Too Big For Cable

When The Big 10 effectively became the Big 16 with the addition of USC and UCLA, making it a coast-to-coast conference, there was rampant speculation that it was a prime candidate for a streaming service, such as Apple or Amazon, to place a pre-emptive bid for its broadcast rights, especially its football games.

Well, this week their long-awaited rights deal was announced, and, as expected, ESPN was left out, with Disney chief Bob Chapek admitting as much during their earnings call.  On Tuesday, Sports Business Journal had already essentially broken that news as follows:

As part of the deal terms, CBS is expected to carry a football game in the 3:30pm ET window on Saturdays, and NBC would carry one in primetime. NBC’s Peacock streaming service will carry an undetermined number of games per year exclusively. Peacock also will simulcast the games that air on NBC. ESPN said no to the conference’s final offer of a seven-year deal, sources said. That package was for linear-only games and did not have any direct-to-consumer rights.

ESPN execs believed that they would have had to pay upwards of $380M per year to keep the package, which was much higher than they were willing to go. ESPN has carried Big Ten football games since 1982. ABC started carrying Big Ten games in 1966. Fox Sports will carry the ‘A’ package of games in the noon Saturday window. FS1 and BTN also will carry an undetermined number of games.

Sources confirmed a N.Y. Post report that CBS will pay around $350M for its package. NBC also will pay $350M per year for its package, sources said.

That’s $1.08 BILLION combined.  Yes, MORE than what ESPN is paying for the SEC.  For a package that will put its three best games per week on BROADCAST TV–its best game actually kicking off in the morning on the West Coast, all the more a factor now with the likes of USC and UCLA involved going forward.

Now if you’re an SEC loyalist, you’re more than likely to point out as many of those covering their schools did that taking the Big Ten away from ESPN after 40 years will deal a death blow to the relevance of the conference, as the NHL suffered when it left them after 2004 for a financially rewarding but ratings-challenged 16-year alliance with NBC.  But, respectfully, the NHL is not college football, and it’s even more regionally skewed than the Big Ten currently is, and certainly compared to the version coming in 2024.

The hero here is a former colleague of mine, Larry A. Jones, FOX Sports’ EVP, Business.  Don’t let his winsome smile fool you.  Larry’s as smart, savvy and detail-oriented a negotiator I’ve ever met, an executive David Hill has consistently called “indispensible”.  And since I’ve yet to met ANY executive as savvy as Hilly, that’s indeed high praise.   The Big Ten called upon Jones and Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman to serve as consultants for these negotiations.

And let’s not kid ourselves.  Given their roles with FOX, the fact that FOX paid a hair more for the rights to the conference’s top game, as well as aid in determining the pecking order beyond, keeping ESPN out while benefitting the breadth and reach of the conference was both shrewd and competitive.  CBS was in dire need of maintaining relevance after losing its high-rated SEC game to Disney, and much in the manner that they eventually overpaid for AFC pro rights after losing the NFC to FOX they arguably overpaid for what will likely be a lower-rated package.  But at least they’re still a part of the mix.

And for NBC, which has its own ambitious sports content plans, it creates two new windows of opportunity.  One, a consistently strong prime time lead-in for Saturday Night Live during the first third of its season–the one with the highest advertiser demand and revenue potential,  And two, a slate of games for Peacock, which has had struggles with subscriber acquisition.  Sure, their games will likely involve the conference’s least successful teams.  But if you are an alumnus or a super fan, you’ll find your way to finding $10 a month to sign up and watch YOUR games, and the likelihood is many who fall into that category currently aren’t there for Bel Air.

And for one last kudo to Jones, don’t think that the potential for the Big Ten Network and/or FS1 to gain more relevance as a destination for discussion and shoulder programming to support the conference won’t eventually be in their plans, either. I’m sure there’s talent with ties to the conference that will find their way to FOX-owned outlets.

I’m of the belief that there’s more than enough eyeballs, more than enough passion dollars, and more than enough spreading of the wealth that everyone will win–most notably, upcoming packages such as Notre Dame and the Big 12.  The Pac 12 may even finally figure out what to do–remember they balked at getting Jones and Silverman involved in their media rights deals, and the end result was a poorly distributed series of mini-regional networks (no DirecTV) and, subsequently, the wanderlust and eventual loss of its Los Angeles-based schools

I won’t run ESPN any benefits anytime soon.  And they will likely find a way to get some sort of content, or force someone else to do so.  They’re all just trying to keep with the Jones.


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