ESPN, the long-term steward of the vast majority of college football, is for the first time in decades relinquishing its grips on a Power Five conference. This is no small thing.
This is one of the most consequential moves in sports media in my lifetime, and other dominoes are certain to fall in time, ultimately reshaping the country’s second favorite sport. Ripples of this move will be felt far and wide and for decades to come. I’ll likely have more on this historic development later this week, but for now, I thought I’d shine a lot on some of the big questions that loom large as the Big Ten and ESPN plot a future no longer working together.
Where will basketball and other popular winter sports go?
Mostly everyone is viewing the Big Ten’s new media deal through the lens of football and specifically how exactly Fox, NBC, and CBS will split the conference’s football games. Early reports seem to indicate that CBS will have a weekly 3:30 pm ET game (replacing their popular SEC window), NBC having a weekly primetime game, and FOX keeping their popular Big Noon window while also taking the leftovers to spread across FS1, BTN, as well as Fox later in the day.
But what about other winter sports and men’s basketball, which actually gets more inventory than football?
Nobody has said anything about men's basketball! Where is that all going to end up? ESPN was the tonnage carrier for the conference. Big Ten/ACC challenge? Is that going to be a casualty?
— Bob Thompson (@rltsports) August 9, 2022
The Big Ten had a pretty good arrangement with the majority of their basketball games airing on FS1, ESPN, ESPN2, and BTN during the week. You also see some games on Fox during the weekend and a few games on ESPNU as well. It’s pretty damn optimal.
Having all of this shelf space across these channels has also allowed other winter sports room to breathe. Big Ten wrestling, women’s basketball, and both men and women’s ice hockey have been getting some modest ratings traction (mostly on BTN, but also the listed networks, plus NBCSN and now USA, also air some men’s hockey as well). There seemed to be some ratings momentum behind these sports as well. Additionally, Big Ten basketball ratings usually fare better than all other major P5 conferences, so it’s not exactly just a throw-in item for networks to go along with football.
But with ESPN seemingly out of the picture, where will all those men’s games go, and would potential lack of shelf space force the other winter sports off of television?
FS1 and BTN would love to take on more basketball during the week, and you’d probably see Fox air more college basketball during the weekend, especially after football season ends. But given their current commitments to the Pac 12, Mountain West, and Big East, there’s just very little room to take on the tonnage that ESPN will be losing.
Two non-obvious options you could see here would be:
- ESPN actually may actually try to keep a basketball-only package (possible, although the addition of the NHL lessens their dependence here).
- With ESPN’s inventory moving over and the addition of USC and UCLA (and perhaps more), you could maybe even see Fox launch a BTN2 or BTN overflow channel.
The more obvious answers would be:
- NBC-owned USA, with its significant cable distribution, becomes a major hub of Big Ten basketball and potentially other winter sports.
- Less attractive options (because of less distribution and reach) like CBSSN, and streaming options like Peacock and Paramount+.
- Some Big Ten basketball and other sports find themselves on a streaming platform like AppleTV+ or Amazon Prime as part of a smaller TBD announced streaming package that would most likely center around Friday night football.
If I had to guess, I think the USA option or maybe an ESPN basketball-specific deal (or a combination of both) is most likely. All that said, the current setup was pretty ideal for both basketball, but additionally pretty damn good for the growing foothold you were seeing for wrestling, hockey, and women’s basketball. I think it’s going to be hard for the Big Ten to preserve that momentum without ESPN as a partner.
Will ESPN get access to SEC rights a year early?
One interesting crossover to keep an eye on:
The Big Ten’s next TV deal, which is expected to include CBS, starts in 2023-24. That is also the last year of the SEC’s current TV deal with CBS.
How will CBS handle both next season?
— Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) August 9, 2022
CBS has two more seasons (2022 and 2023) left on their sweetheart deal with the SEC (the prized 3:30 pm ET game of the week) before it goes to ABC/ESPN in 2024. This new Big Ten deal would start in 2023, which means CBS is essentially double-booked in that 3:30 slot. So, what happens here?
The easiest option would be for ESPN to buy out CBS’s last year of the SEC deal. ESPN will have to fill the void of the Big Ten leaving and would love to get rolling a year ahead of schedule, given their extensive all-in relationship with the SEC. CBS is double-booked, and lame-duck years are always not ideal.
CBS’ deal is such a bargain, though; it’s no sure thing they’d want to part with it, especially if ESPN takes a tough line negotiating. It’s been rumored for quite a while that ESPN would want to start earlier than planned with the SEC, but thus far there hasn’t been really any smoke other than they’re eager to get going. We’ll see.
