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Rules of the Game
Mike Aresco, A72, F73, head
of programming for CBS Sports
You began your career as a lawyer.
How does a person go from practicing law to deciding what games
people watch on TV?
I didn’t plan on being in the sports business. In fact,
I knew nothing about it. I worked as a lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut,
for several years. I happened to meet somebody who was the director
of programming at ESPN. It was the early ’80s and not
everyone knew what ESPN was. We got to be friends and one day
he mentioned that there was an open position in the legal department
at ESPN and that I should apply. I did, and I got it. Shortly
after, I was at a party and a lawyer came up and told me that
I was crazy to accept it.
In the early days of ESPN, they hired people without television
experience. There was an entrepreneurial spirit at the company,
and everybody pretty much did everything. It’s one of
the great experiences of my career. It was like the Wild West.
You went out and acquired whatever programming you could find
just to keep it going. You had to fill 24 hours. In the early
days, a lot of my friends made fun of ESPN. They’d say,
“Oh you guys do tractor pulls and monster truck shows.”
You were instrumental
in CBS’ recent landmark agreement with the NCAA granting
exclusive rights to the men’s basketball tournament until
2014. What is unique about that deal?
It is probably the most comprehensive sports rights deal in
the history of TV. It’s not only a deal for the television
rights to the NCAA tournament, but also a deal that affords
us Internet rights, radio rights and corporate marketing rights,
which are very important, for they allow corporations to be
affiliated with the NCAA and to use their logos and do promotions
with the NCAA. The deal includes merchandise licensing, publishing
of game programs and other publications, fan festivals such
as Hoop City surrounding the tournament and events all year
round because we also acquired 65 or so other championships
besides the NCAA basketball tournament. We have archival rights,
and we have a joint promotional plan with ESPN. So this is as
comprehensive a deal as there is in sports.
When and how did the
NCAA tournament and college basketball in general become such
a success on television?
It started in the 1970s with the first prime-time telecast of
a championship game; it was the Memphis-UCLA game. It gained
momentum after that. The Final Four [the semifinals] gradually
grew in stature and is now widely viewed as the one of the best
days in sports. It really took off in the early 1980s. You had
the great Georgetown-North Carolina game in 1982 featuring Michael
Jordan’s last-second shot to win. And then the following
year there was the Jim Valvano game, when North Carolina State
won at the end and Jim was running around the court trying to
find his players. It was heartwarming. From then on there was
a series of great championship games.
How much input do you
and the network have in scheduling the tournament?
The tournament bracket, the one that everyone sees, is solely
the responsibility of the NCAA men’s basketball committee.
We have nothing to do with it. My job is to decide where the
games will air in the daytime, where the games will air in the
nighttime, and that’s the first big step. After that’s
done, I have a group of people who work with me, and we sit
and draw out maps that determine which parts of the country
each of the games will go in. That’s our job.
You have to make a lot
of quick decisions about switching simultaneous games. What’s
it like in the control room at those times and what goes into
that decision making?
It’s intense. Anyone who has ever been in the control
room can tell you that it’s probably unlike any other
experience in sports television. Those first two days are the
most difficult and the most exhausting because you’re
there from late morning until after midnight and once the day
ends you’re doing maps for the weekend. You have four
games in each time window. You have to be on the lookout for
games that are getting out of hand, because we like to switch
viewers quickly to a more competitive game; that’s our
philosophy. When we set up regions, we set up two regions for
each game, one with intense local interest and the other with
general interest. So every game—each of the four games
has two regions—has to be kept track of and sometimes
we’ll violate our own rule to get everyone to the end
of an exciting game. We stagger our starts so we try to make
sure that at some point everyone will see an exciting finish.
You don’t always get there, things happen; you have overtimes,
commercial contingencies. We have an enormous number of commercials
we have to get in, and there’s always the concern when
you’re switching back and forth that you want to make
sure you get people to the right games. You want to make sure
they see the end of each game, if possible, and you also want
to keep track of where you have the games and what percentage
of the country is on that particular game. We also have satellite
difficulties from time to time that we have to resolve.
The logistics of broadcasting,
especially the first 32 games from eight different sites within
two days, must be incredibly complex. What are some of the behind-the-scenes
problems that have occurred?
Sometimes you have a technical glitch, like when a commercial
comes in prematurely, but it doesn’t happen much because
our guys do a great job. We have hundreds of people working
on the logistics of the tournament. Any one site will have numerous
cameras. When you think about it, it’s amazing more doesn’t
How do college sports
differ from professional sports on television?
