ROSEMONT, Ill. — After decades as a media and professional sports executive, Tony Petitti will implement a leadership style rooted in innovation and collaboration to the Big Ten Conference.
Introduced Friday as the seventh commissioner in Big Ten history, Petitti previously served as president of sports entertainment at gaming company Activision Blizzard, following a 12-year run at Major League Baseball, where he was chief operating officer and deputy commissioner of business and media. Among his roles at MLB, Petitti helped grow the organization’s digital and MLB Network content.
The 60-year-old takes over a job that University of Illinois chancellor Robert Jones described as the “most important, most prestigious and most sought-after role” in college athletics. Petitti succeeds Kevin Warren, who departed after only 3½ years to become Chicago Bears president and CEO (Warren attended Friday’s introduction along with several athletic directors and media executives).
“You have to spend a lot of time thinking about something — that’s where the best ideas come from,” Petitti told ESPN. “When you see things start to sort of take off a little bit, that’s when you really gravitate and put a lot of effort in. I use the word doubling down. That’s what I tried to do in other places. So when you see something working, you do more of it or you expand on it, because you’re given an opportunity.”
He cited the Big Ten’s success in the most recent NCAA women’s basketball tournament and a need to get ahead on the next season, rather than waiting for March to come around. At MLB, he helped orchestrate special events like the “Field of Dreams” game to “drive interest and create excitement” around the sport.
“The experiences I’ve had throughout my career have shown me that the best way to protect the core values of an organization are to embrace change, to innovate and to build consensus,” he said.
Petitti listed four immediate priorities in taking over as commissioner: integrating new Big Ten members USC and UCLA in 2024; participating in the College Football Playoff expansion process and the next media rights agreement; name, image and likeness rights and legislative matters; and completing and executing the Big Ten’s new seven-year, $7 billion media rights agreement with FOX, CBS and NBC.
University of Maryland president Darryll Pines oversaw the Big Ten commissioner search and said more than 100 applicants were considered, including other conference commissioners and athletic directors. Petitti’s media experience jumped out as one of several advantages in his background. He’s the latest major conference commissioner hire from outside college athletics, joining Warren (Minnesota Vikings), Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff (MGM Resorts International) and Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark (Roc Nation).
“It gives us an advantage,” Pines told ESPN. “He knows media executives personally. You can be in media and not actually know. He’s worked at so many different places — ABC CBS, NBC sports. All those people know him or know of him. He’s gotten media deals on the other side of the fence, so he knows how the negotiations work. We’ve got the best of all worlds. We’ve got a savvy executive who understands the intercollegiate footprint, who loves the opportunities for the student-athlete.
“We think we’ve got the best person to go forward and lead the Big Ten and also potentially lead us to a new era.”
Petitti has never worked directly in college athletics before, but assisted on media agreements while serving as an executive with CBS, NBC and ABC. Petitti helped launch the Bowl Championship Series for college football’s postseason, collaborating with then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, longtime Big Ten commissioner and others.
Although the Big Ten announced its media agreement in August, Petitti will be heavily involved in its completion and implementation.
“It’s a huge part, it does so many things,” Petitti said. “It’s revenue, it’s reach, it’s branding, it means something to the student-athletes and their families to see their sons and daughters play on the biggest stages. All that matters. So you have to think about that every single day, it’s just the way it is.”
Petitti played baseball for Division III Haverford College. He supports athletes’ ability to profit off of their name, image and likeness but advocated for federal legislation around NIL rather than differences on the state level. Petitti alluded to a lack of understanding about what would go into a model where athletes are employees of universities.
“Just like the prior generations of student athletes, this generation will need different things and different levels of support, they might need different benefits,” Petitti said. “That’s already under way and happening, so you can embrace all of that change without having to really change the actual model. That’s the sweet spot of what we’re trying to do — recognize what student-athletes need going forward, but also preserving the core of what these institutions think their mission is.”
Petitti takes over the Big Ten after a turbulent stretch, which included the cancellation and resumption of the 2020 football season, prompting public criticism of Warren from certain corners of the conference. After working at MLB, Petitti hopes his experience will translate to building and sustaining relationships around the league.
“Working in a league office, you’re dealing with, in our case, 30 teams: 30 team owners, 30 baseball operations departments, 30 ticketing departments,” he said. “Your job is to be a resource for every one, while also bringing ideas of how they can work together in maybe ways that they weren’t before. So that communication process is very similar to this structure.”