When it comes to college sports media rights catastrophes, the Pac-12 is peerless. Their conference network remains unavailable to a wide swatch of the country, with distribution numbers lagging well behind the Big Ten, SEC, and now even the ACC.
But even aside from the Pac-12 Network, their rights deals with ESPN and Fox have frustrated schools thanks both to the amount of scheduling freedom the networks have and the Saturday evening windows the league occupies. As Jon Wilner detailed today for The Mercury News in a deep dive that’s very much worth reading, those factors are remnants of the $3 billion rights deal the conference signed in 2011.
The Pac-12 presidents, aghast at the growing revenue gap and fearful of falling further behind peer conferences, instructed new commissioner Larry Scott to cut the best media rights deal possible in the spring of 2011.
On the other side of table, with checkbooks at-the-ready and airtime to fill, ESPN and Fox asked for the rights to televise an unprecedented number of football games at 7 p.m. Pacific or later.
Not only that, they wanted the flexibility to set the kickoff times for conference games either 12 or six days in advance, to ensure the best matchups would fill the choice windows.Scott agreed, the presidents approved, the networks handed over $3 billion over 12 years, the night-game train left the station and everyone was happy.
It’s understandable why the networks would be interested; the geography involved means they can fill more than 12 hours of college football Saturday with Power 5 games, from noon EST until the last West coast game ends after midnight EST, typically much later than that. The Pac-12, though, apparently didn’t consider the impacts on both exposure and the level of play on the field.
The ratings info compiled by Wilner is especially relevant:
The Hotline examined the kickoff time and broadcast network for every Pac-12 game last season to determine the percentage available to a wide audience during peak national viewing hours.
There were 54 conference games and 36 non-conference games — 90 total.
However, not all were owned by the Pac-12. Let’s remove from our calculation the neutral site and non-conference road games and instead focus on the 77 games controlled by the conference and its TV partners.
Of those, 57 were either on the Pac-12 Networks (34) or started on ESPN/Fox at 7 p.m. Pacific or later (23).
In other words: 74 percent of the conference’s most marketable product was on a network with severely limited reach or on major networks during hours of greatly reduced viewership.
(The most-watched Pac-12 night game of last season, Arizona State-Michigan State, generated a 1.5 rating and 2.3 million viewers.
(Only five other games all season were 1.0 or better, according to the fabulous ratings database at sportsmediawatch.com.)
The league is clearly aware of this, which is why they even approached the networks looking for a way out of this part of the agreement. Unfortunately they couldn’t meet the price:
“The tradeoff that was proposed by our TV partners … was a financial figure,” Lindberg said, “and it was significant enough that membership said it wasn’t an issue that we would explore anymore.”
So, with no way out for now and no reprieve coming until their current deals run out in 2024, the Pac-12 can’t really do anything but wait and hope that their rights value doesn’t tank even further before then.