As ESPN and other networks start pointing toward college football season by announcing game times for the fall already, fans of Big Ten Conference football need to be looking farther down the road than that.
Just two seasons remain on the Big Ten contract with ESPN that expires after the 2016-17 academic year, and every day until the conference decides whether to remain with ESPN or enter a potentially profitable partnership with another suitor (Fox Sports 1) provides important time for an exploration of the conference’s options.
It’s rather simple, though, the decision boils down to either money or exposure.
Specifically, it’s a matter of great money and unrivaled exposure -- that’d be available by staying with ESPN -- or maybe even better money and much more limited exposure, which represents the best Fox Sports 1 has to offer.
Rights to Big Ten programming have become a hot property because they’re the last commodity on the market. Broadcast deals for major pro sports leagues and all other high-profile college conferences have been finalized long ago. With live sporting events among the most-watched programs on TV, that makes the upcoming Big Ten deal extremely valuable.
Most informed estimates put the potential windfall at as much as $45 million per conference member per year for the lifetime of the next TV deal.
During this and other high-profile sports negotiations, someone almost invariably utters the phrase, “it’s not about the money,” and it’s always untrue. In the case of the Big Ten and this deal, though, that should be the overriding mantra. It should not be about the money.
While there might be a slight financial difference by partnering with Fox Sports 1 (and remember parent Fox Sports own 51 percent of the Big Ten Network, so that could influence what happens), what ESPN provides in terms of exposure more than makes up for any additional income available with a different partner.
To be clear, the ESPN brand resonates across media platforms and across the globe. Even with a retreat in cable TV viewership, which recently pushed ESPN’s presence under 100 million homes for the first time in years, ESPN matters. Viewers know it, and know where to find it. It’s also the broadcast home of the College Football Playoff.
Fox Sports and FS1 have none of that cachet. But, Fox Sports 1 needs programming -- so much so that it might be willing to overpay for Big Ten rights. Still, a conference move to FS1 would be shortsighted and ultimately unproductive.
Additionally, while fans might not get a look at the negotiation process (ESPN has declined comment for this and all stories about the process), the outcome should prove informative about who holds the most power in the Big Ten. If some people in the conference only want money, that would point to a different partnership than the one championed by those who appreciate the power of a broader exposure.
No matter the partner, Big Ten schools will make more money than they’re getting in their current contract. It’s easy for me to write, and perhaps hard for athletic and school officials to justify with their budgets, but that should be enough.
Without getting into specifics, Phil Esten, the deputy director of athletics at Penn State, told regional sports editors last month that he does not expect the next TV deal to go backward. He also said Penn State’s business-minded approach to intercollegiate athletics was that “profit is a result, not a purpose.”
If that mind-set in any way transfers to TV rights deals for the entire conference -- and it should -- staying with ESPN would seem to be the right deal.