As many UConn Husky fans well know, Michael Aresco ’76 is the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), the legal successor to the old Big East, which Aresco was hired to head up in August 2012. The AAC could hardly have chosen a more qualified person to get the new conference up and running. Since joining ESPN’s legal department in 1984, Aresco has become one of America’s most influential leaders in sports television programming and collegiate sports.
Aresco’s extraordinary career got its start at a “chance meeting” with an ESPN programming executive while Aresco and his wife, Sharon, were out to dinner in Hartford. “He (the programming executive) was an outgoing fellow…and a really nice guy, and we became friends,” recalls Aresco, a graduate of Tufts University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “Not too long after we met, he told me about an open legal position at ESPN, so I interviewed and got the job. At the time, there were lots of people who thought ESPN was going under — and that I was making a terrible mistake going there.”
Some mistake. For the next twelve years, Aresco would be a key player in ESPN’s extraordinary growth, both as a member of the legal department and, subsequently, in the programming department, where he was responsible for overseeing the acquisition, scheduling and development of long-term strategies for all ESPN and ESPN2 college sports properties, as well as for programming a wide variety of sporting events. “The first deal I ever did for ESPN was NFL Arm Wrestling,” says Aresco, chuckling. “I also programmed college football and basketball, horse racing, tennis, boxing, yachting, bodybuilding, Australian Rules Football, Canadian Football, and the Calvary Stampede Rodeo. It was like the Wild West; you picked up anything you could, including wrestling — the fake stuff.”
While Aresco was thoroughly enjoying his work at ESPN, an “out of the blue” phone call led to an offer to join CBS as vice president of programming, where, from 1996 to 2012, his responsibilities included programming of all college sports and overseeing the acquisition and management of CBS Sports college properties, including the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship and regular and post-season football and basketball. Aresco also played an integral role in the 2010 deal that created the CBS Sports-Turner Broadcasting partnership — a deal that led to the acquisition of the rights to broadcast the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship through 2024. “I was very fortunate to work with two organizations on the rise,” explains Aresco. “ESPN was still an upstart in those early days and I was able to participate in their growth and understand how a company grew and prospered. I joined CBS just a few years after they had lost the NFL and were not considered the sports network they once had been. I was heavily involved helping to build them back up, particularly on the collegiate side.”
Clearly, Aresco’s experience in the college athletic arena was the driving force behind the Big East’s efforts to bring him on board in the summer of 2012. “I had a great situation at CBS, but I was open to a new challenge,” Aresco explains. “I was only going to leave for something I really, really wanted to do” — like head up a major athletic conference.
For his first few months on the job, Aresco focused on rejuvenating the Big East brand after the conference had lost some big-name teams and was hit hard by realignment. Before long, the situation would become more chaotic as the Catholic 7 — the conference’s non-football-playing schools — opted out of the conference and negotiated to keep the Big East name. “We decided to start our new league in 2013-2014 and have the Catholic 7 go out on their own right away,” adds Aresco. “That way we could immediately begin rebranding as the American Athletic Conference.”
The wisdom of that decision — coupled with TV deals with ESPN and CBS Sports for AAC football and basketball — has been proven out by the success the conference has had since formally beginning operations on July 1, 2013. “We had a remarkable inaugural year,” says Aresco. “Nobody could have ever predicted that we would beat the Big Twelve Champion in the Fiesta Bowl, go to the final of the NIT and win two national basketball championships.” (Way to go, Huskies!)
As Aresco looks ahead, he sees plenty more to be enthusiastic about. In 2015-2016, the AAC will be comprised of eleven all-sports members — including UConn, of course — as well as Navy in football. A football championship game will be launched in 2015 and the league also will stage its own post-season bowl game. “The key right now is that we need to create in the public’s mind that we are a power conference…and that we are knocking on the door to be one of the Power 5 conferences,” says Aresco. “We are getting the word out.”