TAMPA — At a time when so many other aspects of the economy are struggling, the market for television deals in college sports continues to rise to staggering levels, from millions of dollars to billions in the past six years.
So it's not that surprising that as the Big East sought a leader to build its new identity moving forward, the conference turned to former CBS Sports vice president Mike Aresco, who has never worked for a college or a conference but is being lauded as a smart, progressive choice as the league's new commissioner.
"You've got to be able to understand the television business," said author Keith Dunnavant, who chronicled that relationship in the 2004 book The Fifty-Year Seduction, "particularly in a position like the Big East, where there's been a lot of membership changes. They've had to fight other conferences to survive. They've gone out and tried to grow their membership in what has effectively been a defensive posture.
"I think this definitely is an aggressive move that says the Big East is serious about retaining its place at the big boys' table in college football."
In today's world of college football, a TV deal is a status symbol, something that measures national interest and relevance, and for the individual football programs, it represents their best opportunity to increase the athletic budget and stay competitive fiscally.
"For an athletic department, you have other sources of revenue, like ticket sales, but the big item that has upside is television rights through your conference," said Kevin O'Malley, a former executive with CBS and Turner Sports who lives in Oldsmar and has spent the past nine years as a sports media consultant in these megadeals.
"For that reason, it has absolutely paramount importance."
O'Malley estimated that the value of a major conference's media rights has risen between 300 and 400 percent in the past six years. That allows for a potential jackpot even for a conference such as the Big East that is rebranding itself as a national entity, with member schools now spanning from its Northeast roots to USF, through Texas to San Diego State and Boise State next year.
Last year the Big East turned down an offer from ESPN reported to be about $150 million a year for nine years, hoping a competitive market would drive up the league's value. That move seemed to be a serious gamble when four key member schools — West Virginia, Texas Christian, Pittsburgh and Syracuse — announced they were leaving for the Big 12 and ACC. But with eight schools set to join over the next three years, projections for a TV deal have varied widely, some suggesting the Big East could get as much as $190 million per year for 15 years. That's $2.85 billion.
"It's huge," O'Malley said of Aresco's hiring. "This is something you learn over a career of experience. It's not something you can go to school for and pick up in a couple of months.
"I've been doing this for 39 years, one way or another with the networks and in consulting, and Mike has also had a very long career. There's no substitute for that. You have to have been immersed in the history of this. It's a very, very positive thing for the conferences."
If football is the driving economic force in any major college athletic department, then television easily remains the best source of revenue from football. So it's no coincidence the Big East's future, and its leadership, have a considerable stake in the TV deal to be negotiated by the end of this year. If it comes together, the contract will give the Big East the long-term stability it could have only hoped for during much of a tumultuous past year.
"In the end, the Big East has to perform, on the field and on the court," Aresco said at his news conference Wednesday. "It has done that in the past, and if it does so in football, things will take care of itself. … We embrace the future with tremendous optimism."