BY JED HUGHES
In just two days, The Big Ten Conference membership rose to 14.
Just 24 hours after Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten, Rutgers, the only major college football program in the New York metro area, announced that it would also join the conference.
The move is based on two important factors in college sports: finances and prestige. The Big Ten Conference is comprised mostly of large, public research universities located primarily in the Midwest. Despite its name, the conference until this week included 12 teams: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Northwestern, the only private school among the group. The additions of Maryland, which is private, and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, bring the total to 14.
What made the defections particularly attractive is the Big Ten Network, created in 2006 through a joint partnership between the conference and News Corp (Fox Sports), which features Big Ten-related programming, exclusively, including live events and a nightly highlights show. Based in Chicago, the network reaches an estimated 73 million households in the U.S. and Canada and is available on cable in most of the 20 largest U.S. media markets. Adding the Scarlett Knights and Terrapins will help increase interest in New York and Washington, the nation's No. 1 and No. 7 media markets.
The Big Ten Network means big money; it generates $284 million dollars annually. The revenue is then parceled off to member universities. Rutgers, which belonged to the Big East for more than two decades, can certainly benefit from this new revenue stream; it has relied heavily on state subsidies to fund its athletic program. Additionally, the university recently spent $100 million on stadium expansion.
These mega deals shed light on the fact that college athletic directors need both sports and business acumen more so than ever before. A “60 Minutes” segment this weekend focused on the growing "arms race" in college football. Armen Keteyian reported that only 22 of 125 big time athletic programs made money or broke even last year. Further, even smaller schools, such as Towson State, are spending millions in revenue on mediocre football programs.
The segment was complimentary of University of Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, a former CEO of Domino's Pizza, whom I know well and placed in his current position. Michigan generates millions of dollars from the Big Ten Network, branded merchandise, and sold out games at the Big House, which holds 112,000 fans. The Wolverines also have spent significant sums on year-round training, a $300 million overhaul of their home stadium, and an enviable marketing program. Revenues from the football program also help underwrite the smaller sports at the school.
Brandon, who manages a $133 million budget, is the prototype of the modern day college athletic director. At Domino's, he dealt with many stakeholders, including employees, management, a Board of Directors, vendors, franchisees, investors, and customers. It was great training for life at a major conference sports program, where he now deals with athletes, academics, a Board of Directors, alumni, students, a world class marching band, and some of the nation's most passionate fans. Being an AD is about much more than Xs and Os and when to schedule the homecoming game. It's about being fiscally responsible, while at the same time being able to harness and market the pride and pageantry of college athletics.
Although he was a "nontraditional" pick, Brandon importantly has a lifelong Michigan connection. Born in Dearborn and known for his tremendous work habits, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1974. Under legendary coach Bo Schembechler, he was a back-up quarterback and part-time starter at defensive end. After his graduation, Brandon remained close to Schembechler and the football program, often attending and speaking at alumni events.
Similarly, Jack Swarbrick, the athletic director at the University of Notre Dame, spent much of his professional career outside of sports. Swarbrick practiced law for nearly three decades before accepting his current position. He earned his undergraduate degree (magna cum laude) in economics from Notre Dame in 1976 before receiving his law degree from Stanford. Although Pat Haden, the athletic director at USC, is widely known from his days as a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams from 1976 to 1981, he was a practicing attorney from 1982 to 1987, and a partner at a private equity firm from 1987 to 2010. Haden, of course, played and graduated from USC, where he was a Rhodes scholar.
A New Jersey native with a strong passion for his alma mater, Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti is one of the nation’s youngest leaders in college athletics. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass media from Rutgers in 1993, and a master’s degree in communication in 1995. Under his leadership, the school inked a 10-year naming rights deal with High Point Solutions for Rutgers Stadium, along with a 10-year contract with Audi for the Audi Rutgers Club at the stadium.
Prior to returning to his alma mater, Pernetti was the executive vice president of content for CBS College Sports Network. In that role, he oversaw the rights and relationship business, on-air talent, and all network programming and content on air, online and across all distribution platforms for the nation’s first company dedicated to college sports.
In the 21st century, athletic directors must be able to negotiate broadcast contracts, run multi-million dollar budgets, oversee multiple intercollegiate and intramural sports programs, collaborate with the school's administration, alumni and students, ensure proper maintenance of equipment and facilities, maintain standards of scholarship and conduct for athletes and staff, adhere to Title IX requirements, coordinate with university relations for media announcements, and, importantly, oversee the branding and marketing of the university brand. To say the job is complex would be an understatement.
Intercollegiate athletics is about much more sports; it is about entertainment and merchandising, as well. Finding the right executive talent for such a position has never been more important or more challenging. Identifying the right leader can have far reaching financial implications for any major university sports program. It is vital to find the right person for the job.
A native of Newark, Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and head coach Brady Hoke. Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, and New York Jets President Neil Glat. Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.