Kevin Warren’s morning commute is about to change slightly as his professional life circles back to a familiar place.
The Big Ten commissioner will be leaving his job at the conference to take over as president and CEO of the Chicago Bears, the team confirmed Thursday. The news was originally reported by the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
As a practical matter, Warren’s career shift will now see him waking up early each morning to drive north from his Chicago condo to the tony suburb of Lake Forest–where the Bears’ corporate offices are currently based–instead of near O’Hare airport, where the Big Ten is headquartered.
Warren’s return to the NFL comes roughly three years after he was tapped as an out-of-leftfield choice to guide the Big Ten, winning a commissioner’s job that many thought was destined to go to former Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, who subsequently became commissioner of the ACC. Warren was then coming off a 14-year stint as an executive with the Minnesota Vikings, where he had climbed the ladder to the COO slot. Prior to that, Warren held front-office posts with the Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams.
Financial terms of the job have not been disclosed, but Warren earned around $3.4 in total compensation from the Big Ten in 2021, according to the conference’s tax filings. In replacing outgoing Bears CEO and president Ted Phillips, Warren is expected to oversee the entirety of the team’s business strategies, including football operations. Excel Sports Management handled the search, according to a source familiar with the process.
The Bears are currently deciding whether to bolt from their longtime Chicago home of Solider Field to a yet-to-be-built facility in the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights. The team entered an agreement in 2021 to purchase 326 acres for $197 million, with the plan of building not just a stadium but an adjacent multi-use development. Warren will now be at the center of what is likely to be a multibillion-dollar real estate project with huge financial and civic implications.
Earlier this week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Landmark Development unveiled a $2.2 billion renovation proposal for Solider Field, in a last-ditch attempt to keep the Bears in the Windy City.
After one of their worst seasons in franchise history, ending on a 10-game losing streak, the Bears enter this offseason with plenty of opportunity to upgrade their roster. That begins with the NFL Draft, where they hold the No. 1 overall draft pick for the first time since 1947. The Bears are also projected to have the most salary cap space in the league this offseason and could splurge on top free agents and build around promising franchise quarterback Justin Fields.
From the start, Warren’s Big Ten hire was not well-received by many in the conference’s old guard, who were loyal to Warren’s long-serving predecessor, Jim Delany. Apprehensions about Warren, who had not previously worked in college sports, were exacerbated by the pandemic, and the Big Ten’s controversial decision to cancel the 2020 football season on account of COVID-19, which it later reversed.
Warren’s job was further complicated by national politics, when then-President Donald Trump decided to weigh in on the return-to-play debate, ultimately holding two separate calls with Warren about the conference’s plans.
Meanwhile, as Sportico previously documented, Warren was beset by a number of behind-the-scenes dramas within the Big Ten office, some of which he inherited, and others of his own making, as he aggressively moved to modernize America’s original power conference.
Throughout the early part of his Big Ten tenure, Warren had contemplated multiple job offers to return to the NFL, according to sources, including at least one club president position that included a potential equity stake. One of his motivations to stay put until now, those sources said, was his concern for his public role as the first African American commissioner of a power conference. As the team’s fifth president, Warren is now breaking the color barrier of the dynastic Bears franchise, which has been owned by the Halas family since being purchased for $100 in 1920.
In the end, Warren persevered in his Big Ten post and eventually reaped the rewards last summer, signing a seven-year, $7 billion multimedia rights deal for the conference and welcoming USC and UCLA as surprise new members.
For the Big Ten, the question is whether its next leader will be more in the Warren mold or the Delany one. Since Warren’s hire, other Power Five conferences have increasingly looked to bring in candidates outside the traditional commissioner model. In 2021, the Pac-12 hired George Kliavkoff, the president of entertainment and sports for MGM, to replace Larry Scott. The Big 12 followed the next year by tapping Brett Yormark, Roc Nation’s COO, to take over for Bob Bowlsby.