I think there is a sense of pageantry with college sports. There
is so much happening at the event and the enthusiasm of the
crowds brings an intensity to the games because there is an
amateur aspect that remains. You have a lot of controversy surrounding
college sports, no question about that. But they’re still
kids, they’re still amateurs. The NCAA tournament epitomizes
What about the critics
who charge that the commercialization of college sports is exploiting
College sports, especially big-time college sports, have always
been part of the fabric of this country. They are part of the
culture. When they are done right, they are a terrific vehicle
for bringing people together. The money itself is not, in my
mind, the issue. Our $6 billion deal is not a source of evil—it’s
what you do with the money that’s important. The colleges
are able, because of that money, to fund the NCAA, which sponsors
a wide range of intercollegiate athletic sports that they would
not be able to sponsor otherwise. The NCAA also sponsors programs
to deal with drug use, with gambling. There are seminars that
are now offered for women administrators. Yes, there are some
concerns, but we ought to be encouraging the notion that athletes
attending college is a good thing. For the most part, they are
student-athletes. It’s a term that a lot of people ridicule
but the fact is they gain a great amount from being on a campus.
When you watch the NCAA tournament and you get involved in college
athletics, you realize that it can be a great force for good
in this society. There are always going to be some issues, and
there are always going to be some people who don’t deal
with it correctly, but, by and large, the people I have dealt
with in the college community, and I have dealt with them now
for many years, are among the finest I have ever known.
Did you play or have
much of an interest in sports when you were at Tufts?
I played freshman baseball. I was a shortstop on the team. I
also played intramurals—football and softball. I was definitely
a sports fan during my time at Tufts. In retrospect, I regret
not playing varsity baseball. But I was absolutely a sports
fan in those days and I enjoyed attending games at Ellis Oval.
Do you have any other
non-sports memories or people you recall fondly from your years
I remember there was a real sense of community at Tufts in those
days, and I’m sure there still is. I remember people like
Sol Gittleman and how he was such a dynamic and nice man. I
remember Seymour Simches and Nancy Roelker—a terrific
teacher in the history department. And Bob McKeon, who was a
professor of history. I took an independent studies course with
a friend, Jim Smith, who was a year ahead of me. We would go
to Dr. McKeon’s home [he lived on campus] for sessions
from time to time, and he would spend as much time as possible
with us. I just remember thinking that the professors really
cared about their students. You know, you hear a lot about some
of the larger universities where graduate assistants teach the
courses and that sort of thing and the professors are busy publishing.
But Tufts had a terrific faculty that was keenly interested
in the students. And I really liked the people; they were among
the brightest people I’d met. There was also a tremendous
sense of humor among the people I knew. Of course, in those
days, there was the issue of the Vietnam War so there was always
plenty of controversy to talk about. Again, it was a nice place
What advice do you have
for the next round of Tufts graduates interested in going into
My first piece of advice would be to get a solid, broad education.
The ability to speak intelligently on a lot of topics and to
communicate well is critical. Second, although sports television
can be an exciting and rewarding way to make a living, you have
to think of it in terms of a job. It is not as glamorous as
people think. Some days are not all fun and games, no pun intended.
For me it’s never been boring in 20 years and you really
do feel part of something. But you have to be aware that there
is going to be an apprenticeship with a lot of the jobs when
you start that are low-paying and involve a lot of hours. You
also have to decide what areas of sports you want to be in.
I am in programming and I deal with our broadcast properties,
which now include more than simply television rights. I am involved
with acquiring and managing events, and selecting and scheduling
games. That is one part of the business. There are also people
who produce the events, the people behind the scenes. There
are also people in sports finance, operations and sports as
sales with whom we work really close. Others are involved in
the promotion of our network and the sports product that we
have. So there are all sorts of different kinds of jobs in sports.
But what I would recommend is that students look to internships.
It is a great way, in any field really, to get involved. If
you intern, people get to know you, and when hires are made,
you are much more likely to be chosen over someone they didn’t
know. For example, Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports,
started as a production assistant at ABC Sports. Sometimes you
are going to be fortunate and you are going to be able to start
at a higher level because of some experience you have. A lot
of times this comes from having graduate school experience,
whether it’s business school or law school. It certainly
doesn’t hurt and it gives you a tremendous range of opportunities
that you might not have otherwise, especially if you want to
become one of the top executives in a sports division or a media
company. In the long run, having a sound education is still
the best thing.
Where do you go from
I don’t know. I am really happy with what I’m doing.
I guess I feel very fortunate because I enjoy what I do. It’s
a privilege to be part of the NCAA tournament and to be part
of CBS Sports.
This interview won’t
be published until after March Madness. Who is your pick to
win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament?
I really shouldn’t answer that. I will hedge and say that
I like the chances of a team like Kentucky, which is playing
very well, and certainly an Arizona. For a sleeper, I think
that Illinois might be a factor and you never rule out a Duke
or a Maryland in this sort of thing. You know, just any number
of teams could win. There are probably 20 or 30 teams that can
beat anyone on any given day and the reason the event is so
great, one of the many reasons, is that it is single elimination.
Every night a team plays it’s life or death, and there’s
a drama and intensity that you just don’t get anywhere
else. And we’ve had 15 seeds defeat 2 seeds. We are still
waiting for a 16 seed to beat a number 1 seed, but it’s
almost happened. That’s what makes it interesting.