Jimmy Pitaro in 2018

Since April’s news that the Big Ten had signed a deal to not only make Fox their main media partner again, but also have Fox help pick who else gets conference rights (for 2023-24 and beyond), there’s been a lot of discussion about if that might signal an exit for ESPN (currently the conference’s other media partner). ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro addressed that and other subjects recently on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media Podcast, with Deitsch writing that interview up at The Athletic. And there, Pitaro (seen above in 2018) indicated that ESPN at least thinks they’re still in the Big Ten running, even with their new SEC deal (officially announced last December, kicking in in 2024-25) locking up some coveted ABC time slots that might have been used for the Big Ten:

“Look, we have a great relationship with the Big Ten. They are certainly an ascending conference. They had a fantastic season last year. I’m not just talking about football. … They’ve been a big part of ESPN for a long time now. It’s no secret. If (commissioner Kevin Warren) were on this podcast with me right now, he would be comfortable with me saying that we are in discussions. That being said, just like every other property, we enter these discussions understanding that we can’t get everything and that we’re going to proceed with both discipline and thoughtfulness. So I can’t tell you how this is going to play out. We are very much in it right now.”

“…So just in case anyone doesn’t know what the heck we’re talking about here. In 2024, we will add on to our game inventory with the SEC first pick (for football) every week. That has been the 3:30 p.m. ET broadcast window on Saturdays (on CBS). In addition, we’ll have the conference championship game. We’ll get an additional nine marquee SEC basketball games. We’ll have one out-of-conference SEC football game per team per year. So once Texas and Oklahoma are in (in 2025), we’ll have 16 out-of-conference games. In the 2024 season, it would be 14 games. That’s the deal we struck with the SEC.”

“The great thing about that deal if I had to summarize it with one word, it would be flexibility, meaning we’re now going to have a marquee game at 3:30 on broadcast on ABC but we also have the ability to put marquee games Saturday night on ABC. We’re going to have SEC games across ESPN and across ABC for all three windows on Saturday. I think if commissioner (Greg) Sankey were honest on this podcast right now, he would say that they’re really excited about being partnered with one enterprise where we can create that kind of flexibility. But just getting back to your question, is there less inventory? Of course there is because of when this SEC deal kicks off in 2024. However, we’ve been very thoughtful about this and there’s still plenty of room for Big Ten and Pac-12. We’re pursuing both. … No one should misinterpret: When we did this SEC deal, no one at ESPN said, OK, that means we’re walking away from another conference.”

And there have been previous comments indicating ESPN would love to keep airing Big Ten games, including what ESPN president (programming and scheduling) Burke Magnus told Deitsch in February when asked how badly they want to stay in the Big Ten business:

“Badly. We go way back with the Big Ten. 1996 was the first time we had a Big Ten game on ABC…we go all the way back to that time with the Big Ten and we’ve been through a ton together. We’ve been their exclusive rights holder. We’ve shared. We’ve lived through the advent of the Big Ten Network. Fox and ESPN and the Big Ten Network and ABC make an incredible combination right now, so we intend to pursue it aggressively.

“We love the Big Ten. It fits perfectly into our portfolio. I don’t think I’m breaking any news here to suggest that it’s really important to our overall college football and college sports business…It’s just perfect for us and we hope very much to continue.”

As time continues to progress without the announcement of a new ESPN-Big Ten deal, though, questions continue to rise on if that relationship will actually continue. The delay between the announcement of Fox gaining primary rights and the announcement of where the remainder of the conference’s rights will go is already as long as it was in 2016, when the ESPN deal was announced on June 20 following a Fox deal that April. And the added top-tier schedule commitments ESPN and ABC have gained from the SEC deal does make it harder to see how the Big Ten might fit there.

And a deal for the remainder of the Big Ten rights doesn’t appear imminent. And the longer the wait is, the more speculation will rise that that’s about new deals in some form (whether that’s the full ESPN package going to one other bidder, the full ESPN package being split between several bidders, or ESPN retaining a partial package with the rest going elsewhere).  It’s certainly interesting to have Pitaro on the record that ESPN is still “very much in it right now,” but also to hear him adding the caveats of “discipline and thoughtfulness,” which might be paving the way for comments of “We would have loved to keep those rights, but we couldn’t afford it.”

In any case, it’s clear that ESPN would love Big Ten rights, but it’s also clear that they may be fine without them if they can’t come to a deal that works for them. And there are many questions remaining on if they’ll actually get their full previous Big Ten package, or any Big Ten package at all. It will be worth keeping an eye on how this progresses.

[The Athletic; photo from Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.