The latest long-term NCAA rights deal comes from the American Athletic Conference, and it’s a deal with ESPN that includes a heavy ESPN+ component. The AAC’s received a lot of attention recently thanks to the Power 5 NCAA conferences’ rights not expiring until 2023 at the earliest, making the American and the Mountain West (both expiring after 2019-20) two of the most intriguing properties on the market. And with the AAC, there was a significant subplot; the conference wanted a grant-of-rights agreement that would lock schools in for the long term (making it so they’d have to pay substantial penalties if they chose to leave), arguing that they could get much more money that way, while top schools like UCF and Memphis wanted to keep their options open.
In the end, the AAC signed a long-term deal without a grant of rights. But they still managed to make a major increase in the amount of money they’re getting, which will be almost four times what it was. And a big part of that is about moving more of their content to ESPN+, ESPN’s over-the-top streaming service. Here’s more on that from Michael Smith and John Ourand of Sports Business Journal:
The American Athletic Conference will get $1B for its media rights from ESPN over 12 years, according to sources. The average of $83.3M per year is about four times what the AAC was making in its previous rights agreement with the net, which paid the league just over $20M annually. The new agreement begins in ’20-21 and runs through the ’31-32 academic year.
The annual per-school average of $6.94M provides each AAC school with nearly $5M more in annual revenue.
…The comprehensive deal provides ESPN with rights to all of the AAC’s live programming, except for a small package of basketball games on CBS and some Navy football games on CBS Sports Network. The new contract also calls for some Saturday football games to be broadcast on ABC. Football, along with men’s and women’s basketball, will remain on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, but the majority of basketball games and a significant number of the football games will go to ESPN+. Other live sports including baseball, softball and soccer also will air on ESPN+.
Without obtaining that grant of rights, this is probably about the best the AAC could do. ESPN is a logical partner for a less-prominent conference like this, as it has a wide array of channels with decent distribution. Particular AAC games with potential wide national interest (say, UCF going for an undefeated season or Memphis in a prominent basketball matchup) could air on ESPN proper or even ABC, while others could be put on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNEWS (all of which still have wider distribution than, say, FS2 or CBSSN). And even the ESPN+ part of this package seems good for the conference; ESPN’s paying them a lot of money to bolster its ESPN+ lineup, and that service isn’t limited by a number of linear channels, so there’s lots of room for even lower-profile AAC games there. (This is also good for ESPN, as the AAC is probably the highest-profile college conference they’ve been able to add football and basketball from to ESPN+ so far, edging out the MAC and the Sun Belt. And it marks yet another big-money deal for ESPN+ content, following the one they struck for UFC PPVs earlier this week.)
For AAC fans, this is less unilaterally positive, as they’ll likely now have to buy an ESPN+ subscription to catch some of the content they’re interested in. Yes, that’s only $5 a month for now, but that price likely won’t stay that low forever. And with split packages like this that also include content on ESPN’s linear TV channels, many fans can’t just buy ESPN+; they’ll also need a cable/satellite/streaming pay-TV subscription in order to catch games on those TV channels. The increase in rights fees here should help AAC schools compete, but this is also going to get more expensive for many of those who follow the conference.