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Q&A: Mike Aresco, American Athletic Conference commissioner

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

The Blue Jays have a worse record than any AL team except the Astros. (USATSI)
Mike Aresco's TV background helped him land a significant deal for the conference. (American Athletic Conference)

In a month, the American Athletic Conference will become official in the eyes of the NCAA (and for the sake of its financial records). As of now, the league is still technically the Big East, but commissioner Mike Aresco and his staff have been working overtime to expedite the "reinvention" process for the league.

I had a chance to sit down with Aresco for an hour in New York City on Thursday afternoon, shortly after the league released an important part of its makeover process: the logo. Aresco touches on topics including why his league couldn't keep the Big East name; the Rutgers lawsuit; why there will be more of an emphasis on getting better in football; the digital network to come; the site of the men's basketball tournament and more.

CBSSports.com: You've discussed the records issue, in terms of you'll be able to bring some stuff into your books. Can you extrapolate on that? When will the details of what can be brought and how you'll compile your initial record book be known?

Mike Aresco: Our teams will have their own records from wherever they came from. UConn's had a long history in the Big East, its championships. In terms of the league itself, the football is pretty easy because the Catholic schools didn't play football. We'll have our football history with the teams in the league. New teams coming in, obviously Conference USA will have theirs as well, but essentially we'll have to start fresh in that sense. It's going to be a little tricky. We're still trying to think about how we'll figure it out. When we made the Catholic settlement we had to divide intellectual property and we did it based on schools. For instance, if we had a series between Syracuse and UConn, we could use that. Georgetown and Syracuse, they could use that. In terms of how we'll do the records, we'll sit down and try to figure it out. We're reinvented but we're "new" in a lot of respects.

There's evolution all the time. When you join, you bring your records. The SEC considers George Rogers one of their own but South Carolina wasn't in the SEC when George played, yet he's one of their legends. We'll do that, too. We'll bring that history into our league.

CBSSports.com: "Reinvented" is one of your key words. You've used it a lot in previous interviews. Why is this the word you're making synonymous with this league's segue process?

MA: I want to be accurate. We're not new. We're the successor to the Big East. We're still the Big East conference until July 1. The Catholic group left. They had to get certified as an NCAA conference, which they did, and we thought they would, and we wanted them to. In our case, we're the core conference, we're the successor. All we're really doing in the eyes of the NCAA is changing our name. Because every conference has had changes in their core status. That's why I don't use "new" very much. I like to use reinvented because the Big East has had to reinvent itself a few times because of schools leaving, and it's done it successfully a few times. We think this will be a successful reinvention.

The rebranding, it's going to eventually create something different. Someone on the (conference) call today asked, "What did you have to do to go about getting your automatic qualifying status?" And I said, "We never lost it."

CBSSports.com: Take us back to the discussion of why and how the Big East name left with the Catholic 7 and didn't stay with this conference.

MA: We thought a lot about that and it was a big part of the negotiation. Given our druthers, we probably would have wanted to keep the name because it had so much equity over the years -- but we had serious mixed feelings about it. One, we knew we weren't going to be the old big East. The other group isn't the old Big East either, but they'll have to deal with that in their own way. Consequently, we had to figure out, OK, if we do keep the name, how are we going to deal with how we compare to what was the Big East, which had Syracuse and Pitt and all the tradition. Also, the old Big East had its issues with football in terms of how it's perceived, let's be honest. It wasn't always necessarily the best football brand; it was essentially known as a basketball brand and one of the best in the country.

Again, given our druthers, we probably would've kept it. On the other hand, we had serious misgiving because we knew we needed a new brand, a new identity, a fresh start. And we wanted to build football in this conference. Football is very important to revenue down the road. It identifies you in a way. Basketball, we think we're pretty much there. But in football, we think we can really build. So, consequently, we thought, "Is the Big East brand really the best brand to build our football?" We needed a fresh start. And what finally clinched it was getting the kind of financial settlement we got, which was the vast majority of what was left behind, in terms of revenue, was really important to the conference. We knew we weren't going to get the kind of TV money we would have gotten if not for all the instability. That does affect your TV money in some fundamental ways. So we knew the revenue would be important, would give some balance to the league and be important for the future.

Normally you would say, when someone breaks away, they're leaving. Why would they have claim to the name? Because of the agreement in place that allowed the Catholic 7 to leave as a group and have governance rights and rights to arbitrate the name down the road. It was a complicated situation. We had to negotiate every aspect of it, whether it was financial, whether it was Madison Square Garden, the office lease. It was part of one giant package. We had to be cognizant of the fact we were negotiating with each other; it was one conference. It was unprecedented. I could probably write three books on it.

In terms of the revenue, we thought that was really, really important. Sell to the public a new conference, but this gave us the best shot to be viable as a league.

