Last Updated on May 4, 2023
From a new media rights megadeal to westward expansion with two legendary athletic programs, the Big Ten is in an era of exciting and meaningful change. Those changes extend all the way to the top of the conference and its commissioner position.
On April 28 at the Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Ill., the Big Ten formally introduced Tony Petitti as its seventh commissioner in conference history. Big Ten athletic directors, the search committee, friends, media members and Petitti’s predecessor, current Bears president/CEO Kevin Warren, were in attendance as Petitti gave his opening remarks as the leader of the Big Ten and fielded questions from the media.
Petitti inherits a conference that has established its dominance in an ever-shifting college sports landscape. The Big Ten will welcome UCLA and USC in upcoming seasons and will kick off its seven-year, $7 billion media rights deal. Name, image and likeness, the expansion of the College Football Playoff and discussions about student-athletes and labor are additional issues that will have the Big Ten right at the center of discussions.
Here are five takeaways college sports fans should know from Petitti’s opening press conference:
Petitti Brings Impressive Resume to Big Ten
Succeeding Kevin Warren, who helped the conference navigate the pandemic, initial years of the name, image and likeness era and recent wave of conference re-alignment is no easy task. Petitti’s track record and range of leadership experiences should help make for a smooth and productive transition.
University of Illinois chancellor Robert J. Jones and University of Maryland president Darryll Pines explained their thorough vetting process of candidates, but stressed Petitti’s extensive experience in multiple aspects of the sports business, from his time as the chief operating officer of Major League Baseball to his role at Activision Blizzard as president of sports and entertainment, as an aspect that set him apart from the competition. Petitti also played a key role in the creation of the Bowl Championship Series, the predecessor to the College Football Playoff and a major development in college football history.
“It is clear that Tony is exactly the right person at the right time for the Big Ten Conference,” Jones said. “Under Tony’s leadership, we have a commissioner who will continue our enormous momentum.”
Embracing Change a Priority For New Regime
When asked about how his diversity of experiences could bring new insights to the role of Big Ten commissioner role, Petitti said it was too early to give specific examples, but gave a roadmap for how he plans to approach his new role given his background as an outsider to the conference.
“When you come in as a leader, you want to strike the right balance of understanding what the staff and colleagues do, but at the same time, there’s a mandate to innovate because we have to protect what is important here, which is the student-athlete experience,” Petitti said. “The way to do that best is to make sure we embrace the changes ahead and react to them.”
Petitti Discusses College Football Playoff Expansion, Draws Parallels to BCS
Last fall, half of the College Football Playoff finalists came from the Big Ten, so possible expansion is understandably a point of interest across the Big Ten landscape. It’s been a major part of Petitti’s itinerary so far, too, as he has already devoted time in his first weeks listening in on the College Football Playoff expansion meetings.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of excitement about the expansion and what it’s going to mean for the sport,” Petitti said.
Having worked on the creation of the BCS, Petitti sees parallels in how the new College Football Playoff system could increase the importance of the regular season.
“One thing about the BCS that was really great, and I think that will continue with the expanded College Football Playoff, is the ability to make the regular season still important. The goal of a great postseason is to make a great regular season better. I feel confident that the number that has been chosen will do exactly that.”
Petitti also expressed his desire to continue the momentum in women’s college basketball after a March Madness tournament that set records and captivated the nation.
Rethinking the Amateur Athletic Model Won’t Be Top Priority
After Jones raised the possibility of college athletics decision-makers “rethinking the amateur athletic model” in his opening remarks, Petitti clarified his own stance and said his priority will be “preserving the core” of the college athletics experience. He also said that any change on that front will require more than just the Big Ten Conference.
“I’m not sure people understand what all of that means going forward,” Petitti said about employee models. “I do recognize that just like prior generations of student-athletes, this generation will need different things. They’ll need different levels of support, they might need different benefits and that’s already underway and happening. You can embrace all of that change without having to change the actual model.”
Petitti was much more supportive of name, image and likeness and advocated for a “national solution” and infrastructure that expands beyond the Big Ten Conference.
“I think student-athletes, it’s clear they have the right to monetize their name, image and likeness, and I think that’s a good thing,” Petitti said. “Going forward, it’s more about what is that system going to be.”
Petitti Gives Insights into Record Media Deal
As a former executive at ABC and CBS Sports, Petitti will bring plenty of expertise into handling media rights and maximizing the conference’s broadcast potential with its new media rights deal.
“The content, the games, are what matters, and the platform is secondary, so if you have something that’s great, people will find that,” Petitti said.
Still, the media landscape has changed drastically from when Petitti worked with those two legacy media companies. Streaming and social media have become key components, and the Big Ten is hoping to be a major presence in those arenas as well.
“The legacy media companies are a huge important piece of what is going on,” Petitti said. “That’s the core of what we’re doing. Having said that, the key thing is to make sure these great games, the student-athletes, are on the platforms where young people want to be. It’s clear that young people want to share, they want to collaborate and have a conversation.”
“It’s really incumbent on all of us that we allow younger people especially to engage where they want to, and not be so rigid.”