When Dave Revsine interviewed to be the lead host of the Big Ten Network before its launch in August 2007, he thought he had asked network officials every question imaginable.
But a rather important one didn’t occur to him.
“The one question I didn’t ask was are we going to be on the air,” Revsine said.
In much of the Big Ten region, they weren’t. The two biggest cable providers, Comcast and Time Warner, wouldn’t pay to air the channel. And Revsine, who had been at ESPN since 1996, couldn’t fathom why.
“I just thought, of course they’re going to be on the air,” he said. “They’re covering Big Ten sports. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?”
Though the cable giants didn’t carry the network in its first year, other providers did, including satellite companies DirecTV and Dish. Comcast and Time Warner heard enough customer complaints to sign on the next year, giving the network full distribution in the conference’s footprint.
Since then, BTN has established itself as the leader among conference networks. And Revsine has been the face of it since Day 1.
Now, in his 11th year at the network, Revsine is hosting BTN’s coverage of the men’s basketball tournament through Sunday at the United Center. After two years outside the conference’s traditional territory, in Washington and New York, the event is back in Chicago, which pleases Revsine not just for its proximity to his Oak Park home, but for the history it represents.
“I still feel like Chicago is the nerve center of the Big Ten in a lot of ways,” he said. “The Big Ten was founded here. To me, there’s a certain appeal in this being the historical birthplace of the league. I realize you can’t do everything [in Chicago]. But I love when it’s here.”
Revsine’s ties here run deep. As a kid growing up in Northbrook, he’d sit in front of a small black-and-white TV in his room, turn down the volume and call a baseball game to himself. He began broadcasting in the mid-1980s at Glenbrook North High School, calling play-by-play for basketball and football games. He did the same at Northwestern on WNUR.
But Revsine didn’t pursue broadcasting immediately after graduating in 1991. With a history degree and a perfect score on his LSAT, Revsine applied to law and business schools. While spending a year in Dublin on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship, he realized he had no interest in studying law. Instead, he spent a year working for Chase Manhattan Bank in New York as a financial analyst. He hated that even more.
“I was totally, completely miserable,” Revsine said. “And I just said to myself, if I don’t see how this broadcasting thing would work out, I think I would always regret it.”
A friend from high school who worked at a TV station in Sherman, Texas, an hour north of Dallas, convinced the news director to hire Revsine, even though he didn’t have an audition tape.
“There was literally no reason for him to hire me,” Revsine said. “My buddy was moving on, getting a job in Tulsa, and I honestly think he just wanted someone else to talk about sports with.”
After a stint in the Quad Cities, Revsine applied at ESPN, which was looking for broadcasters for its fledgling ESPNews. Revsine had received an offer from another new network, CNN Sports Illustrated, but his goal had been to work at ESPN. He was hired six days before ESPNews launched.
Naturally, his next goal was to move up from ESPNews, and he did when he was tabbed as studio host for the network’s coverage of the 1998 World Cup. He had never hosted a show before, having only served as an anchor. The difference is huge. An anchor writes scripts, explains highlights and maybe conducts an interview. A host leads a conversation, playing the role of a traffic cop.
Apparently, his inexperience showed.
“The first day I’m hosting, we’re in this little ESPN2 studio, and Mike Tirico comes in,” Revsine said. “He calls me aside, and he essentially explains to me in 15 minutes how to be a studio host, I kid you not. He basically said, hey, I was watching at home, I want to talk to you a little bit about what went on here.
“It was only in retrospect that I realized I must have really been horrible and that Mike said if this guy needs to do this for the next month, I need to save him.”
Tirico was one of several colleagues who took Revsine under his wing. Bob Ley and Chris Fowler were others. Their guidance combined with Revsine’s ability clearly meshed because Revsine spent 12 years at ESPN, appearing on “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines” and other shows.
So why leave the Worldwide Leader in Sports for the network of a collegiate conference? For one, BTN pursued Revsine, who’s a huge college-sports fan. For another, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany laid out his plan for the network, explaining that such endeavors were the way of the future. He proved prophetic, as other conferences began to follow suit.
“He blew me away. I was so impressed with his vision for it,” Revsine said. “I understood in talking to him that he genuinely believed that this was where it was going. Not that there was an ultimatum, but I thought to myself, man, I better get on board because this is where it’s happening.”
Revsine not only became the face of a network, he became a New York Times and Boston Globe best-selling author in 2014 with “The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation.” The book explains how football in its nascent form was remarkably similar to the game today.
But Revsine figures to be known more for speaking than writing. He has come a long way since Tirico’s talk, leading discussions deftly and smoothly and with a sense of humor. He takes the role seriously, not just because it’s his profession, but because of his audience.
“To be the person who is entrusted with representing those schools, I feel like it’s an awesome responsibility,” Revsine said. “In our little fiefdom, it’s really important to people, and that matters to me.”