Hickey: Turns out former B1G commissioner Kevin Warren might actually be a damn idiot
The best thing to happen to the City of Chicago in its quest to keep the Bears from relocating to suburban Arlington Heights is not its recent election of a new mayor.
It was the Bears hiring Kevin Warren as team president.
The Bears hired Warren away from the Big Ten with the intention of using his expertise in building a new stadium. But if his closing chapter as B1G commissioner is any indication, Soldier Field suddenly stands a chance against Arlington Park.
Or maybe Arlington Heights will still prove to be the big winner.
Village lawyers are surely brimming with confidence over their ability to work one over on Warren and squeeze some extra tax money from any deal with the Bears.
Warren is the apparent Earnest Byner of contracts — quite capable of fumbling a seemingly done deal near the goal line.
A B1G mess left behind
A Sunday report from ESPN’s Pete Thamel paints an incredibly sloppy picture of what was believed to be Warren’s crowning achievement as Big Ten commissioner: the league’s reported $7 billion media rights deal.
For starters, it’s not actually worth that much money.
Big Ten schools may be stuck returning as much as $70 million of that bill — $5 million per school — thanks to Warren’s apparent ineptitude.
Warren’s biggest error? Promising the 2026 Big Ten championship game to NBC even though he didn’t actually have the authority to do so.
The Big Ten’s media rights aren’t actually owned by the conference. They belong to the Big Ten Network, which is partially owned by FOX. Legally speaking, BTN is licensing its inventory out to CBS and NBC to make the league’s new media rights deal work.
Warren had no right to promise the Big Ten championship game to NBC. Such a deal would have to be arranged by FOX.
It defies belief that the person in charge of the Big Ten would be unaware of this while negotiating a contract worth 10 figures. Yet that may be what happened.
However, given the overall arrogance of his tenure, it feels more plausible Warren went ahead and made the deal figuring he could ask for permission later.
As a result of that action, the Big Ten has to give $40 million back to FOX.
But that’s not all.
Apparently, the full value of the contract with NBC is still in flux. Warren promised the network primetime games in November without actually consulting any member schools about doing so.
That might not seem like such a big deal. But in the Big Ten, it is.
B1G schools are famously averse to playing night games in November. The potential for temperature drops that make for a miserable fan and player experience is part of the reason that’s long been the case.
That’s why the Michigan-Ohio State game almost always kicks off at noon. And the few times it hasn’t, it’s been at 3:30 p.m.
Previous Big Ten TV contracts even included so-called “tolerances” that allowed schools to block games from being moved into a primetime window.
“NBC was surprised, and I was surprised,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel told Thamel. “We had not discussed, and I had not discussed with anyone in the league, to change the tolerances we had agreed upon years ago.”
Unsurprisingly, the NBC primetime plan is getting blowback from schools who would like to keep things the way they are. According to Thamel, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and others do not want to host night games in late November.
“There was a collective disappointment among coaches on how the night game issue was handled,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day told Thamel. “We were surprised when it emerged, and there was no consultation on the change with coaches as a group prior to the television contract being announced.”
It’s possible the addition of UCLA and USC will help fix the glitch. And it figures programs like Rutgers and Indiana might embrace those primetime slots if given the chance.
More than likely, the money will do the talking. It already is.
Michigan State and Penn State play on Black Friday this year. And Ohio State hosts Michigan State at night on Nov. 11, which is the latest calendar date for a night game at Ohio Stadium.
But primetime games aren’t the real issue here.
They’re just another piece of a picture showing that Warren is a poor fit for a leadership position.
Dictatorship is not leadership
There’s a certain type of leader that appears in a multitude of American businesses and institutions.
They see themselves as “disruptors.” And they have no use for input from the people they are in charge of leading. Those people are stuck in the old ways, unworthy of respect.
Decisions are dictated from the top down rather than cultivated and collaborated from the bottom up. It’s their way or the highway.
This is not actually leadership. It’s dictatorship — alienating and ineffective.
Warren is clearly an example of such a leader. And it’s been evident from the jump.
Warren elected to cancel the 2020 season over the protestations of Big Ten athletic directors. But as every other conference in the country figured out a way to safely conduct a season during the height of the pandemic, Warren was finally pressured to reverse course.
It happened again in 2022 when Warren went behind the back of supposed “Alliance” partner George Kliavkoff and crippled the Pac-12 by poaching USC and UCLA.
Adding the West Coast schools was a shoot first, ask questions later transaction. The details of how they would fit into the Big Ten’s travel plans for sports other than football could be worked out later. By people other than Warren, of course.
A real leader makes things easier for subordinates rather than more difficult. But such logistics were not Warren’s concern. The money was.
And the Big Ten will certainly be making money — albeit not as much as originally reported thanks to Warren’s bungling.
With that as the backdrop, it comes as no surprise that Big Ten coaches and ADs felt left in the dark.
The league’s most veteran coaches expressed frustration to Thamel with the lack of communication from the Big Ten office during Warren’s tenure.
“Some things I’d like to see with the new commissioner,” said Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, “[is] that there’s some transparency in working together.”
Izzo and other basketball coaches are concerned about the number of games that will be offered as streaming-only options in the new contract.
These are among the issues new commissioner Tony Petitti must wade through this summer. After all, the contracts begin to kick in this fall.
The depth of the problem must have come as some surprise to Petitti, who surely figured he was walking in to a mostly done deal.
Instead, he’s walking into the final indictment of Warren’s leadership.
It’s incredible that Warren didn’t tidy up the loose ends of his negotiation before his departure. This deal was his baby. And he didn’t see it through.
Is it incompetence, laziness, or short-sightedness? An obsession with “disruption” that comes at the cost of attention to detail? Or did he just figure “screw these people” and jet? There’s clearly no love lost from Big Ten ADs, and it would be no surprise if the feeling was mutual.
Who knows. At least it’s no longer the Big Ten’s problem.
Well, once the check back to FOX clears, anyway.