Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren kicked off the men’s and women’s basketball seasons for the conference on Thursday in Indianapolis. Warren, who played collegiate basketball at Penn and Grand Canyon, spent much of his opening press conference emphasizing the league’s commitment to racial and gender equity.
Warren then sat down with Illustrated Sports to further discuss those plans, as well as realignment, name, likeness and likeness (NIL) and other key topics in the changing world of college athletics.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sports Illustrated: Women’s empowerment was a major talking point. Can you talk about some of the equity-driven issues you focus on in women’s basketball?
Kevin Warren: Having a media basketball day with our men and women together just sets the tone for the way the conference, and I personally, views our women and especially our female basketball players. We are hiring a vice president of women’s basketball, which is vitally important, and that person will be in her place when the season begins. We have some incredible candidates. That way, they can focus on this 24/7. With our programming, 52% of all BTN programming will be dedicated to women’s sport this year. The most important thing we can do is talk about it, and not just talk about it, but also do it. Today is an excellent example. Every time I look at this screen [and see women on BTN], is powerfull.
SI: Do you support the proposal to move the women’s Final Four to the same place as the men’s?
KW: I’m a big believer in making sure we ask female leaders, coaches, administrators, and student-athletes what they think about it. One of the first things I’m going to do with our new VP of Women’s Basketball is sit down with that person and get their ideas. I love women’s basketball, watching it. I was so excited to be able to go to our Big Ten tournament games, and I went back and forth a couple of times to San Antonio to see them play in person.
SI: You referred to brand building as a media day experience. What do you think is your role as a commissioner and your role as a conference in building player brands in the NIL era?
KW: I think it is to provide them with platforms, like today. Each of our student-athletes, basketball players, male student-athletes, male basketball players … we will have many of them who will be drafted, who will play in the WNBA or the NBA, we will have some who will be All-Pro, we will have some who will be in the Hall of Fame. But we will also have some that may not be redacted, and will be in graduate school or corporate America. Experiences like the ones you are having today, being in front of the camera and being interviewed, this is what I call a powerful field trip. And I am a great leader in the power of excursions. The opportunity to travel, experiment, learn and dress is special.
SI: What feedback have you received from coaches, administrators and players about NIL so far?
KW: I think the feedback is that it is starting to settle. There were a lot of people who were very concerned about it, but things are set where they are supposed to, they really do. And that’s what I think is happening with NIL. There are some student-athletes who have probably been able to earn substantial amounts of money, some maybe not, but they will be able to do things like work in camps and get paid for it. So I think it is beneficial for everyone. My big concern is to make sure that our players are informed about the importance of how to handle money, understand it and, so far, people are satisfied with the progress.
SI: You talked a lot about the Alliance’s planning in regards to mental health, social justice and other initiatives. What do you think is the role of the Alliance in the programming of men’s and women’s basketball?
KW: Will be there. I just think that anytime we can give our student-athletes at the Big Ten the opportunity to pollinate with other conferences, go play some Pac-12 teams, play some ACC teams, have the opportunity to travel, that in itself. . it is an educational experience. So we will look at programming opportunities in all of our sports. We are starting to work on that.
SI: The Pac-12 just announced a plan to partner with the SWAC and play series at home and at home. Is that something you would consider?
KW: That’s great. I approached George [Kliavkoff] and said “That’s powerful!” It’s good again from an experience point of view, both ways. You think of the men and women of the Pac-12 who, as this expands, have the opportunity to go play in the HBCU schools and vice versa. I think as we get older we realize that this world is small, there are many different ways that we can work together, there are different ways that we can do good things together.
SI: On the realignment, the Big 12 have been a basketball powerhouse. When you see a move take place in a league you’re competing with, what does that do for the way you think about how you position the Big Ten in basketball?
KW: I think it is of the utmost importance. When you look at all of our coaches in the Big Ten, and all of our student-athletes, we have a really strong conference. We have the best coaches, we have the best student-athletes. I think it’s important now, especially as the conference realignment happens, there will be great opportunities for our young people to play some really good basketball. People want to come to the Big Ten. People want to play in the Big Ten. I think the success we had last year will serve as a launch pad for this year.
SI: With COVID-19 not yet in the rearview mirror, you have been successful with soccer by being able to play every game on the schedule. What are the challenges you anticipate with basketball, especially heading into winter?
KW: COVID will be interesting. So I’m glad we have Dr. [Jim] Borchers here to give lessons from last year. When you enter the winter season, it becomes a challenge because there are so many more games. One good thing about soccer is that it has a rhythm. Usually you play, maybe an occasional game on Friday, but you play on Saturday. So we have to be really smart, understand that it is not over, be very diligent and vigilant regarding COVID-19 and keep the prayer that we continue to make good decisions. And that is why it is so important that we now have a medical director [in Borchers], which can address many of these problems.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.