The Big 12 Conference just hired … a commissioner?

When Bob Bowlsby announced his retirement back in April, the league went head hunting for help.

It needed to find “The Greatest Showman.” It needed a money man.

The conference focused on a Madison Avenue marketing guru, a guy with NBA sales experience who understands the science of sponsorships, how deals are made, and someone who could speak the language of big-time corporate capitalism.

The Big 12 presidents believe they have exactly that in the hire of Brett Yormark.

This is a guy who has one proven talent: he’s a mega deal-maker.

Yormark, folks say, never sleeps. His days begin at 4 a.m. Some say he gets more done in a day than many do in a week.

Moving his Rolodex requires a two-wheeled dolly.

“In Brett Yormark, we have chosen a highly adaptable leader who thrives in dynamic times. The landscape of college athletics is evolving to look more like the world Brett has been leading,” said Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec, the chair of the Big 12 Conference board of directors.

Yormark will step into an immediate challenge. Texas and Oklahoma are leaving. The FBS could break away from the NCAA, and Thursday we learned that UCLA and USC will be moving out of the Pac-12 and into the Big Ten after the Sooners and Longhorns depart.

He can be a poacher or be poached. He has the possibility of making a huge move right out of the chute. Could he entice Utah, Arizona, ASU and/or Washington to bolt the Pac-12?

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During his first two years working as a marketing executive for NASCAR at age 29, he acquired $10 million in sponsorship deals with drivers, car owners and racetracks. He opened a NASCAR office on Park Avenue in New York City and brought car racing marketing to the financial center of the world.  

In 2003, he brought NASCAR the largest naming rights deal in the history of American sports, a 10-year, $750 million deal with Nextel. He then added a 10-year fuel sponsorship with Sunoco worth about $90 million.

When the New Jersey Nets moved to Brooklyn, owners brought Yormark back to help do the impossible. In short order, he found a $20 million deal with Barclays to elevate the franchise and arena.

His recent work with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, an entertainment agency, has been more of the same.

Yormark could be a bust. But he could bring the Big 12 some big-time deals

This is a time in college sports when traditional approaches aren’t getting it done. What is it that needs doing? Chasing money that the Big Ten and SEC have proven is out there.

Bowlsby is to be saluted for his career. He played the traditional role as a conference commissioner, doing the political dance with university presidents, the NCAA, bowl committees, corporate sponsors and TV folks.

During his tenure, Bowlsby grew up in a certain culture. He was hip-deep in education and academic types who got a taste of big-time sports business in the late ’80s and were addicted.

These traditionalists got hooked on the big TV money and then kept bumping into the NCAA like blindfolded frat boys in suits and ties. Bowlsby’s peers were comprised of a mix of other loyal educational traditionalists trying to abide by rules and another band of back-stabbing pirates looking for the next hidden treasure.

The latter group would sit down over dinner and cocktails one night, then steal teams from the others in secret backroom deals the next.

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A lot of university presidents, chancellors and conference presidents are the best of guys, but some are naive and don’t really understand the underbelly of business deals, hedge fund sharks, mega marketing deals, the potential of ever-changing streaming platforms and social media. Yormark can hire lieutenants who can speak the NCAA lingo.

The new Power Five leagues require vision and deal-making.

The Pac-12 understood this when it experimented with the hire of former pro tennis player Larry Scott. He was the wrong outsider. The league corrected this by replacing him with another outsider, former MGM marketing genius George Kliavkoff.

But now Kliavkoff is commander of the Pac 12 Titanic. Yormark can be the Coast Guard.

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With the Big 12 losing Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, the conference needed to hire someone who could peek behind the curtains of what really happens in real-world big-time capitalistic business. Yormark can leave educators to their own kingdoms.  

The Big 12 went looking and hired a guy almost every athletic director had never heard of.  It is because he didn’t come from the faculty lounge or the bowl director/athletic director/commissioner class.

Yormark is what the new Big 12 needs in years to come. The Big 12 will be looking at a new TV contract in 2024.  

Yormark is a dealmaker with corporations on speed dial.

A Big 12 logo is seen on an end zone marker during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Ames, Iowa. BYU will be joining the league in 2023. | Matthew Putney, Associated Press
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