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New Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti Wants to Suit Needs of Conference’s Student-Athletes

May 15, 2023

The Tony Petitti era has begun. Monday, May 15, marks Petitti’s first official day as the seventh Big Ten Conference commissioner, following a short two-year stint by Kevin Warren, who left the role to become CEO of the Chicago Bears. Petitti, 62, comes with over four full decades of experience working in sports, even after playing baseball for NCAA Division III Havreford College in Pennsylvania. His first commissioner position comes at a turbulent time in college athletics.

“I understand that I begin my role as commissioner at a time in college athletics marked by incredible opportunity and historic change,” Petitti said during his introduction ceremony last month. “And I am fortunate to be in a conference that not only has remarkable traditions but has the current strength, unity and willingness to collaborate to effectively meet the challenges ahead.”

Big Ten brass introduced Petitti last month at the Big Ten Conference Center in Rosemont, Illinois. The conference boasted his accomplishments—launching the MLB Network in 2009, aiding CBS’ efforts to get NFL games in 1998, creating diverse youth and international expansion within Major League Baseball and becoming a 14-time Emmy winner. Petitti also created the Bowl Championship Series while working at CBS Sports.

University of Maryland President Darryll Pines served as chair of the Big Ten Commissioner Search Committee and explained its process. The committee included members of various conference executive committees, presidents, chancellors and an advisory committee. The conference selected TurnkeyZRG, a high-profile search firm hired to help universities find administrators and coaches. Pines explained they started their search by coming to a consensus on what the conference leaders wanted in a commissioner.

“We developed comprehensive position description that reflected not only requirements for the position but speak to the ideals and values of Big Ten Conference, Pines said. “These core values include academic excellence, athletic championships, institutional collaboration, community engagement and global reach.”

Committees first went into discovery, hopeful of finding candidates. Then came the recruitment phase where they sought nominations. The conference fielded over 100 applications and nominations, which they then vetted down to roughly 30 candidates. Committees then conducted Zoom interviews with about a dozen candidates before a final round of in-person interviews before Petitti stood out.

“Our members of council of presidents and chancellors were excited about the depth and experience and breadth of knowledge that Mr. Pettiti would bring to the job of Big Ten commissioner,” Pines said. “More over, in our interviews, he wowed us with knowledge of the challenges facing our industry, intercollegiate athletics and his track record of finding innovative solutions for complex challenges.”

Pines introduced Petitti, who shared appreciation for the position. He said his four years as a Division III baseball player showed him the power of academics and athletics within the student-athlete experience. Having already attended the Big Ten Women’s Golf Championships this spring, he vowed to continue the conference’s mission to provide resources and support for its 10,000 member student-athletes. At one point, he shared his belief that the best way to protect the conference’s core values is to embrace change, innovate and build a consensus. He referred back to the creation of the BCS as evidence of historic change.

“The Big Ten, the Pac 10 and the Rose Bowl, despite all that tradition, had the courage to change, despite all that tradition, and embrace the BCS,” Petitti said. “I think that same courage is necessary today.”

Petitti believes there’s a mandate for innovation to “protect the student-athlete experience.” As the amateur athletic model evolves, he believes the current generation of student-athletes requires a different level of support. He said they can embrace change without changing the foundational model. Petitti shared his goal finding the “sweet spot” of recognizing student-athlete needs going forward while preserving the missions within member institutions. He shared belief that athletes should be able to monetize their name, image and likeness. He also joined calls of federal legislation because, as he described it, the Big Ten is an ecosystem that competes across multiple states and championships. This requires  a national solution, he said, so a “state by state solution doesn’t make sense for something that competes the way that we do.”

The new conference commissioner also highlighted the power current student-athletes possess. He pointed to the rise of Caitlin Clark and Iowa into the National Championship game in March. Petitti said there’s a great opportunity to double down on momentum within women’s basketball to foster growth. He also referred to a social media post Clark made about the Master’s, which garnered millions of digital media impressions. The former college athlete wants to embolden engagement with potential future Big Ten athletes as the legacy media landscape changes. Petitti said he wants more time with conference staff members to roll out larger Big Ten initiatives.

Petitti was asked about football postseason expansion. He believes it’s a beneficial system where winners can be determined on the field while not detracting from the importance of the regular season. On the topic of expansion, he wants to ensure USC and UCLA are properly integrated into the Big Ten next year. Concerning possible further conference expansion, Petitti simply said it’s his job to ensure the conference strength into the future.

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