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Mike Aresco has been called “one of the most important men on the planet,” but don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard his name before. As senior vice president of programming for CBS Sports, he’s the man behind the scenes of March Madness—the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship that keeps millions glued to their televisions. He’s also one of the people who helped land the unprecedented
$6 billion contract with the NCAA in 1999, guaranteeing CBS the exclusive rights to the championship through 2013. Aresco came to CBS from ESPN. He graduated from Tufts in 1972 with a degree in history, from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1973 and from the University of Connecticut Law School in 1976. Aresco, who lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons, spoke with Paul Sweeney, the sports information director at Tufts, just before the start of March Madness.(Photo by John Filo/CBS)
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 go wrong.

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 this.

What about the critics who charge that the commercialization of college sports is exploiting the athletes?
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 at Tufts?
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 to be.

What advice do you have for the next round of Tufts graduates interested in going into sports media?
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 here?
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.