Mike Aresco is an insider’s insider, having fought programming battles for both ESPN and CBS for years. So now the 62 year old Connecticut resident goes to the other side of the table, becoming the first television network executive assume the role of a major college commissioner when he was introduced as the new man with the plan for the Big East Conference on Wednesday.
It was fitting that the press conference took place at the New York Athletic Club, the scene of many an elaborate social function over the years, as Aresco began what seemed to be a great Honeymoon period with the media during the press conference and subsequent conference call. Maybe it was because his name stayed way south of the rumor mill until the final minutes on Tuesday, maybe it’s because the choice was seen (rightly so) as outside the norm for a conference which has been short on positive moves and long on same old in recent years, or maybe because it’s because those in the know see a new direction for the maligned “sixth conference” and are hoping that the corner is being turned. For whatever the reason, even with the Pac 12 Network launching Wednesday, you would be hard pressed to find any sports property enjoying a better week than the Big East.
Aresco said all the right things Wednesday on a conference call that followed the press conference. He made it clear the conference in unified and that he will be at the table with the other major conferences when major decisions are made. He stressed the market size of what will be a conference with a national footprint in 2013 and talked about innovation and leadership in college athletics, two terms which have been gone from the Big East vocabulary since Mike Tranghese left as commissioner. More importantly he gave hope to the leadership of the conference, its presidents and its coaches, many of whom saw nothing but chaos and despair last winter, when Syracuse and Pitt announced they were bolting, TCU came and went without playing a game, and the naysayers said that the one-time “Beast of the East” was on its deathbed.
“I would not have taken this job if I did not feel that this was a cohesive conference that was committed to each other,” he said. “What I want to do is make sure I’m a good communicator. I think it’s very, very important to make everyone feel welcome. To understand everyone’s concerns. You have a disparate group of schools but they share a common goal. They want to make this work.”
Making it work remains a big challenge, with many questions the new leader could not answer on day one (he will not officially take the reins for a few weeks, with interim commissioner Joe Bailey, who received a great deal of praise for helping right the Big East ship, staying on to help the transition). He was peppered about questions on where the league office will be (“I plan on spending time in Providence with the staff, we have not made any decisions on moving.), what Boise State will do with their sports other than football, what will realignment look like, and is the current state of the conference stable (which he affirmed it is, with no changes planned now…either additions or defections).
The biggest issue at hand is the conference’s TV rights deal, which enters an exclusive negotiating period with current holder ESPN on September 1. Aresco was evasive on what will come, but made it clear that content is king, and that the deal the Big East could cut would be a landmark one. “It’s too soon to know where things will go, but I do know that we have a national footprint with some of the greatest traditions and student-athletes in intercollegiate athletics, and those things, combined with a united group of colleges and universities, makes us a very attractive package.” Whether that package stays with “The Worldwide Leader,” travels to a college-sports strapped NBC or even to CBS or some combination thereof, is also still very much a question. Wednesday was for strong talk about leadership and the future for a new but well respected voice in the Commissioner’s chair.
In addition to TV talk, Aresco offered up a host of other positives about the future. He called the blue-turf Boise Broncos a team with a national identity, one that reminded him “of Gonzaga when Gonzaga burst on the scene with the NCAA tournament and became an absolute darling of the country,”
He talked aggressively about San Diego State and their turnaround started by now Michigan coach Brady Hoke, helping make them a power again like in the forgotten days of Marshall Faulk. And although he avoided questions about Notre Dame football, he did heap praise on the value of The Golden Dome in the overall college landscape. “Notre Dame is one of the great universities in America,” he added. “I’m proud to have them in the Big East and I’ll do everything I can to make them feel as comfortable in the Big East as they can possibly be. Just delighted to have them.”
Of course the days ahead won’t all be rosy. The whispers of Louisville looking elsewhere will persist, newcomer Central Florida was hit recently with numerous recruiting violations by the NCAA, and the conference still has to deal with the lame duck status of Syracuse and Pitt.
However for one humid August day at least, there was a breath of fresh air across the Big East. No matter what the short term future is, the long term future looks better for The Big East than it has in a long while, and for that a honeymoon for its new leader was well deserved.