Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren among finalists for Bears president, CEO job: Sources

By Matt Fortuna, Adam Jahns, Nicole Auerbach, Max Olson and Dan Pompei

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is among the finalists for the Chicago Bears’ vacant president and CEO job, team and league sources confirmed to The Athletic on Thursday. ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported the news. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Warren has interviewed at least twice with the Bears at Halas Hall, according to sources.
  • The Bears have been searching for a new president and CEO after Ted Phillips announced his plans in September to retire at the end of the 2022 season.
  • Warren became commissioner of the Big Ten in 2020 after more than 20 years working in the NFL with the Rams, Lions and Vikings.

Backstory

Warren served as the Vikings’ chief operating officer before he headed to the Big Ten. His early days as commissioner were rocky when the Big Ten canceled the 2020 season due to COVID-19. However, the conference later reversed that decision and played a shorter season.

Since then, Warren has guided the Big Ten to bring USC and UCLA into the conference in 2024 and sign a new media rights deal in August.

One other local candidate was Colin Faulkner, the Cubs’ vice president of sales and marketing and chief commercial officer. He interviewed twice with the Bears, an industry source told The Athletic.

The Bears are preparing for a major change when Phillips retires from the organization. He has served as president and CEO for 23 years and has worked in the team’s front office for 39 years. His departure marks the end of an era in which the team thrived off the field but was inconsistent on it.

Warren’s impact on the Big Ten

Warren rebounded from a rough start to his Big Ten tenure by expanding westward to add UCLA and USC, making the Big Ten a 16-team national conference starting in 2024-25. He then orchestrated a seven-year, $8 billion media rights deal from 2023-24 to 2029-30 with Fox, NBC and CBS.

The Big Ten has two teams in the College Football Playoff this season for the first time ever and is tied with the SEC for the most New Year’s Six teams with three. Warren was hired in May 2019 to succeed Jim Delany and officially started in January 2020. He was met by the COVID-19 pandemic and received much backlash both internally and externally for his initial decision to cancel the 2020 football season. The Big Ten ended up reversing that decision and played a shortened league-only schedule, with Ohio State making the Playoff that season. – Fortuna

Few college sports leaders have experienced the lowest of lows and the highest of highs in a tenure quite like Warren has — and all in less than three years. His fingerprints will remain, even if he is off to the NFL. Obviously, securing a massive media rights deal was one of Warren’s main priorities from the day he was hired and something that solidifies the standing of his membership. That and the additions of USC and UCLA cemented the Big Ten as a peer only of the SEC, two leagues richer and more powerful than any of the others in FBS football.

Warren had been enjoying something of a victory lap since adding the LA schools and nailing down that media rights deal, which is modeled similarly to the NFL with multiple over-the-air broadcast partners. Over the past month, Warren had also been celebrating the Big Ten getting two teams into the four-team CFP for the first time. He’s planned a New Year’s Eve watch party at the Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. – Auerbach

How Warren’s possible departure affects the Big Ten

That Warren wanted to return to the NFL is not surprising. Many in the industry have long suspected he would return to the professional ranks, and it is possible he felt he needed to serve in a CEO role in order to gain consideration as a potential successor to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The timing is tough on the college sports side, though, as the Big Ten is in the middle of working on integration plans for USC and UCLA. Warren has also been working alongside the other FBS commissioners on Playoff expansion, also set to begin with the 2024 season.

And, in general, college sports are undergoing massive reform amid unprecedented external pressure from the courts, the National Labor Relations Board and Congress. It is a time of great uncertainty, and Warren’s departure would leave the Big Ten with even more of that. – Auerbach

Why the Bears are interested in Warren

Warren was something of an outsider to the college sports world before his surprising hire in 2019, after serving as the Minnesota Vikings’ COO. Asked at the time about how he would handle media rights negotiations and the like, Warren said that every single day of his tenure involved a negotiation of some kind, most notably the construction of a new downtown Minneapolis stadium (US Bank Stadium) and a new practice facility (Twin Cities Orthopedic Performance Center) in nearby Eagan. US Bank Stadium hosted the 2019 men’s Final Four and Super Bowl LII while Warren was with the Vikings. – Fortuna

The Bears know Warren well going back to the time when he was the agent representing Bears defensive tackle Chris Zorich. When he worked for the Rams, he was an associate of high-ranking team executive Jay Zygmunt, a native Chicagoan who has been close with Phillips. Warren and Bears chairman George McCaskey both have served on the NFL’s workplace diversity committee. Warren has worked for two NFC North teams — the Lions and the Vikings — and knows the landscape. If the Bears hire him, they won’t even have to pay moving expenses, as Warren lives in the Chicago area with the Big Ten offices in Rosemont, Ill. – Pompeii

What he would bring to the team

Warren’s experience as the Vikings’ COO likely appeals to the Bears. They’re in the process of trying to build a new stadium in Arlington Heights, Ill. It’s an effort that’s currently spearheaded by Phillips. Warren would be expected to take that over — and he has plenty of experience.

Warren’s leadership helped the Vikings build US Bank Stadium. It’s widely considered one of the best stadiums in the NFL. Soldier Field is not. The $1.3 billion stadium is considered the largest private construction in the history of Minnesota.

The Bears are trying to do the same in Illinois with their plans in Arlington Heights. In November, the Bears revealed their plans for Arlington Park, which was previously a racetrack. It included not only the stadium but a hotel, a sportsbook, retail spaces, commercial buildings, a residential area and other outdoor spaces. – Jahns

What they’re saying

The Bears released a statement later Thursday regarding the team’s president and CEO search: “We have not set a timeline for announcing Ted Phillip’s successor. Our search team has cast a wide net, spoken to many outstanding candidates and looks forward to introducing our next President and CEO at the process’s conclusion.”

The Big Ten also released a statement Thursday: “Over the course of three decades in professional and collegiate sports, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren regularly receives unique opportunities and requests for his expertise from leaders across a variety of industries ranging from professional sports ownership groups to private equity firms. The Commissioner utilizes each occurrence to listen, learn and assist every stakeholder in the most appropriate and effective manner. The Commissioner remains focused on the Big Ten Conference, its 14 member institutions and over 10,000 student-athletes in both regular season and postseason play.”

Required reading

(Photo: Robert Goddin / USA Today)

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