When the Big Ten officially unveiled Tony Petitti as their new commissioner nearly a month ago, he identified four immediate priorities in his role as one of the most powerful people in college sports.
The league needs to integrate USC and UCLA for the 2024-25 season, review the new media rights deal for the expanded college football playoffs, and focus on the thorny issue of name, image and likeness.
Finally, Petitti prioritized official closing of the massive $7 billion+ television deal that his predecessor, Kevin Warren, had negotiated. The matter appeared to be a formality, but complications arose shortly after he accepted the job.
Almost three months before the start of the season and the start of those TV deals, the Big Ten still haven’t received full deals, including the fine print. Instead, according to multiple sources, Petitti is engaging in significant “horse-trading” to secure the NBC primetime deal and figure out what the network describes as “open issues” in order to preserve as much value as possible.
“These deals are ongoing and they are not what they were presented from the standpoint of the NBC deal and the availability of all members to attend the November games in prime time,” said an industry source.
Interviews with nearly a dozen sources in and around the Big Ten and the college sports industry paint a picture of Petitti sprinting to deal with details his predecessor left unresolved.
As a result, there are a slew of dissatisfied sporting directors watching money disappear from their winnings, frustrated television executives and big-name coaches resenting the lack of transparency about details not shared with them.
Kevin Warren took over as Big Ten commissioner in January 2020, and in just three years at the helm, he navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, helped bring USC and UCLA into the conference in a landscape-changing deal, and secured the giant TV payday before returning to the NFL as team president and CEO of the Chicago Bears.
When he accepted the job, he said he would leave the Big Ten in a “demonstratively better position,” which is financially true since their schools promise more revenue over the contract term than any other league. His work of adding USC and UCLA to join the conference after the 2023-24 season was widely praised by members and gave the television deal a financial boost.
Things are a little busier on campus. Big Ten schools have seen potential revenue disappear in recent months from a contract that was announced back in August and is expected to average nearly $1 billion a year through the 2029 football season. In total, more than $70 million has suddenly circulated — nearly $5 million per school — and it has administrators across the league looking for answers and calling for financial accountability.
Schools recently found:
They have to pay back nearly $40 million to Fox because Warren delivered the Big Ten football title game in 2026 without having full authority to do so, according to NBC sources. This all came against the complicated backdrop that the Big Ten conference didn’t actually control the rights to the inventory of this latest deal — the Fox-majority-owned Big Ten Network did. (More on that below.)
They have to pay a total of $25 million for a deal to pay Fox back lost stock of soccer games in 2020. This comes after an agreement between Fox and the conference, which was unable to match lost revenue from the COVID-19 season.
The value of the tens of millions of dollars in NBC primetime deal is on the wane as Petitti struggles to ensure it retains as much of its original value as possible. Historically, schools in the Big Ten were not required to host night games after the first weekend of November for a myriad of reasons — including health, recreation and campus logistics. These were referred to in league circles as “tolerances” and stemmed from previous television contracts.
Multiple sources told ESPN that there had been opposition from a number of schools, including Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, to playing those games under the new contract in late November. So Petitti must figure out how to keep a hundreds of millions of dollars deal for prime-time games without some of the league’s top teams cooperating for part of the most important month of the regular season.
Athletic departments and coaches around the Big Ten say they are surprised November evening games would be part of the deal. According to the sources, they were neither asked for permission to play nor informed of the change prior to the deal. At the same time, it wasn’t until well after NBC signed its first deal this summer that it became clear that these major brand schools had historical tolerances that were part of previous television deals that would resist availability.
“NBC was surprised, and I was surprised,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said. “We hadn’t spoken about it, and I hadn’t spoken to anyone in the league about changing the tolerances we agreed on years ago.”
However, there was an expectation in the industry that given the scale of the deal, all schools would play in prime time.
“The fault here lies with the administrators on campus,” said another industry source. “How did the presidents, chancellors and sporting directors not know that? The universities have all signed the deal.”
While this is being worked out, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State recently agreed on concessions to make short-term sacrifices and help the league recoup some lost revenue from the NBC deal.
