NBC Sports Network has been pegged as the new home for the dilapidated Big East with a reported offer of $20-23 million dollars per year for the conference's television rights. Yet there's one final bridge to cross before the Big East calls the peacock home – SI's Pete Thamel reports the Big East's current home ESPN will have one last chance to match the NBC offer.
Previously, ESPN had an exclusive negotiating window with the Big East, but no agreement was made. The Big East made perhaps the most infamous decision in all of conference realignment when they turned down a deal from ESPN that could have offered each full member over $13 million per year. Now the league is looking at getting slightly beyond that figure as a whole with their rights on the open market.
Throughout the process, it has always looked unlikely for the Big East to stay at ESPN. The conference has seen its bones picked clean by the BCS conferences and there's not much value in ESPN having the Big East stick around and float thumb a ride through the outskirts of ESPNU and ESPN3.
But there is value in ESPN keeping the Big East off NBC Sports Network.
Way back in 2011 when the Pac 12 was the Pac 10, Fox and ESPN teamed up at the last minute in a landmark agreement to share media rights for the conference and more importantly, block NBC from gaining a foothold in the college sports space. From SBJ's John Ourand in May 2011:
"Initially, the concept seemed preposterous. ESPN and News Corp. partner internationally on ESPN Star Sports in Asia, for example. The two, however, are often bitter rivals in the U.S., especially in the college football space where they dominate the market.
However, Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content, was intrigued. Not only would a joint effort increase the bid, it would keep Comcast from picking up rights to a BCS conference. It had just bid $187 million per year to win the NHL rights and wanted to add to that with a Pac-10 acquisition. ESPN and Fox wanted to stop that momentum."
At the time, NBC was the leading candidate to land the Pac 10. Imagine how different the cable sports landscape would be at the moment had NBC been able to get those college rights for NBCSN. ESPN has shown some discipline in their rights bidding over the last couple years, but for a company worth tens of billions, $20 million dollars a year is like an afternoon at the thrift shop.
The Big East, as mundane as it may be, now represents NBC's chance to enter the college scene on a full time basis. Yes, they have Notre Dame football. Yes, they have various Mountain West and CAA and Ivy League rights. But they still don't have that foothold. They still really don't have that seat at the table with ESPN and Fox throughout the year. Even though the conference isn't very attractive nationally anymore, the Big East represents that starting point for NBC with plenty of football and basketball games at a low, low price.
For ESPN, it's not necessarily about the value of the Big East rights and those Houston vs SMU games that will move the needle a centimeter. It's about playing defense rather than offense. It's about continuing their near total control over televised college athletics. It could be about once again slamming the door on NBC. In an increasingly competitive cable sports landscape, that may be too big of an opportunity to pass up.