Almost as if he planned it this way, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren cuts himself off mid-sentence. He’s sitting in a comfy chair in an end zone suite at Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Stadium, and 50 yards away Indiana coach Tom Allen is on set with the Big Ten Network talking about expansion. Warren, who was working through a thought about recruiting opportunities for his coaches on the West Coast, notices the UCLA and USC logos pop on an on-screen graphic on the TVs under Allen and turns the volume up.
“We’ve had meetings and we’ve already started reaching out to young men in that part of the country as soon as the announcement was made because we understood what that meant,” Allen said on the TV. “It’s a little bit tougher to sell all the way from there to come to the Midwest, but now we’re gonna be playing games out there.”
Warren quips that Allen took the words out of his mouth before he continues.
“I didn’t know he was gonna say that; this is live,” Warren says. “That’s why, to keep going, people say about the money—I always put the money last, but if you do the right things for the right reasons at the right time and build it, this other stuff comes. So Tom Allen in Bloomington, Indiana can go to somebody’s house in Southern California and say we can go recruit there.”
Warren may put the money last, but many others do not—and the $1.24 billion annual price tag on the new Big Ten media rights deal offers quite a bit of sticker shock. Either way, the commissioner is feeling himself these days after pulling off college sports’ latest business coup.
Though college athletics has been crying out for new blood in its leadership for as long as anyone can remember, the hire of anyone regarded as an outsider is always going to be met with quite a bit of skepticism and quite a bit of scrutiny. Warren was the first of a new wave of leaders when he began his post in June 2019, after a spell as an executive with the Minnesota Vikings.
Since his hire, former MGM exec George Kliavkoff was chosen to run the Pac-12 in 2021, and former Roc Nation CEO Brett Yormark took the reins of the Big 12 on Aug. 1. They all landed jobs with conferences that people would agree are in the Power 5, but thanks to Warren, USC, and UCLA, it’s clear that there is now a Power 2—and there is no question which new commissioner is in a position of strength.
Any positive change in Warren’s reputation may surprise you if you were reading this a year ago. Eight months after the commissioner started with the Big Ten, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Among the myriad things the virus was unkind to was Warren’s initial perception as the conference’s leader. From the very beginning, Warren wasn’t given a chance by some pockets of the league’s fan bases, many in the media and even some administrators.
As college football at large wrestled with whether to play in 2020, there were Big Ten communication concerns and public bickering between member schools. It made the Big Ten’s decision to cancel its fall sports season and later reverse that move fundamentally different and much more tumultuous than the experiences of the Big 12, SEC and ACC, which never canceled. Warren recently told Sports Illustrated that he even received death threats. There were choppy waters organizationally at the league’s office as Warren replaced college football lifer Jim Delany as a leader and corporatized the mom-and-pop parts of the operation, detailed in a July Sportico report. The fits and starts were organizational and reputational.
“You can’t effectively do these jobs if you live in fear,” Warren says. “I think the thing I appreciate is there are times that you’d have to go capture the flag and if it doesn’t work, there’s a lot at stake. That’s what I appreciate. There’s a lot of people that would never do that because they don’t want to fail.”
Fast-forward as the 2022 college football season approaches, and Warren’s reputation is looking a lot different after USC and UCLA fell into his lap. Yes, the two programs reached out to a league that was all too willing to take them. But he did help orchestrate pushing the move through in secret, blindsiding the rest of the sport while knowing that if word got out that USC and UCLA were in discussions with the league and the two then got cold feet, he’d be in very hot water.
This is, of course, about money, whether Warren says it is or not, amid an increasingly professionalizing college sports landscape. USC and UCLA made the calculation that the Big Ten’s media rights deal posed a greater opportunity now and in the long-term than an uncertain Pac-12 media rights landscape that only in early August went to the free market for negotiations. The latter may, for all the L.A. brands know, have taken both somewhere disadvantageous in the league’s upcoming negotiations—albeit probably not to a disastrous Pac-12 Network level. In that way, perhaps the duo leaving was as much of a vote of no confidence in Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 as it was a vote of confidence in Warren.
Still, Warren was a driving force in the already massive part of the Big Ten media rights deal that had been done and dusted before the new entrants entered the fray, which includes Fox keeping the best package of games and upping its stake in the Big Ten to 61%. The initial number pegged to the agreement was an eye-popping $1 billion, and one Big Ten source said that the deal with multiple partners “[was] nothing without [Warren].” The deal will pay around $78 million per member annually once USC and UCLA join in 2024, cementing the Big Ten as by far the richest league in college sports—for now.
Fox and the Big Ten have become convenient bedfellows. This is all happening as Fox continues to try and wrestle the locus of college sports TV coverage from ESPN and the SEC. The conference backed into a prime viewership agreement with Fox’s Big Noon Saturday by scheduling necessity, and USC and UCLA sweeten the window of second-tier football games now owned by CBS and NBC. That was the other shoe many in the industry have waited all spring and summer to drop. Kliavkoff looks outmaneuvered as Pac-12 schools were caught with their pants around their ankles after weeks of negotiations in secret between the L.A. schools and the Big Ten. The league’s own statement said it was “extremely surprised and disappointed.”
Warren was one of three voices against College Football Playoff expansion back in February. One of the others, the ACC, pressed pause on expansion because its commissioner, Jim Phillips, would rather see the restructuring of college athletics happen before the restructure of the CFP. Well, be careful what you wish for. Add Phillips to the list of other league bosses scrambling in the wake of the seismic shakeup. Warren’s largest consternation with expansion was not wanting to put “duct tape” on the current agreement and instead letting the clock run out on it for a fresh start with a new pact, and he thinks that start will include more than one media partner (read: Fox). The CFP’s current contract expires after the 2025 season.
“This is not gonna be a decade of turmoil, it’s two to three more years,” Warren says. “Because I think once we do it then [the commissioners] can legitimately look at each other and say ‘O.K., we can sign a 10-year agreement.’ But right now, could you? If I asked you there’s no way you could do that. I couldn’t go in front of our chancellors and presidents and commit to a 10-year College Football Playoff at these numbers with this structure on it. I don’t know who’s gonna be where.”
The job of commissioner is never going to be a popular one. The only one in pro sports who people seem to have a bit of affinity for is the NBA’s Adam Silver, but Warren comes out of this victory for his conference quite like his NFL counterpart, Roger Goodell, who presides over a league that Warren himself may return to one day to run a team should he decide the college sports life is no longer for him, and it’s Goodell who, per Sportico, encouraged Warren to “do it your way.” Just as Goodell will never be exactly lauded in Foxboro thanks to Deflategate, and his booing at the draft is one of the NFL’s annual spring traditions, Warren may still get some side eye glances when he heads to Lincoln.
But Goodell still has a job because the NFL prints money through broadcast agreements that only make the behemoth bigger. Goodell is not the reason the league continues to boom, but he does continue to steer the ship. Thanks to USC and UCLA, the Big Ten has its shot across the bow to the rest of college sports, and anyone in a position of power in the conference with bad blood toward Warren certainly won’t be complaining about the checks that are soon to clear. Allen, the Indiana coach, certainly isn’t, his message in alignment with his commissioner and turned up to its fullest volume.
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