.”
— David Williams, Vanderbilt AD

“He’s very smart and always incredibly well-prepared, whether he’s going into discussions with ESPN or planning for what might seem to be a relatively minor telephone call.”
— Robert Fuller, attorney, Robinson, Bradshaw and Hinson

“When you look back at Mike’s career, his ability to listen and process a lot of information is one of his greatest strengths. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but he wants to know what you think.”
— Rick Jones, FishBait Marketing