Building up a brand is nothing new to American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco.
The AAC will enter its third year this fall, and Aresco believes the league, which was created amid all the moves in conference realignment, is on pace to hit its stride. The league got off to a fast start in 2013-14 when the University of Connecticut won both the men’s and women’s Division I basketball championships and the University of Central Florida captured the Fiesta Bowl. Not bad for a conference that didn’t exist when Aresco was originally hired in August 2012 to lead the Big East Conference.
The league split apart two weeks into his tenure – not exactly the start the former CBS and ESPN executive had in mind when he entered the world of college sports administration.
“I’ve really enjoyed working in all the places I’ve been throughout my career,” Aresco said. “I’ve derived a certain pleasure from being a college commissioner in ways that I hadn’t before. To be a commissioner in these times is immensely interesting and incredibly challenging.”
Getting his start
After graduating from Tufts University (where he played baseball on the freshman team) with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1972 and a master’s degree in international relations in 1973, Aresco decided to go to law school at UConn, from which he graduated in 1976. Aresco worked in a private general practice in Hartford, Connecticut, until the mid-1980s, and enjoyed building the practice.
In 1984, Aresco had a chance meeting with an ESPN programming director who overheard Aresco talking sports with his wife in a restaurant. That led to a friendship and, eventually, to Aresco taking a job at the fledgling all-sports network. “There were people I knew who thought I was crazy,” Aresco said. “For all anyone knew, ESPN could go under.”
He began as a lawyer for ESPN in 1984 and became general counsel in 1988. He was responsible for overseeing the acquisition, scheduling and development of long-term strategies for all ESPN college sports properties. Aresco worked on sports properties such as the College Football Association, and Big Ten and Pac-10 college football. He was the architect of ESPN’s signature Thursday night college football series and helped develop ESPN’s Bowl Week. “What I learned is relationships are critical to building anything,” Aresco said. “You have to have vision. You can’t assume because you’re in one place one day that you can’t build something.”
Aresco left ESPN after getting a call from CBS Sports in 1996. At CBS, he was the executive vice president of programming responsible for all college sports programming for CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network. He also oversaw the acquisition and management of CBS Sports college properties, including the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, regular-season college basketball and football, football bowl games and other programming. His responsibilities included game selection and scheduling, day-to-day operations, contract negotiations, identification of future acquisitions, development of programming strategies and coordination of new media and marketing initiatives.
Aresco played an integral role in the landmark deal in 2010 that created the CBS Sports-Turner Broadcasting partnership with the rights to broadcast the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. The 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement runs through 2024.
In summer 2012, a search firm asked Aresco about becoming the commissioner of the Big East Conference. He decided to make the jump to college sports just as schools were doing some jumping of their own, moving in a wave of conference realignment during the 2012-13 academic year. Aresco was the league’s commissioner for one season and knew a huge task was ahead of him when the non-Football Bowl Subdivision schools wanted to split from the other schools. “You have to put your head down and do the best you can,” Aresco said.
He helped negotiate a plan for the non-FBS teams to retain the Big East name and the remaining schools to form a new one: the American Athletic Conference, which now has 11 members and is adding the U.S. Naval Academy in 2015-16. “Despite the volatility, I just saw this as an opportunity,” Aresco said. “We have a chance to work on the vision for the conference. We want to get back to where the old Big East was.”