In May 2011, the Big East turned down a TV broadcast rights deal from ESPN reportedly worth $11 million per school -- annually. Rights fees for conferences had been on the rise, and conference leaders were sure waiting for a better offer would pay off in a big way.
That was before the Big East lost Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC. Before TCU announced it was joining the Big 12 instead of officially becoming a Big East member. And before West Virginia left the conference to join TCU in the Big 12.
True, the Big East has since added Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU as full members, along with football-only members Boise State, San Diego State and Navy. But safety isn’t in numbers -- it’s in the revenue provided by the most lucrative TV deal possible.
Today’s announcement that CBS executive vice president Mike Aresco will become the commissioner of the conference confirms the Big East is making television a priority. Aresco has led programming for CBS since 1996, handling such negotiations as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the 15-year SEC contract.
Jeff Schemmel, former athletic director at San Diego State and current managing director of the College Division at JMI Sports, said Aresco’s hiring makes perfect sense.
“Hiring a television executive is not that surprising, since the next television contract for the Big East will be the most critical factor in determining the future viability of the conference, particularly as to whether the schools coming to the league in the next few years will feel they've made a good decision," he said.
Other conferences are controlling their own financial destinies by signing long-term deals and starting conference networks. The ACC recently signed a 15-year, $3.6 billion contract extension with ESPN. The Big 12 inked a $1.2 billion contract with Fox for the conference’s second-tier rights last year. ESPN and Fox partnered for a historic joint deal with the Pac-12 last year worth $3 billion over 15 years.
Some conferences have taken things even further. The Big Ten owns a 49 percent stake in Big Ten Network, which guarantees the conference annual rights fees in addition to a share in the profits. The Pac-12 wholly owns the new Pac-12 Networks, launching Wednesday, and controls all of the broadcasting, digital and sponsorship rights for all of its members. Although it will receive no revenue until the networks are profitable, it also will not have to share with anyone when it does one day reap its rewards.
To remain competitive with those other conferences both on and off the field, the Big East will need to secure a long-term deal this fall. Tom Stultz, managing director of the media division of JMI Sports and former managing director of IMG College’s multimedia rights business, said it is tough to predict how the loss of Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia will impact the Big East’s next television contract.
“The one thing that’s changed since then though is the NBC/Comcast merger,” Stultz said. “That’s the wild card in all this. Do they really want to dive in?”
“There are some really compelling parts to the [Big East’s] offering,” Stultz said. “You have the northeast corridor. There has to be some media players that want to get into the college space and who want to send a signal they’re here and ready to play.”
Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, is optimistic about the Big East’s outlook.
“If the Big East schools hang together, I believe they can secure a new TV deal equal to or better than the last offer from ESPN, because the media competition for their rights will be intense,” he said.
Stultz said Aresco is an “incredible” hire.
Aresco will be working closely with Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures, which is the conference’s lead negotiator for a new television contract this fall. ESPN has an exclusive 60-day negotiating window beginning Sept. 1. Should no deal be reached, the conference can take its rights out on the open market.
Chris Bevilacqua has a long history in college sports television. He was a founder of CSTV, which started the Mountain West’s conference channel, the first channel devoted to a single conference. The historic partnership between ESPN and Fox was his brainchild as well, an idea he presented while he served as a consultant to the Pac-12. He also represented the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl during recent negotiations which resulted in an $80 million annual rights fee, 167 percent higher than the previous contract.