Brett Yormark on the appeal of the Big 12 and his aim ‘to disrupt and not be disrupted’

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Brett Yormark was named the new commissioner of the Big 12 on June 29. He got a quick and valuable lesson in the volatility of the business he was entering on the very next day, when the Big Ten swiped USC and UCLA from the Pac-12.

You would think that, for a CEO who hasn’t spent his career in college athletics, that stunning news and the message it sends about another incoming round of realignment would be a startling introduction to the job. For Yormark, though, this chaos was welcomed.

“I was excited by it in many respects,” Yormark said, “because I saw there was opportunity.”

In his debut appearance at Big 12 media days, his first public appearance since accepting the job, Yormark declared his conference is open for business and exploring its options for expansion. He said he’s received a lot of phone calls and interest in the past two weeks, presumably from Pac-12 members, and made it clear the Big 12 won’t hesitate to make moves if they’re “additive” to its value.

As he transitions into this role to replace Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12’s leader for the past decade, Yormark is leaning on his experience in pro sports from his time with NASCAR, the Brooklyn Nets and most recently Roc Nation and learning as fast as he can. The conference’s Board of Directors hired Yormark to be their dealmaker, believing he has the right skill set to navigate the rapidly changing college landscape and maximize the Big 12’s potential and prosperity. And he’s wasting no time getting right to work on that mission.

Yormark sat down with The Athletic on Wednesday to discuss his new job, why he pursued it and his vision for the conference as his work gets underway. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

When I read up on your background, the question I wondered was: Why did you want to move down to Dallas and run the Big 12? Why leave your life in New York and the career you’ve built there for this job?

I like to build things. You know, it’s interesting. I’ve always been a gut guy. And when I was at the Nets and then I left for NASCAR, everyone said the same thing. “NASCAR? You’re from the Northeast. You don’t know anything about race car driving.” And I fell in love with the business of NASCAR. I embraced it once I got there, made the necessary adjustments and, thankfully, had a significant moment there. And then coming back to the Nets, I was a first-time CEO and I was leaving something pretty special at NASCAR that we had built. But I had a vision to get this team to Brooklyn, and ultimately, we did and it was another great moment. I’ve loved my time at Roc, but I knew there was one big challenge left in me.

I always anticipated at least exploring the collegiate space. I’ve been around it a bit. Many of my friends are in the collegiate space. John Calipari is one of my dear dearest friends. I’ve been going to games at Memphis and Kentucky with my son since he was a little kid. And obviously, at Barclays Center, my vision was to make the building into something bigger than basketball, meaning the Nets. So college basketball was going to play a big role. Thankfully, we were pretty successful doing that, and that kind of fueled my passion. So when this opportunity presented itself, I guess the only reservation I had was would the Board want to pivot away from the traditional? Would they look at this as a business-building opportunity, as well as lots of other things, too. And they did pivot. They were looking for something different. So it all worked out well, and I think there was incredible alignment.

I look at this opportunity and, you know, I love the student-athlete dynamic and the purpose-driven nature of what everyone does. But I also look at it as an opportunity to build the brand, build the business. Even jumping into what I’m doing now, with conference realignment and potential expansion, it’s kind of up my alley. It’s negotiation, it’s deal-making. I mean, it’s the same thing I’ve been doing throughout my career. And I think a lot of my skill sets are transferable. Obviously, I have a lot to learn. I’m going to surround myself with great people and I’ll learn as we go. But I think I’m the right guy for the role.

What did your friends think when they learned you were making this move?

Those in the sports world, the entertainment world, people that know what we all do, they thought it was fantastic. Because they knew I always wanted to enter the space. But I think just as importantly, they know I like challenges and I like to build things. Listen, what Bob is kind of passing the baton to is really good. I mean, if you think about where we are today, our geographic footprint, the brands, the direction, we’re in a good place. We’re stable, very unified. So I think we have a chance to build something. And whatever we do should be additive, so that excites me also.

Do you think people underestimate the connections you do have within college athletics?

Well, I mean, just as it relates to the expansion conversations that are out there and those that are touching it, whether it’s consultants or media partners, etc. — because they’re all part of that equation — I know them all. I mean, I’ve interfaced with them all. There’s not anyone that’s a key stakeholder in that conversation that I haven’t worked with previously. Now, I’m not talking about the schools I might or might not have had conversations with. Obviously, they’re new. But some of the drivers of influence, I’ve known them for years. So it’s been an easy transition. When people say, “Brett, you’re jumping in…” Yeah, I’m jumping in. But I’m also jumping in with people who I’ve dealt with before, so that’s a little bit more comforting.

You knew you were coming in during a volatile time in college athletics. How was being hit with that Big Ten news right away?

You know, I embrace it. I’m a high-energy guy. I like to go and I like to multitask. I’m not one that likes to have a singular focus. While I’m doing something that might be a priority, I like to be able to do other things, too. So jumping in and knowing that I’ve got something that immediately needs my attention, for me, is kind of exciting. And when I see a challenge, potentially, I also see an opportunity and I embrace it.

When you were first contacted by TurnkeyZRG about this commissioner search, what was the initial gut feeling for you before you went through the process?

 Candidly, you know, the way I was explaining it to my wife was, because of the timing of everything in my personal life with being an empty nester for the first time, knowing that college sports was something that I potentially wanted to pursue and understanding the magnitude of the role — it wasn’t an AD, it was a commissioner role. Dallas is a vibrant market, probably one of the two hottest markets in the country right now. I said, “Hey, let’s go for it.” Now, they clearly said to me at the beginning, “You’re an underdog.” Because they didn’t know whether the Board was going to pivot. They could go traditional or maybe not. But I said, OK, let me see what we can do here. Because I didn’t want to regret not going for it, so I did. And the more I spent time thinking about it and going through the process, the more I felt this is something that really feels right.

