The 2022 college football title game. Jan 10, 2022; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs defensive back Kelee Ringo (5) returns a interception for a touchdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 4th quarter during the College Football Playoff National Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Mandatory Credit: Jenna Watson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that ESPN is in a really, really, really tough position.

The network’s future outlook has arguably never looked bleaker as it is caught in the squeeze of rising rights fees, astronomical streaming costs, and dwindling cable subscriber revenues. Disney chief Bob Iger is currently begging for strategic partners to invest capital and provide support for ESPN’s eventual shift to a direct-to-consumer offering. And Disney even took the plunge into a sports betting partnership for some extra cash.

One thing that has firmly kept ESPN’s grip at the top of the sports world has been its rights portfolio. One of their key flagship events has been the College Football Playoff, which the network has televised in its entirely. With a newly expanded 12 team playoff coming next season and the rights up for grab starting in 2026, there is sure to be ample competition.

In a wide-ranging interview with Richard Deitsch at The Athletic, ESPN executive Burke Magnus talked about ESPN’s pursuit of rights fees including their ongoing negotiations with the NBA (in which Magnus says keeping the NBA Finals is a “must-have” for the company) and looking ahead to the newly expanded playoff. In spite of the increased price-tag and increased competition, Magnus says ESPN will “behave accordingly” when it comes to pursuing a new deal.

I think this is another one we really love being a part of and intend to pursue aggressively. College football is something that’s foundational to what we do here, not just from a live-event perspective, but coverage in general. We believe that the CFP and the commissioners did a really thoughtful job on the expansion plan, which we think will put that sport in an even stronger position in the future with a bracketed playoff. So we love it, we’d love to keep it, and I think we’re going to behave accordingly.

With the extra inventory, the possibility exists that more than one network might enter into the playoff fold. With Fox partnering together with the Big Ten, it would make sense for them to aggressively pursue a package of playoff games. CBS and NBC are also part of that Big Ten deal and have a ton of history with the sport. Interestingly, Magnus kept the possibility open that ESPN may go after all the playoff games, or theoretically share it with another network.

I think it’s certainly possible it could be one. It’s only going from seven games to 11 games in total. That’s not that big to begin with. If it were to be shared, I personally feel like it couldn’t or maybe rather shouldn’t be shared beyond two. I don’t know how you divvy up 11 games between more than two entities and get everybody equally invested in it. Remember, unlike the NFL packages, it’s not tethered to anything in the regular season. They’re literally just 11 games. So I think to drive maximum value, the more you divide it up, the more that potentially depresses price and value. But it certainly could be two.

Perhaps the most telling aspect here is the comparison to the NFL playoff package because we all know college football is looking more and more like the NFL every day. Certainly, Magnus would prefer to have the most playoff games possible. But if college football executives are as aggressive as their NFL counterparts in pursuing revenue, they will break it up as much as they can to draw in as much revenue as we can. We live in a time where there’s an NFL playoff game on Peacock after all.

[The Athletic]