Big East hire reveals league's stakes

When it comes to professional origin, conference commissioners are typically predictable.

Usually, they have roughly similar CVs, almost all of which entail large stretches in sports administration. The men in charge of college athletics’ power-six conferences offer easy examples: Jim Delany (Big Ten) was an NCAA enforcement representative and the Ohio Valley Conference commissioner. Bob Bowlsby (Big 12) was athletic director at Iowa and Stanford and a member of the US Olympic Committee. Mike Slive (SEC) worked at Dartmouth, Cornell and the Pac–10, and was the first commissioner of both the Great Midwest Conference and Conference USA. John Swofford (ACC) was athletic director at North Carolina for 17 years.

Until this point, only Larry Scott (Pac–12) -- a former professional tennis player, manager of ATP Properties and Chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association -- veered even remotely from the mold.

Thanks to the Big East, that mold has officially been broken.

On Tuesday afternoon, the conference announced the hiring of Mike Aresco as its new commissioner in a unanimous vote by the league’s presidents. Aresco’s biography reads far differently from the men listed above. Before accepting the position, he was the executive vice president of programming at CBS Sports, responsible for “all college programming for the network,” according to the Big East release. Prior to CBS, Aresco worked at ESPN, where he oversaw “acquisition, scheduling and development of long-term strategies for all of ESPN and ESPN2 college sports properties,” per the AP. He joined ESPN in 1984, was named general assistant council in 1988 and moved to the programming department shortly thereafter.

He has never worked for a conference or a university. He shares that much with Scott. Like Slive and others, he has a law degree. But the professional similarities end there.

Which, of course, is exactly why he’s the right man for the job.

It’s not that those other commissioners -- athletics administrators in one capacity or another -- represent an outdated model. They’re fine for their leagues, most of which are flourishing in the modern college athletics landscape.

The Big East is not flourishing. These days, the polite way to describe the conference is “in transition.” The less polite -- and possibly more accurate -- way is to say the Big East is dying a slow death borne of both small cuts and big bruises, most of which have to do with TV, football, money and any combination thereof.

More than anything else, what the Big East needs -- besides, you know, better football teams -- is someone who knows best how to sell what it has to TV networks (namely CBS and ESPN) interested in buying. The next TV contract the Big East signs will be the most “critical factor in determining the future viability of the conference,” former SDSU athletic director Jeff Schemmel told ESPN’s Kristi Dosh. On that criteria alone, Aresco sounds like a perfect fit. From Kristi’s piece:

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. […]

“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. […]

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.

From the Big East’s perspective, the hire -- which all of Dosh’s sources praised -- makes absolute sense. What it says about college athletics is another matter entirely.

This is nothing new, obviously; money has run the show in college sports for decades, and the past 10 years have seen a steady consolidation of financial strength in the hands of the biggest leagues. Leagues have built their own networks, charging cable subscription fees and serving ads, while signing ever more lucrative broadcast rights deals with TV networks. Why? Because in our wonderful and modern on-demand media climate (in which I can crank out four seasons of Breaking Bad on Netflix in two weeks for a whopping $8 per month) sports are one of the few things you still have to watch live, ads and all. College football is among the genre’s most popular offerings. College basketball has its fans, too. There are billions in them thar hills.

So it should come as no surprise that the Big East would want someone very versed in this world to lead it into its next era. But it is nonetheless jarring. Television money has driven conference realignment at the expense of historic rivalries and geographic common sense for years, sure, but this is the first time we’ve seen a conference admit that if you can’t beat them, you might as well hire them to run the show.

Practically speaking, it’s a great hire, one the Big East probably had to make, and fundamentally it won’t change much about college sports. We've already arrived at our destination.

Symbolically speaking, it’s something more. This summer, a historic league looked itself in the mirror and, in a moment of fight-or-flight terror, refused to even pretend major conference leadership was about anything other than the maximization of television revenues. Then it hired accordingly.

This is the state of college athletics in 2012. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is. San Diego State -- San Diego State! -- is a member of a thing called the Big East, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh are not, for precisely the same reasons. And so the evolution continues.