CBSSports.com: You've said, "We feel the league is complete." The pragmatic view from the fan is that there are still fears and general concern over realignment. Should there be confidence the league you've assembled will look the same in 2020 as it looks in 2014? Clear examples: UConn and Cincinnati haven't been shy in the past about wanting to leave the old Big East to go into other leagues. That's a very big elephant in the room that still is standing there.

MA: I think that elephant is still there but it's edged toward the door. I think the ACC grant of rights has done the most to stabilize the situation. We know there are certain conferences that have enormous revenues, and we're going to build our conference to get closer to that model. We're obviously not there now. We're not shying away from any of the relates of the situation. We know there's a lot of talk about certain schools moving to those conferences and you can understand why they'd feel that way. But at some point you have say, "Look, I'm not going to worry about what might happen." I'm not a prophet. Nobody could've predicted Rutgers going to the Big Ten or Maryland going to the Big Ten. That was a complete shocker. We knew that was a double-whammy.

We think the landscape has stabilized and there's a pretty good chance things will stay stable for the foreseeable future. First of all, Cincinnati, Connecticut, others: They don't want to compete at a lower level. They don't want to relinquish any of the things they've gained. They want to make this conference the best conference they can, and they've bought in. Right now, this conference is committed to being a challenger. We're going to have to define who we are, and this is only the beginning. It was a little tougher for UConn because they lost so much of the teams they played with over the years.

CBSSports.com: What's the difference in the arrangement now than what the Big East had for so long?

MA: Everyone is aligned. Football, basketball, Olympic sports. That wasn't the case [in the Big East]. There was a definite tension, there was a definite misalignment of interests. That was ultimately one of the reasons why they left. When I joined the conference it wasn't what I signed up for. I didn't know -- nobody did -- that things were that fragile. In the first few months it looked like we made enormous progress. I think the national football model could've worked because football's different than basketball. Anyway, finally, when other schools were leaving, there was almost no presence left in the Big East. The Catholic schools felt buffeted by the football. They decided, "We're just small schools that just want to play basketball. It's how we're tailored." There was less and less of a commonality with those old schools. I think it would've been a stronger basketball league when you add the Catholic schools to Cincinnati, UConn, Memphis and Temple.

CBSSports.com: What about the odd-bedfellow situation currently with Louisville and Rutgers? You currently don't have either school displayed on the current beta version of the American's site. (Side note: Aresco has opted not to address the current Rutgers scenario and drama as a whole.)

MA: They will be on the website that launches on July 1; they're not on this one because we wanted it to reflect the future of the new league. In simplest terms, legally they're obligated to stay two more years. We think we'll settle it and figure it out. Rutgers has filed a lawsuit, which we obviously think has no merit. We'll deal with that. We're fighting that. I think it'll be relatively seamless. Syracuse and Pitt was seamless. Everything went fine, we supported them. We tried to part as friends. This job is fraught with risk, there's no question. Realignment is realignment and if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. There's not much that's going to prevent it and we're going to have to deal with.

I remember talking to (ACC commissioner) John Swofford at one of the BCS meetings in September. He said, "We have no interest in expanding." And I've known John for 30 years and he's never lied to me. He called me after the Maryland defection and said, "We're only going to take one school." A lot of people were speculating they might take three from us. He thought things were going to settle down and we might have a three-to-five-year down period. But even with all that, the Big Ten takes Rutgers and destabilizes the situation again.

CBSSports.com: A quick follow-up on Rutgers and Louisville. Is it fair to say you genuinely expect the segue to mirror how Syracuse and Pittsburgh left, or do you think it will be a little more challenging?

MA: It depends. On the legal side, we're not sure yet. With Louisville, we hope things are smooth. If we get all that settled and they stay one more year ... I don't think we'll have any problem at all. It's good to have them in for a year. Louisville's the defending national champion in basketball; they'll be favored in football. I think that'll all be positive.

CBSSports.com: As for the men's basketball tournament, how many venues are among your finalists, and can you name them? Plus, on the conference call it sounded like you hope to announce where the 2014 tournament will be played by the end of June.

MA: That's our goal. You remember the original sites. We had six or seven for men, we had three or four for women. It's been narrowed down, but everyone knows who the favorites are out there; people have been talking about it. We're having intense discussion with a couple of venues. It comes down to the final financial bids, venue issues. I think I can say this safely: We're going to end up in a good place where people want to go to. I think we'll have good crowds wherever we go. I think that's important. We know we've had a successful tournament in the Garden but that didn't make as much sense for us anymore. Still will be televised on ESPN, the Saturday night before Selection Sunday. 6 p.m., we think. Not yet certain.

CBSSports.com: You've also said it will likely be a one-year agreement for the league tournament to start. What's the methodology behind that?