The other possibility is some type of altered year one of the new TV deal, in which CBS airs some games here and there, scheduling around their SEC commitment- and Fox and maybe NBC pick up some additional games so that CBS can manage the one year of double-booking. Either way, it will take a lot of secondary deals to get this done, so we might need to call in Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to get a final answer here.
It'll be up to the SEC, CBS and ESPN to figure out if the SEC can get out of this early. If the SEC stays on CBS as scheduled for 2023, I could see the Big Ten doing some sort of smaller package with CBS — just so they have a presence and aren't MIA for the first year. https://t.co/4GNu4ONvxt
— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) August 9, 2022
Does this increase the chances of Notre Dame of joining the Big Ten?
Per my tweet from early July, I think yes?
A guess of where we are right now
Fox to B10: Go get ND
B10 to ND: you in?
ND to NBC: Can you pay more than the B10?
NBC to ND: No. But maybe if involved in B10 tv deal
ND to B10: NBC wants to talk to Fox
NBC to Fox: we share a common interest-competing with ESPN
Fox: Go on… https://t.co/PBaovn1wtj
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) July 2, 2022
What we actually know about Notre Dame is as follows:
- The Big Ten wants them.
- Notre Dame hasn’t said a damn thing about that interest.
- Notre Dame would prefer to stay independent, but if the Tv dollars aren’t there for them to remain independent, you’ll probably see them join the B10.
With that in mind with NBC getting in on the Big Ten deal, it cracks the door a bit wider for the conference here. NBC and Notre Dame like working together. The Big Ten, for now, seems like it will be the only conference that will have at least three broadcast network games in a week. I think if Notre Dame could A) get more money joining the Big Ten than staying independent, B) have more games on a broadcast network than their current deal affords, and C) be allowed most or all of their home games to remain on NBC, you very well might see them take the plunge.
Additionally, with NBC having a Big Ten package, you have to ask if they will be as committed to Notre Dame as in years past, given they’re now bought into a Power Five conference? If I’m an oddsmaker, I think the odds of Notre Dame to the Big Ten made a pretty notable jump towards more likely to happen than what it was not long ago.
Does this make further realignment more or less likely?
Oh man. I hate opening up this can of worms.
The Big Ten and the SEC can pretty much gobble up anyone they want whenever they want minus Notre Dame (for now?). This means if your name is Stanford, Washington, Oregon, Miami, Clemson, and Florida State, it’s very possible it might be more of a question of when than if. Other schools like North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Cal, Arizona State, and Colorado are also other possible dominoes that could fall should this SEC vs. Big Ten landgrab continue to snowball.
So, has any of this changed with yesterday’s news?
I’d say yes.
NBC and CBS soon to be working exclusively with the Big Ten in terms of power conferences along with Fox has more of a gravitational pull for Notre Dame than without them all working together. If USA decides they really want to do weekday basketball or CBS wants to beef up their weekend basketball slate (you have to think they would, given they currently air Big3 basketball), you’d have three networks warmed up to the idea of expanding, given Fox seems inclined towards growing the Big Ten Network’s distribution. If the addition of Notre Dame is now more likely, you’d have to expect more dominoes to fall not long after Notre Dame decides its future.
Additionally, with USC and UCLA soon to be leaving the Pac-12, the remaining attractive asset the conferences are really trying to sell is their unique ability to provide networks late night games (a fourth game window of the day, starting at 10:30 ET). If Fox feels like ESPN being shut out of the Big Ten deal will likely lead to ESPN securing a new deal with the Pac-12 (one without Fox involved) and thus securing more of those late game windows, you may now see Fox nudge the Big Ten to absorb the remaining red meat left to be had in the Pac-12 so the late night window is dominated by Fox and not ESPN.
Will a streaming company get a slice of a new Big Ten deal?
The slow drip of reporting has yet to include much info on if a fourth partner will join Fox, NBC, and CBS in the Big Ten’s next rights deal. There is though, this small blurb from Nicole Auerbach at The Athletic.
The Big Ten is also expected to add a streaming package, a source told The Athletic, though it is not yet clear how it will be structured and whether or not Amazon or Apple will be involved. Both companies have significantly increased their investment in live sports programming in the past year. Another streaming candidate under consideration is Peacock, which is already part of NBC’s offerings, a different source said.
I’ve long thought that Amazon and Apple’s aim would be to try to carve out a package of Friday night games, which would most likely be a package of tier two or three games I don’t think CBS, NBC, or Fox would be too upset giving up (think Nebraska vs. Maryland). It seems like that’s still an option with Amazon believed to be the more motivated and engaged bidder.
That said, with NBC and CBS already in the fold, you might see either of them look to be aggressive in adding a streaming exclusive game to Peacock or Paramount +.
