While the remnants of the Big East are staring at their next television contract pushing them into the mid major abyss and NBC Sports Network, the breakaway basketball schools known as the "Catholic 7" are pushing closer towards an impressive contract with Fox Sports according to Andy Katz and Brett McMurphy of ESPN.
The ESPN report sheds light on the major question in this Big East split: which would be worth more – a top flight basketball conference with no football attachment or a mediocre conference with football rights? Football has controlled realignment not just on the field, but in the offices of network executives. Football is the cash cow. Football is the driving force.
In spite of football's dominance in college sports, the Catholic 7 led basketball league appears to be worth more than the full rights to the conference they're leaving behind. From McMurphy & Katz:
"NBC Sports Network verbally offered the Big East between $20 million and $23 million per year for six years to acquire the league's media rights, sources told ESPN."
"The Catholic 7 schools — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova — haven't formed a new league yet, but Fox Sports has been the leader for their media rights, sources said. Fox Sports' offer would be worth between $30 million and $40 million per year depending on how many teams are in the league, sources said."
The networks bidding have set the market and placed the value of the Catholic 7 basketball league above the football AND basketball rights of the remaining Big East. It has to be a staggering blow to the remnants of the Big East, as if they haven't been beaten from pillar to post throughout realignment already. It only cements the notion that the Big East is by far the biggest loser in conference realignment, seeing the potential value for each school drop from $13.8 million for full members to just $2 million per year per school.
Fox has been the frontrunner for the Catholic 7 rights since the beginning stages of negotiations while NBC has long been rumored as a home for the Big East as they look to get any significant foothold in the college game.
For both networks, the reported landing spots make sense. Fox already has BCS caliber football with the Pac 12 and Big XII rights. With all the other rights they have to NASCAR, football, soccer, etc. they don't need the inventory of Tulane vs Memphis football. They're much less desperate for content than NBC and can pick and choose what they want. If the Catholic 7 does add Butler, Xavier, Dayton, Creighton, and possibly even VCU it would form a basketball league that could rival the major conferences in America. Imagine Fox Sports 1 giving you Butler-Georgetown, Xavier-Marquette, and a UFC card in mid-February. That's certainly not a bad lineup for a start up sports network.
NBC has to make a tough choice between filling out the empty spaces remaining in their programming lineup or making a bigger splash while still leaving holes. In the end, NBC Sports Network is taking a very economical approach in paying less for more content. NBC may try to put lipstick on the Big East pigskin, but the truth is any live sports are going to bring better ratings than their studio shows, which continue to draw few viewers. NBC has long maintained their patience in terms of ratings and their long scale planning with NBCSN and acquiring the Big East rights fits that strategy.
It's certainly not the immediate throw down the gauntlet to ESPN we may have hoped for, but it may prove to be an efficient strategy for the long haul. Once NBCSN establishes themselves with the NHL, MLS, EPL, F1, Tour de France, and Big East, they can look at more glamorous rights in the next negotiating cycles that come along in the years to come.
These negotiations show where Fox and NBC are positioned in terms of the cable sports landscape at the moment. NBC continues to build slowly with niche sports and leagues that provide a clear alternative to ESPN. Fox, with their history, wide distribution and existing rights, is better positioned to take a stronger run at Bristol in the here and now.