The lord of college basketball these days is not Dean Smith or Bob Knight. He's Dave Gavitt, commissioner of the Big East Conference.
As every coach knows, you can only accomplish so much down on the floor with a clipboard in your hand. You have to get the players first, and to do that, it helps a lot if you control television. This is where Gavitt performs an emphatic slam dunk. Not only did the former Providence coach create the Big East seven years ago as the first made-for-TV basketball league, he also made television serve him, not vice versa. As Iowa coach George Raveling ruefully admits, "Kids are going east because of the TV exposure. A kid in Los Angeles can come home from school at 4 p.m., then watch Syracuse play Georgetown on TV."
How can Gavitt and the Big East prosper when college hoops are overexposed on the tube and the TV market is generally in flames? For one thing, the Big East's territory encompasses 25% of the nation's TV homes and five of the top 12 markets. For another, Gavitt is a shrewd and calculating TV negotiator, light-years ahead of his peers in, say, the Big Ten or SEC. This season Gavitt has five—count 'em, five—different TV deals working. He started an over-the-air Big East network that carries conference games back to the participating teams' markets. By next year it will bring in more than $1 million. The USA Cable Network carried nine conference games, while ESPN had 18 regular-season games and will also carry the conference tournament. Last month Gavitt signed a three-year, $3.6 million agreement with ESPN that begins next season. The Big East also had games on NBC and CBS. Last May Gavitt sweetened the league's contract with CBS, signing a three-year, $14.5 million deal that will put more Big East games than ever on network TV, beginning next season.
The 48-year-old, 5'9" fireplug really held CBS's feet to the fire on this one. Gavitt timed the negotiations so that he could play on the network's fear of losing the Big East to NBC, which had just signed the ACC. "CBS couldn't afford not to buy us," Gavitt says. "The fear was that if NBC got both us and the ACC, where did that leave CBS?" What CBS gave him was a national game of the week each Saturday and a total of 24 appearances a year (an intraconference game, such as St. John's vs. Georgetown, counts as two appearances). Gavitt did pay a price, however, volunteering to keep Big East games off all other forms of TV from noon to 7 p.m. on CBS weekends. But the national coup was worth it. Some other conferences now will find their national exposure (read recruiting) shrinking.
Partly because they're jealous of the Big East's deal, the Pac-10, Metro and other conferences are urging that the NCAA tournament be divided after this year between CBS, the current rights holder, and NBC. But Gavitt has floor position there, too, because his connections with the NCAA and CBS are well oiled. Until 1984, as the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, Gavitt worked closely with CBS. And in 1983, as chairman of the NCAA TV negotiating panel, he hammered out the current tournament contract with CBS. By the way, CBS's top college sports execs, Kevin O'Malley and Len DeLuca, are Boston College graduates. Three guesses which conference BC belongs to.
Besides being lord of the hoops, Gavitt is a walking, talking conflict of interest. He serves as a commentator on his own local Big East package, on a number of NCAA-produced tournament games that will appear next week on ESPN and some over-the-air stations, and on still other tournament games carried by CBS Radio through Host Communications. Having the commissioner of the Big East comment on games involving Big East teams is like having the president of Pepsi-Cola conduct a Pepsi-Coke taste test.
Gavitt admits to the conflict, then shrugs. He is known at the networks as a fun guy, a genuine hail-fellow-well-met, yet a tough negotiator. For example, he has been known to take phone calls at key moments in negotiations just to show the network execs who's boss. Gavitt also makes it a point never to work on a TV deal in a network's offices. He insists on using his hotel suite. "It's psychological," he says, "plus you never know what's going on if you're in their building. I've heard stories about NCAA football negotiations where somebody during a caucus got up to go to the bathroom, walked down the hallway, looked in the room next door, and there was a guy with a stethoscope against the wall."