After months of speculation and waiting, the Big Ten finally announced their new media rights agreement. The deal is worth more than $7 billion over seven years and will feature Fox, CBS, and NBC. Many expected the announcement to come months ago, but the conference’s acquisition of USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 changed the equation in a significant way. Beyond the massive amount of money involved in the deal, there are many interesting takeaways from today’s announcement. Let’s look at some of them.
We were teased last week that ESPN was unlikely to be involved in the Big Ten’s new media rights deal, but that officially became a reality today, ending a 40-year relationship between the two parties. Even with the speculation that ESPN wouldn’t carry Big Ten football games, some in the media business pondered they could still be in play for the conference’s basketball inventory, but that won’t be the case.
The Big Ten’s departure from ESPN will be interesting to follow in this new age of how people consume sports and entertainment. Many have long assumed that not being on the “Worldwide Leader” could be problematic due to the tendency of sports fans to turn to the four-letter network for their sports fix. Some point out that the NHL, which didn’t have ESPN as a broadcast partner for over a decade, lost some of its popularity due to the lack of attention the network gave it from 2005 on.
However, with highlights, news, and sports talk easily accessible via our phones and tablets, people aren’t tuning into SportsCenter on a routine basis as they did in the past. The narrative around college sports isn’t directed by ESPN as much anymore due to the wide variety of places fans can get their college sports fix. Sure, College Gameday might not be at Big Ten campuses as much as they have been, but I still find it hard to believe that the Big Ten will be negatively affected too much by not being on ESPN.
NFL-Like TV Schedule
Unlike the SEC, which partnered exclusively with ESPN, the Big Ten has three partners to spread out their inventory to. Ever since the NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma case, schools have delegated their media rights to their conferences to strike deals with networks to show their games. For the most part, conferences have been affiliated with one or two particular networks. As a result, college football fans have grown accustomed to the SEC on CBS (which will end after 2023) at 3:30 on Saturday afternoons in the Fall and the Big Noon game featuring Big Ten or Big 12 teams.
However, the Big Ten’s new deal stands out because it is spread over three of the biggest networks in America all throughout the day. Starting in the next few years, the Big Ten will have a noon kickoff on Fox, a 3:30 game on CBS, and a primetime 7:30 game on NBC. Instead of shelling out all of their rights to one network, the Big Ten has taken an NFL approach in this deal. As we all know, the NFL is far and away the most profitable sports league in our country and Kevin Warren, who has experience with the Minnesota Vikings, took a page out of Roger Goodell’s book. I expect it to be a huge coup for the conference.
The Narrative for Player Pay
In 2017, the Big Ten signed a seven-year deal worth a total of $2.64 billion. In 2022, the Big Ten will receive $1.2 billion annually for seven more years. Obviously, due to the market for live sports and football as a sport in this country, these deals will only increase moving forward. But as the pie keeps on getting bigger for conferences and schools, how much longer can these entities continue to not give the ones on the field any cut of it?
As we know, the current landscape of college athletics is different than it has been in the past. Players now have more power through NIL rights, the transfer portal, and social media. The highest level of college football is becoming more professionalized by the day. In addition, court cases have called into question the concept of amateurism, and Johnson v. NCAA might only add to that.
The fear among many is that paying college football and basketball players could have a negative impact on non-revenue generating sports. But with the Big Ten distributing between $80 and $100 million annually to its member institutions in payouts, it doesn’t feel right that players shouldn’t receive their fair share. We recently had Jason Stahl, the executive director of the College Football Player’s Association on the podcast and he believes there is plenty of money available for schools to pay players while still supporting the other sports on campus, and today’s announcement would suggest he’s right. At least at the highest level of college football, where the media rights deals are going through the roof, revenue sharing feels inevitable. The narrative will only continue to grow stronger as the money keeps going up.
All in all, today’s announcement is monumental for the Big Ten and college athletics as a whole. ESPN now has inventory to fill, and that could come in the form of the Pac-12 and/or Big 12. Further consolidation of conferences is highly likely, and how that impacts the landscape is unknown at the moment. Predicting where things go from here with 100% accuracy is impossible right now, but one thing is for certain: TV revenue will play a large role.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5