The Sun Belt Conference won’t be immediately caught in the feared popping of the live sports rights bubble. On Thursday, ESPN announced an extension of their TV deal with the Sun Belt through the 2027-28 season, another eight seasons on top of the two remaining on the current contract between the two entities.
However, all of the games won’t be available on ESPN’s TV networks – most of them will be behind the ESPN+ paywall.
In fact, very few games will be on televised. Starting in 2020, only a minimum of 15 events (across all sports) will air on ESPN’s networks each season, with the rest “exclusively on ESPN+”. Ten football games and six men’s basketball games represent the bare minimum to be televised in 2020, along with the football conference championship game and both the men’s and women’s basketball tournament championship games.
The value of the deal wasn’t immediately known.
While some fans might object to the relatively low amount of Sun Belt games that will be on ESPN’s TV networks, you have to remember the sheer amount of college content the network has through deals with the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC, among many others. The Sun Belt isn’t going to take precedence over those marquee conferences, and there are few (if any) national sports networks that can offer a mid-major conference the ability to broadcast hundreds of events each year, even if the broadcast “only” takes place online.
This also represents pretty strong faith on ESPN’s part in ESPN+, before its even launched. The network is dedicating (presumably) millions of dollars to a conference on a new rights deal, and nearly all of those events will be aired on a platform that still isn’t live. If ESPN+ is a failure, this rights deal could end up as a complete bust for ESPN (though I would assume if that does happen, they would just roll these events into ESPN3/WatchESPN and forsake the $5/month for ESPN+).