MA: We feel it's too early to do anything long-term. We don't know what we want to do yet, so let's establish that, and after the one-year deal, we'll have two questions. For instance, if we go to the Palestra, we'll have to see if that really works. Or we might say, "OK, now we've got an entire year to see what we really want to do." At that point we might get a bid that we really can't refuse. Attendance is really important and having a dynamic presence is really important. We don't want to go somewhere, it not work, and then we're stuck.

CBSSports.com: Is this league going to put more emphasis/priority on football than basketball?

MA: I wouldn't say "priority." What I would say is there will be an emphasis on getting better in football. This league needs to be a powerful football conference as well as basketball. I think we have a pretty firm foundation in basketball; we're not going to neglect basketball by any means. But we know the potential for this league is in football. Basketball is interesting. There is a lot of revenue for basketball, but it's in the tournament. Regular season, while important, it doesn't have the importance as in football. We know, though, that football has to be an emphasis for our schools. We know football will drive more revenue down the road, without question, so we do things in football that other conferences won't do. We'll play Thursday and Fridays. We're sensitive to high school football, and SMU and Cincinnati on Friday might not work. But we provide windows that are hard to fill for ESPN. The SEC doesn't play many Thursdays, but we're willing to play a fair number. But is basketball going to take a hit? No way. Eventually an identity will be based on what we do. PR can't replace performance.

CBSSports.com: Can you expound on the details of TV for college basketball and football? You've said 113 basketball games will be part of the ESPN package. Are some/a lot of those games cloaked in going to ESPN3, or will nearly all be on television?

MA: All 113 will be on TV, though some of them can be sublicensed to networks that have, for instance, over 74 million homes. They'll do a deal perhaps with other networks. In football, 58 out of 66 this year, and will be more in future years. Only a handful of football games will be on ESPN3 or regionals.

CBSSports.com: You've mentioned how the American will be an "innovative" league. Can you be more specific about that innovation over the next two, five, 10 years?

MA: Well, first of all, look at our logo. I think it's quite different. I think we will try to do things, as we play the games, with our TV partners. Different kinds of access, whether it's locker rooms or access to coaching. We're looking at scheduling, like the Friday nights, and schedule the way that's friendly to TV but doesn't hurt our student-athletes. The other thing we're going to do in this league is look at academic exchanges among our schools and look at our digital network, to make sure it involves the entire university. We want to be a force in governance and take a hard look at how the NCAA operates. In terms of the College Football Playoff, we want to have a voice and have ideas about how that should be structured. We want to make sure we're out front and a force. We're going to have to do things differently and we know it.

CBSSports.com: Do you have timelines on when football and basketball schedules will be released?

MA: Basketball I'm not certain; it may be a little while for that. Football we should have a good idea soon.

CBSSports.com: Is it fair and reasonable to call this a truly major conference right now? Let's put you back as a TV executive. If the American came to you, would you consider it as a major conference? Or is more on the level, right now, of being at what the Atlantic 10 has been for many years, just a notch below?

MA: Perception is not up to us, though we are trying to shape. I think we are a major conference. Going into this season we have five tournament teams and could easily have six or seven. In football, if you look at our nonconference schedule, we're playing 15, 16 against major-conference teams. UCF is playing Penn State next year -- they may play that game in Ireland. We consider our football really good and we think, if you look at the old Big East, which was one of the Big Six, we think we easily have the potential to be a better football conference.

CBSSports.com: What about calling this league "the American"? Who came up with that and how important is that to identifying and rebranding this league?

MA: We felt this was a solid, durable name. I suggested that we didn't want to be the AAC. I realized that could cause confusion with the ACC, and I didn't want to pretend to be something that we're not. We wouldn't want to be accused of encouraging that kind of confusion in any way. I thought we should be called "the American" because it rolls off the tongue, is easy to remember, and how can you take issue with the term "American"? It felt bigger than the other names we were talking about. It wasn't gimmicky and wouldn't be outdated in five years.

CBSSports.com: No number attached to it.

MA: You know, we trademarked a bunch of names. We thought about "America One" at one point. But a lot of our members didn't want any kind of numeral. We also found that younger people really liked the name when we were doing a lot of testing with the name. We also found it was funny a lot of conferences haven't used "America" or "American" to their advantage.

CBSSports.com: Can you share the finalists for what other names the conference could've been?

MA: We thought about calling it the "Metro" or "Metropolitan," some version of that. We talked about "National" but we thought that suggested geography, whereas "American" suggested values. We also came up with versions of "Collegiate." Names like "Liberty" and others that we thought didn't sound big enough. At one point we had 200 names. We needed a name that would identify us as a major conference. Name means something and the logo means something going forward.

CBSSports.com: Is there a timeline and details on when the digital network will launch?

MA: We're talking with our partners now and working with longform agreements. We're going to build out a true digital network and try to develop other programming (outside of games) for it. It's going to take a few years to build out. Soon. In terms of the actual launch of it, I can't tell you yet.

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