It’s hard to make sense of what might shake out on this front. Beyond Auerbach’s reporting above, it’s been mostly crickets on the possible streaming component of this of late. There just hasn’t been too much smoke behind any particular streaming company getting this done, nor much out there about when these games would be and how much they would be sold to a streaming company for.
My best guess is the Big Ten/Fox wanted to figure this out last once the dust settled on if they were going to keep ESPN in the fold. Peacock or Amazon on Friday night would be my best guess, but once again, my batting average on conjecture on this front is respectable but shouldn’t be taken with much confidence.
What does this mean for an expanded College Football Playoff?
It was gamed to exclude ESPN from the start https://t.co/bGHTgXPgUW
— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) August 10, 2022
The College Football Playoff was always going to be expanded. The main questions were- when, how many teams, and what networks would be involved? Once again, Auerbach spells out the moving pieces here.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren opposed early efforts to expand the CFP last winter, in part because CFP expansion prior to the end of the current contract (which expires in 2026) meant that ESPN would have an exclusive negotiating window. Warren has long advocated for the CFP to have multiple media partners, which many in the industry have taken to mean Fox getting involved.
What Warren has envisioned for college football’s premier postseason event is akin to the NFL playoffs: Multiple media partners broadcasting different rounds and investing more in their coverage of the sport year-round to support that.
Additionally, last October, it seemed that one of the key things preventing an expedited playoff expansion deal was the conferences’ preference that ESPN not entirely own such a package. Pete Thamel (then at Yahoo and now at ESPN) shared the following:
“The Alliance has somewhat cast ESPN as the bully and stood on the table for multiple media partners to buy into the next iteration of the playoff. But it’s understood that ESPN is likely to play ball with bringing in a second partner because it doesn’t want to lose everything when the current contract ends after the 2025 regular season. (Much like CBS did in fumbling the SEC by not playing ball in the short term and getting shut out.)
The College Football Playoff has been using two consultants to guide it through the process. The early projections for the expanded 11-game format are intriguing.
“I think, frankly, when we start taking a look at the numbers, the numbers are astronomical,” said one person involved in the process. “I think the presidents believe that we need to have an auction [for media rights]. I think it would be in our best interest to have at least two, three [or more] different groups bidding on this.”
With the Big Ten firmly in the grips of Fox, and the SEC and ACC firmly aligned with ESPN, I think it seems a certainty that any expanded playoff is going to have to be some type of collaboration between the two networks similar to how Turner splits the NBA playoffs with ESPN and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with CBS. Fox does not like being boxed out of the playoff and major bowls, and securing the Big Ten was their ticket into forcing the issue so they have a seat at the table going forward regarding broadcasting the playoffs.
Where does this leave the Pac-12 and the Big 12?
Both conferences are pretty much stuck just hoping the poaching from the big two stops. At some point when the bleeding is actually over, they too will have to figure out their television futures. Most of the reporting and speculation has cooled, given the Big Ten’s expansion and now television rights extensions taking center stage.
The Pac-12 just now emerged from their exclusive negotiating window with ESPN with no new deal. Both the Pac-12 and the Big 12 are for now mostly focused on trying from an optics standpoint to seem like the more stable conference capable of absorbing the remains of the other conference. I’d give a small advantage to the Pac-12 for now, given they have a conference-owned network that can be absorbed and also the ability to have late-night games. However, that advantage would crumble should they suffer any other defections (so really a very tenuous advantage given how precarious things are).
The chess board between Big Ten vs. SEC (and really ESPN vs. Fox) now moves here. How much juice is there to squeeze from the remaining picked-over bits of these conferences?
The smart money seems to think that the Pac-12 is more likely to align with ESPN now, given they just lost the Big Ten rights and have more money to spend to shore up their strategy. Additionally, it was the Big Ten and Fox who shanked the Pac-12 by adding USC and UCLA. It’s often hard to make nice after being shanked!
On that note, the Big 12 seems to be more likely to align with Fox and friends (not the show, but this new triumvirate that includes NBC and CBS, and perhaps even a streaming partner as well). The thinking there is Fox is going to need some more schools that can actually have games scheduled at their preferred noon ET kickoff time. Additionally, the same logic applies in that ESPN/SEC just also knifed the Big 12 by adding Texas and Oklahoma, and before that Texas A&M and Missouri. To my knowledge, there’s no couples’ therapy for conferences and television networks who stabbed them (although I’m open to starting a practice).
What will these conferences actually look like in a few years is a real question mark, as is the networks’ interest in conferences that have essentially lost their biggest television draws and major brands.
So yes… a lot of questions to be answered. For better or worse, college football will continue to be a wild unpredictable ride on and off the field. This is just what happens when a near monopoly loses its grip on something insanely popular.
Fox is making progress competing with ESPN by presenting itself as an alternative to perceived SEC favoritism