‘SEVEN ON SEVEN’ SERIES WITH MIKE ARESCO, AAC COMMISSIONER
September 25, 2015
Mike Aresco, a noted sports television executive with both ESPN and CBS Sports, took the reins of the American Atlantic Conference in 2012. Since then, he has overseen the AAC’s phenomenal growth and has positioned the conference for even greater strides in the future. Aresco shared some thoughts on college football, the bowls and sports television in this conversation with FBA Communications.
This is the first in a series of ‘Seven On Seven’ interviews, seven questions broached to conference commissioners, media personnel, broadcasters, TV executives, athletic directors, former players and coaches, etc.
Look for ‘Seven On Seven’ regularly on the new FootballBowlAssociation.com website.
You have been AAC Commissioner for three years now. Football-wise, what do you consider the conference’s biggest achievement during your tenure?
“Clearly, the Fiesta Bowl win by Central Florida over Baylor was perhaps our signature achievement. Baylor had decisively defeated just about all of its opponents and they were decisively beaten by UCF in the bowl. That is an absolute highlight, no question about it.
“However, perhaps our most significant overall achievement is that our teams have gotten stronger and stronger and we have hired and retained outstanding coaches. We have a roster of coaches that can rival anyone’s, and you can see the overall progress that our football conference has made.
“Going to divisional play and establishing a championship game are also very important markers for us. And I would add that we have played very tough teams from some of the best conferences in the regular season and in bowl games and we have held our own.”
You were instrumental in the formation of the Miami Beach Bowl for last season. How did this come about, and what was the original impetus for it?
“There is great fluidity in the bowl system. The conference had done a great deal of work to establish the Pinstripe Bowl and the St. Petersburg Bowl, but when we lost our affiliation with the Pinstripe Bowl, our feeling was that we would have been better off had we simply owned the bowl game and rented the stadium.
“In the case of the Miami Beach Bowl, we knew that we had an excellent venue in Marlins Park and a cooperative partner in the Miami Marlins. It is an attractive city and stadium for a bowl game and we knew that our players, our coaches and our fans would all want to be there. And we felt that we could make it work financially and build an asset in the process.
“We knew how to establish a bowl game. We had experience in doing it, so we ultimately decided that owning a bowl game would give us security down the road. It provides a long-term, quality tie-in for our conference, and it also gives us a significant asset. It is the kind of innovative thing that this conference should be doing. I am very proud of what we have done with respect to the bowl.”
Back when you began the AAC’s football expansion efforts, what was the thought process that went into which teams you targeted?
“We looked for schools that were a good cultural fit, were strong academically, had strong leadership and had good across-the-board success in their athletic programs. We added East Carolina, which has a long and excellent athletic tradition, especially in football. We added Tulane, which has done a remarkable job in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And we added Tulsa, which has a terrific sports history. Of course, we had already added the Naval Academy just before I arrived, and they join us this year in football only. We are thrilled to have a national institution of the stature and quality of the Naval Academy.
“Essentially, you try to find schools that fit the membership profile and who also bring something to the table. And it helps if they also fit geographically.”
Having worked for many years at both ESPN and CBS Sports, how did the relationships you established over time help you in securing and growing the AAC’s current agreements with two of the industry’s premier properties?
“It helps to know what the networks are thinking and the kind of things that drive them, how they determine value and what they are willing to pay and the exposure they are willing to provide. It also helps to have relationships with key people at each network. Having worked at both ESPN and CBS, and having dealt with them as competitors, many of the people I knew are still there. Essentially, it helps to know what their needs are and how we can provide value to them. You also have a better sense of the overall TV and media landscape.
When we did our TV deal, we were not as stable as we are now. We were a reinvented league that people were not sure about, and therefore we were not in a position to generate maximum revenue at the time. But we were able to get incredible exposure for the conference and that will help build our brand, which should lead to more revenue down the road.”
What many people used to know as the Big East, you quickly rebranded your group as the American Athletic Conference. Usually, rebranding takes a while, but that wasn’t the case with the AAC’s immediate recognition. What did you do to accelerate this?
“Well, we didn’t have a lot of time. We knew that finding a new name and rebranding wouldn’t be easy and we were on the clock. Ultimately, we traded the Big East name for greater financial security. We also knew we needed to build football and the Big East was primarily a basketball brand. We decided that a fresh start made sense. We worked out a settlement that benefitted the league financially and in other ways.
“I think we chose a great new name, a durable name, a name which is recognizable and stands for many good qualities. And we developed a great logo, which our players enjoy having on their uniforms. The recognition has been a bit quicker than we might have anticipated, but there is still work to be done. Having a football championship game and two football divisions will help establish and reinforce our identity.
In terms of accelerating the process, we simply did everything we could to promote the new name and mark. Fortunately, we have great television exposure, which helps our branding. We enlisted the networks to help us, and they did. The name and logo are enjoying significant exposure that helps us reinforce our identity.”
After many years as an independent, Navy is now a conference member. What does their football success bring to the AAC and might you add Army in the future?
“It is hard to overstate how important Navy is. They have a wonderful tradition, including two Heisman Trophy winners. They are an extremely competitive program. (Athletic director) Chet Gladchuk has done a remarkable job. Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo have provided outstanding coaching and continuity. They have had strong leadership from Admiral Mike Miller, their retired superintendent who brought Navy into our league, and Admiral Ted Carter, the current superintendent, who has been incredibly supportive.
“Their football success adds a tremendous luster to our league. But the kind of institution they are and the kind of student-athletes they have are what really matter. As I have said many times, the Midshipmen are the best of the best. We love having them in our league.
In terms of Army, which of course is also a great national institution, they have said publicly that they wish to remain independent. If they decide that they want to explore joining a conference, we would be happy to talk to them. However, we have no plans to expand and we are happy with 12 teams and our two divisions in football, our 11 strong teams in basketball and our excellent Olympic sports. We like our geographic footprint, and expansion is not on our front burner at the moment.”
Making all bowl games relevant is one of the challenges for the Football Bowl Association. From a branding and recognition standpoint, what can be done so that football fans see all bowls being important in the different communities they serve?
“I think that each bowl game is already important in its respective community. The bowl games serve a useful purpose. They wouldn’t be there if they did not. They provide competition for student-athletes, a reward for a successful season. They have an impact on local communities in a lot of different ways and they give those communities a sense of pride. They provide an economic impact for just about every community that hosts a bowl game. Certainly we saw that with our own Miami Beach Bowl – we saw statistics that showed a tremendous economic impact.
“I think that the people in the bowl cities appreciate having the teams there. The number of bowls sometimes does get criticized, but I have no issue with it. If people don’t want to watch and support the games, the games would not exist. Television ratings have always been strong. Bowl Week is the biggest ratings week of the year for ESPN. Attendance is good. Bowls provide a great experience for our student-athletes, coaches and fans.”