By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

Each year, Crain’s Chicago Business hand-selects 40 of the city’s brightest business stars who have made a mark on their respective industries before their 40th birthday. When Brandon Ellis ’12, director of finance at Big Ten Networks (BTN), received an email last fall congratulating him on being recognized as a member of the 2023 “40 Under 40” class, he mistook it for spam and went about his day.

Brandon Ellis with wife LA Ellis

Brandon Ellis with wife LA Ellis

“Growing up, I was taught to be humble about my work, so I would never nominate myself for an award like that,” Ellis says. “Two days later, a reporter sent me a second email and called me, and I was shocked.” He came to find out that BTN’s director of communications and public relations had thrown Ellis’ hat into the ring for him. “I was honored that my colleagues felt like I was worthy, so it was exciting for sure.”

But when looking at the robust list of achievements attached to the young businessman’s name, it’s plain to see why his name in particular made it onto the prestigious list. 

In his role at BTN—a channel dedicated to coverage of collegiate sports sanctioned by the Big Ten Conference, and a joint venture between the conference and Fox Sports—Ellis is the team lead for financial operations at the network, making him in charge of budgeting, forecasting, long-term strategic planning, and resource allocation. He oversees tens of millions of dollars in annual budgets, and he headed up BTN’s long-term financial planning when the Big Ten Conference signed a $7 billion media rights agreement with Fox, NBC, and CBS in 2022. When Ellis joined BTN in 2020 as a finance manager, he helped the network financially pull through a football season that was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, he’s working on his latest project: prepping the budget for BTN’s West Coast operation as UCLA, USC, University of Oregon, and University of Washington gear up to join the Big 10 Conference this summer. 

“It’s been fascinating to understand the business dynamics behind the sports media space,” Ellis says, “especially during a time when people are cutting the cord and moving to streaming services. I feel lucky to be able to utilize my financial and accounting skills to add value to sports-related organizations.” 

It’s a career he knew he wanted to follow since he started playing football at age 5. A native of Norristown, Pa., Ellis grew up as one of three sports-loving boys. “And because we lived in the Philadelphia area, we were [and still are] die-hard Eagles fans,” he says. 

Ellis played football through high school as a cornerback and wide receiver, earning a spot on the 2007 All-Continental Conference Second Team by and being named Norristown High School Hall of Champions Outstanding Scholar-Athlete in 2008. He eventually landed a scholarship to play as a starting defensive back for the Lafayette Leopards, where, in 2010 alone, he was named to the inaugural Academic All-Patriot League Team and the ESPN Academic All-District II team, was an All-Patriot League First-Team honoree, and was selected as the team Defensive Back MVP—among many other accolades he earned throughout his college career. And as a student-athlete who made the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll in 2007 and 2008, boasting a nearly perfect grade point average, Ellis took his time in the classroom just as seriously as he did his time on the field. 

“In our household, sports were big, but academics were just as important,” he says. In high school, Ellis was a member of the National Honor Society and DECA, a business-focused student club in which he got his first taste for sports marketing. He declared a business and economics major at Lafayette, where he was inspired by his professors on both a local and global scale. 

“I had the opportunity to study abroad twice while I was at Lafayette—in Japan and South Africa—and it was a fantastic experience that opened my perspective of the world,” Ellis says. “Lafayette exposed me to different people with different mindsets, and helped me gain that valuable skill set of building relationships and being on a team.”

The courses he took with David Stifel and Susan Averett, both Charles A. Dana Professors of Economics, were especially impactful, he explains: “They were good people, and that came across in the way they interacted with their students. The way they taught elevated my interest in the subject even further. And because Lafayette is a small school, I had the opportunity to build close relationships with my professors, and really dig deep and analyze issues in a way I wouldn’t have been able to at a larger institution.”

Ellis—who, as an undergrad, also was a Gateway Ambassador and helped set up fellow students for success by connecting them with Lafayette’s Gateway Career Center—worked closely with Melissa Schultz, director of strategic projects and Gateway career counselor, to fine-tune his career goals in a way that would combine his passions for business and athletics. Thanks to Gateway, Ellis participated in an externship during his sophomore year with Jonathan Schecter ’04, senior account manager at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment in New York City.

While he didn’t work in the sports sector right after graduation (he was hired as a financial analyst by Johnson & Johnson after interning with them during his sophomore and junior years), Ellis went on to earn his MBA and M.S. in sports management from University of Massachusetts Amherst. Soon after, he joined the NCAA national office as a finance and business operations postgraduate fellow, and then Northwestern University’s athletics department as an assistant director of business operations, before heading to BTN. 

Ellis, who never lost touch with Schultz and Gateway, recently hosted Lafayette externs himself at BTN in 2021: “If you did have a great positive experience at Lafayette and you’re doing great things after College, it’s only right to give back in whatever capacity you can to the institution that helped propel you to where you are,” he says.  

Now, Ellis has his eyes set on the future: His next career goal is to one day become a chief financial officer. “Always wanting to be challenged, to learn something new, to be interested in the work that I’m doing—that, for me, is more important than anything,” he says.