They represent the bottom lines in a bottom-line business.
As Ken Fang documented in this Sunday story here at Awful Announcing, the Big East’s ratings on FOX and Fox Sports 1 have fallen far short of both hopes and expectations, especially relative to the $500 million invested in a 12-year package.
This raises a question: With a Big Ten rights deal very much up for grabs — offering the FOX or NBC sports families a chance to pluck a property from ESPN’s control — will the Big Ten look at FS1’s numbers and say, “No thanks — we’re going to trust the biggest television name in collegiate athletics”?
It’s a fascinating question, one in which the ultimate answer lies in the details.
That’s not a cop-out answer, either. We’ll explain a few of those details; it will simply be up to the Big Ten to determine which ones matter most.
The reason why a Big Ten-FOX union makes sense is that FOX owns half of the Big Ten Network to begin with. Giving FOX and FS1 the keys to the Big Ten kingdom could make sense for Jim Delany from that perspective. If a deal is secured, that would be the first, fourth, and 29th reason why such a package would make sense.
The Big East numbers for FS1, however, should make the Big Ten stop to consider if a marriage with FOX is worth it. Ken Fang noted in his piece that broadcasts on regular FOX set record lows for college basketball TV viewership. Several FS1 Big East games have drawn under six figures in viewership averages. Jim Delany wants no part of that.
Should he be worried that FS1’s lack of an established college sports identity (especially in basketball) — at least on the level of ESPN — would drag down the Big Ten’s viewership numbers?
This is where the particulars of the situation must be dissected.
What really has to concern the Big Ten (and, from its own perspective, FS1) is that Big East basketball has been good this season. When Buzz Williams shocked a lot of people in the college basketball community and bolted from Marquette — a team he guided to the 2013 Elite Eight and the 2011 Sweet 16 — in order to take over a moribund Virginia Tech program, it seemed that the Big East was on its way down. Marquette certainly finds itself in rebuilding mode.
However, counterbalancing the tumble of the Golden Eagles, we’ve seen Butler rise back to national prominence under fill-in coach Chris Holtmann. We’ve seen Georgetown improve to the point that it will probably make the NCAA tournament after missing out on the Dance last year. (The Hoyas are not a lock, but they’re still better.) Providence has remained steady despite the departure of spectacular point guard Bryce Cotton. Xavier is still in the NCAA tournament hunt. Seton Hall has injected new life into the league, chasing a Dance card after several immensely frustrating seasons. Villanova is on track to once again get a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, matching what it did a year ago.
The Big East has exceeded the expectations of many. This has been a forward-moving year for the league on the court.
That FS1 and original FOX haven’t seen positive ratings — this, with Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery as part of their team and Tim Brando now in the fold as a strong contributor — should be concerning.
Yet, this might not be a FOX problem so much as a Big East issue:
No Syracuse, no Connecticut, no Louisville, no Notre Dame, no West Virginia, no Pittsburgh — the Big East had 11 NCAA tournament teams in 2011, so even though this year is a good year within the league’s readjusted set of expectations, the conference doesn’t feel the same. Viewers don’t seem to feel the same as well. That can’t be laid at FOX’s feet. This could just as easily be a story of the Big East’s diminished brand, relative to what it had just a few seasons ago. There’s certainly no doubt that the Big East tournament is a far lesser event (and spectacle) without — at the very least — Syracuse and UConn fans in Madison Square Garden to spice things up. Raftery can’t wisecrack with (or about) Jim Boeheim at this event anymore. Chris Holtmann might deserve to be a top-three coach of the year candidate at Butler… but he’s not going to move the national needle and reel in viewers. Jimmy B? Different story.
(A brief digression: It’s a good thing for FOX that Syracuse didn’t withdraw from the Big East tournament — ESPN has to be smarting that it won’t have Boeheim on hand for the ACC tourney in Greensboro, N.C.)
Therefore, when we consider the Big Ten’s reaction to what’s happening with FOX and especially FS1 in the Big East, what should it decide? The Big East took a leap of faith by agreeing to terms with a new sports network where they could be the central attraction instead of being a resident of ESPNU and ESPNEWS. Right now, one has to wonder if the league made the right decision.
The Big Ten owns robust brands that aren’t going anywhere. Sure, this is a down year for Michigan State and Michigan, but Tom Izzo and John Beilein are going to win and win and win as long as they’re on the job. These are aberrational seasons for them. Indiana, a signature college basketball program, has shown more resilience this season than many expected in November, which is excellent news for the Big Ten. Iowa has improved this season. So have Illinois and Purdue. Maryland is bringing quality to the league, in addition to that expanded geographical (and subscription-based) footprint. Wisconsin is a Final Four program headed toward a No. 1 seed this M
The dilution issues brought about by the Big East’s recent split-cum-exodus are not in play with the Big Ten. The league should feel that FS1 — which can have Raftery on its broadcasts; Raftery cannot appear on original FOX due to his continuing association with CBS — will be able to deliver strong numbers.
What we’re really left with is the way FS1 intends to market the Big Ten. These are the true details at the heart of this larger topic, the details Delany and his associates need to explore if they want an FS1 deal. What timeslots will be afforded to the conference? What about the announcers calling the games? Would the Big Ten become a tentpole property for FS1 along with the likes of UFC, NASCAR, and MLB? And most importantly, would Big Ten fans find games on Fox Sports 1?
These and many other questions will need to be answered in due time. What it ultimately comes down to is this: FS1 will have to prove to the Big Ten that it can offer the resources, packaging, top-line on-air talent, and overall commitment the conference expects. If FS1 covets this deal enough to manifest such a level of commitment, the Big Ten should think that its level of basketball will draw good numbers… unlike the Big East, which is suffering for reasons that won’t soon apply to the Big Ten, if ever.