How extensive was your research in terms of preparing for this job and how this conference is currently positioned? How did you study up on the Big 12?

I traditionally overprepare for most things. I don’t know why, I just do. I’m kind of hard on myself. I’m my biggest critic. I immersed myself in everything that I could read and digest to at least give me a working knowledge of what was going on here in the industry and the conference. And maybe a bit of that provided a comfort level to the Board, because I didn’t avoid some of the questions that were specific to the collegiate space. I didn’t maybe answer them in an intimate way, but was I knowledgeable enough about them? Yes. So I did enough due diligence to realize what I was getting myself into.

What has your relationship to college football been in your career? Have you gone to many games?

Not a lot. I went to Indiana, I’m a big fan of Indiana. I went to a couple games last year because my daughter was there. And I watch it on TV, I watch sports. But other than that, there isn’t a real connection to college football. But I’m looking forward to it. I reached out to all the coaches before media day, just letting them know I’m a resource and I want to partner with them and make sure there’s always an open line of communication. And obviously, I’m going to visit all the campuses and make sure I visit not only the campuses in advance of football season but at least get to one game this year. So I’m going to immerse myself in it. I’m looking forward to it, it should be great.

I’m really excited about every aspect of the job. Obviously, you know, in spending time with Bob this week, one of my first questions was: Give me a day in the life of the commissioner. What are you thinking about? What are you doing? Where are you putting most of your energies? No different than my job now and my previous jobs, he said it’s very diversified. He could be doing eight things on a Monday and eight different things on a Tuesday. I like that, and it seemed like he did, too.

You’re entering this business at a time where it’s all in the process of evolving, and you get to help guide the direction of where this is all going. How appealing is that?

One-hundred percent. My preference is to disrupt and not be disrupted. And if you don’t disrupt, you will get disrupted. So there’s a balancing act there. I’m excited. … I want to break boundaries. I’ve done that before. I want to do that here. And I think the time is right.

In my last interview, I spent a lot of time with the board talking about opportunities we should explore together, especially opportunities that drive and diversify revenue. And they were very much in favor of it. So we’re gonna go in that direction.

Based on your comments earlier today, it sounds like you see a lot of untapped potential for this conference.

When I talk about open for business, it’s across the board. It’s just a general statement that we’re going to be proactive and we’re going to look at opportunities, expansion being one. But where else should we be spending time and trying to create value? That’s going to be a main theme throughout the corridors of our conference office.

You mentioned being an underdog candidate for this job. Is that a mentality you’ve had throughout your career?

Yeah, I mean, I guess so. I have great conviction in what I do and how I do it, and I’ve always surrounded myself with great people, because it’s all about collaboration. But I kind of like the underdog position. Because I think what that does, it forces you to be a little bit more innovative and creative and to think out of the box and pivot where you need to. I’ve always been in those environments and I enjoy them.

Do you feel the Big 12 is in the underdog position, at least relative to the projections of where the SEC and Big Ten are going and the growing revenue gap?

Well, I mean, listen, why not? I don’t mind saying we’re a little bit of the underdog, and that’s OK. It’s OK to be the underdog. It means we’ve got to work a little harder, we’ve got to be a little grittier, we’ve got to be more innovative and creative. And I kinda like that role. But, again, Bob has left us in a great place. My skill sets are probably a little different than his. And I think at this point in time, my skill sets will hopefully afford the Big 12 an opportunity to really grow and prosper. Bob’s gonna be a great resource for me. We’ve discussed it. I need him to be there for me and I want to develop a great relationship with him.

In this job, do you have to be willing to say there are things you don’t know?

I’m going to be the first one to raise my hand. As I’ve led different companies over the last 20 years, I’ve always said to people, “When in doubt, raise your hand and do it early.” I’m the first to do it. I surround myself with people that know a lot more than I do. I like to make sure that we have complementary skill sets in whatever environment I’m in, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do that over time and I’ll continue to do that here.

Was it a relatively similar experience when you made the move from the Nets to NASCAR?

NASCAR was foreign to me. I loved it and I embraced it. I’ll remember it like it was yesterday, the day before I was interviewing, I had gotten a copy of a book called “The NASCAR Way.” I read it front cover to back cover and it identified, in most cases, the business model of NASCAR. And I was so intrigued by it that it drove me to really be interested in the job. I remember that, during my first interview, I interviewed with a guy by name of George Pyne, who’s one of my dearest friends. I got the inclination that he wanted to hire me on the spot. I said, “George, listen, you’ve got a bunch of other people that you need to interview first. If you’re still interested in a month or so, let’s get together.” Sure enough, he called me a month later and we got together and we made it work. During that month, I further digested the opportunity and did a little bit more due diligence on NASCAR and, no different than here, felt it was the right place for me at the right time.

There are three other Power 5 commissioners who are also relatively new on the job. How do you think you’ll be able to work together with them?

Yeah, listen, we all have similar challenges but then we have some unique ones. Thankfully, I know them all. We’ve been speaking to all of them. Both George (Kliavkoff) and Kevin (Warren) were very helpful in the process for me when I had questions, when I wanted to better understand the role. So I feel very comfortable with the commissioners that are going to be my colleagues now and that will be very collaborative.

The announced start date when you were hired was Aug. 1. You’re clearly not waiting until then to get to work. How have you enjoyed this fast start?

It’s good. My wife says, “Brett, I’ve never seen you work 17, 18 hours a day.” But I’m very excited about it. So to me, it’s not work. I’ve been energized by it.

(Photo: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

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