Penn State will play Michigan State away on Black Friday in a short week, a game that was scheduled before Penn State agreed to it. Ohio State hosts Michigan State on Nov. 11, Ohio State’s last ever home game in history, which is seen as another concession to help the league during this time.
“That’s what he’s getting into right now,” another industry source said of Petitti. “Tony is trying to save it, and what Penn State and Ohio State are actually doing is minimizing casualties.”
Warren did not respond to requests for comment.
“We’re excited to begin our Big Ten deal this fall,” an NBC Sports spokesperson told ESPN. “We had a great relationship with Kevin Warren and also with Tony Petitti. We are confident that any outstanding issues are on track to be resolved.”
A full understanding of the deal Warren brokered with NBC, CBS, and Fox begins with a bizarre twist: The Big Ten didn’t technically own the rights. (Hence the tension over Warren using the Big Ten title game without Fox’s permission.)
When the Big Ten announced their long-term television deal with Fox and ESPN in 2016, the announcement didn’t include all the details. One of the things that wasn’t discussed about the new deal at the time, or for the past several months, was it announced that the Big Ten Network had acquired all of the league’s programming rights back in 2016 at an undisclosed date. The length of that 2016 deal with the Big Ten Network is at least extended by the current deal announced for the 2029-30 season.
This relationship was well known to sports directors, television executives from competing networks, and officials from other leagues, although not publicly disclosed. It has been made public at various times, including in April 2022, Sports Business Journal reported that two senior Fox executives were in the room when various media companies – ESPN, Amazon, NBC and others – engaged with the league over their television packages met .
Essentially, this also meant that the Big Ten’s recent round of television deals were effectively sublicensing deals, with both the Big Ten Network and Fox essentially controlling the rights and working with the Big Ten to sublicense them. This meant that much of the contract value had already been sold.
“It was a joint negotiation where the conference and FOX worked together and struck deals with these other networks,” said an industry source. “Both needed each other to close deals.”
This factor is key to understanding the problems Petitti faces. There are two new partners — NBC and CBS — trying to finalize their long-term deals. There’s a trusted partner, Fox, driving the shotgun on this bumpy ride, including upset Warren has promised a title game Fox controls without permission.
The league and Fox were also in talks with Amazon about the deal, which ultimately went to NBC, but sources say there was resistance from key campus stakeholders after some time that some of the biggest brands were unwilling to be part of a fixed-price package only be available in streaming. That was the impetus to get as much money as possible from NBC.
And the league is about to decide a potential bonus for Warren, who didn’t have a bonus clause tied to a television deal in his contract. Warren’s predecessor, Jim Delany, received a bonus of more than $20 million in 2017, and he’s still getting paid for leading the negotiations that saw all the rights sold that decade. (The bonus was included in Delany’s contract before the deal.)
The league hired an outside search company, Korn Ferry, to determine if Warren’s work on that television contract should earn him a bonus.
What is certain is that, despite its size, the Big Ten television deal left many coaches in the league unsatisfied.
In a Big Ten Zoom call with Warren and the league’s men’s basketball coaches this summer after the deal was announced, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo criticized Warren for a lack of transparency and consultation on the deal, according to sources.
Izzo recently said coaches weren’t consulted by the league before the deal: “One thing about coaches is you almost ask the wrong people because we’re the last ones to know,” Izzo told ESPN.
Izzo added that he has “concerns” about the number of games that will only be available via streaming and said it was one of his first questions for Petitti as “that wasn’t discussed with us”. [coaches] at all.”
“Those are some things I’d like to see with the new commissioner, that there’s some transparency in how we work together,” Izzo said.
Izzo’s concerns echo among the rest of the Big Ten coaches, with Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann adding, “In order for our league to continue to grow and evolve in this new era, I think that at least the veteran coaches like[IzzoandPurduesMattMaler)shouldhaveadirectlineofcommunicationandavoiceintheconversation”
Ohio State football coach Ryan Day echoed Izzo’s views on communication and transparency.
“There was a collective disappointment among the coaches at how the night game issue was being handled,” Day said. “We were surprised when it came out and there was no consultation with the coaches as a group about the move before the television deal was announced.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Borzello.