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On Sunday morning, Sports Business Journal reported that the Big 12 has agreed to a new TV contract with current rightsholders ESPN and FOX. The deal represents a significant rights fee increase for the conference, as well as an increased measure of stability.
After reading all I could and reaching out to a few folks, here are some of my big takeaways on the agreement:
What are the high-level components of the deal?
According to SBJ, the Big 12 has signed an extension with their current broadcast partners through the runs through 2030-31 season. According to their reporting, that extension is "worth a total of $2.28B, an annual average of $380M, according to sources."
ESPN will get first dibs on most of the most important football inventory. Via SBJ:
For the “A” package, ESPN gets the top four football picks each season, six of the top eight picks, eight of the top 12 picks and 12 of the top 20 picks. As part of the deal, ESPN also gets the rights to the Big 12 football championship game and the basketball tournament championship game. The Big 12’s parity helped convince Fox, whose package includes 26 football games per season that will run on Fox broadcast network and FS1, to do the deal.
The average payout per school over the length of the deal, assuming I have done the math correctly, (which is quite the assumption), comes out to about $31.7 million per year, an increase over the current distributions even with Texas and Oklahoma in the room.
According to Pete Thamel of ESPN, the four-letter network will retain the Tier 3 rights for each Big 12 institution, meaning Big 12 fans can expect a healthy amount of total sports inventory to be moved to ESPN+. Thamel also reports that the Big 12 is expected to agree to a Grant of Rights agreement for the length of the deal, making it much more difficult for any Big 12 school to depart for another conference.
For some perspective on how significant this deal is, consider this quote from Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard:
The ADs aren’t the ones having the disagreements. When I hear people saying ‘Texas and Oklahoma this’ I laugh. I’m in the room. That’s not the case. The Big 12 exists because we have Texas and Oklahoma in the room. If we take Texas and Oklahoma out of the room, we’re the Mountain West Conference and we’re going to get $3 million [in distribution money as opposed to $20+ million from the Big 12].
In August of last year, former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby warned that Texas and Oklahoma represented 50% of the value of the Big 12 deal. That the Big 12 could lose those two brands and still generate a rights fee increase is a testament to how overwhelmingly valuable live sports rights are to linear broadcast companies, sure, but also to the job that the Brett Yormark and the Big 12 team did at the negotiating table. Last year, this result would have seemed impossible to anybody but perhaps the most optimistic Texas Tech fan. Now, it's reality.
What does this mean for the Pac-12?
Message boards and familiar voices tied to both conferences will likely debate what this new deal means for the Pac-12. I'd humbly posit that...it probably doesn't mean very much.
What I've heard from TV consultant types, and what other smart reporters have shared over the last few months, is that there isn't likely to be an enormous difference between the Pac-12 and Big 12 payouts. The Big 12 is now at $31.7ish over the next several years, and can offer cost certainty. Perhaps the Pac-12 is able to better monetize the Pac-12 Network and finds a streaming partner to overpay, and they can distribute $37 or $38 million. Perhaps the streaming bets never materialize, and the Pac-12 only distributes $27ish million in their next deal. I do not believe that this deal means that ESPN is no longer interested in being a major broadcast partner of the Pac-12.
If you're an AD, five, seven, ten million one way or another is a big deal, but that funding alone isn't enough to change conference affiliation, and the brands in either league who expect to compete for championships in football and basketball can fundraise and hire around it, provided they have good campus-level stewards of resources.
My best read is that the core fundamentals haven't really changed. If the Big Ten decides they want Oregon and Washington, it doesn't really matter what wizardly the Pac-12 is able to spin with Amazon...the Big Ten is going to take those teams, and potentially more...and then you don't really have a Pac-12 anymore. If the Big Ten doesn't, then the Pac-12 and Big 12 will be able to function just fine, with one league distributing a little more than the other, and their respective partisans sniping at each other into infinity.
That's basically where we were back in the summer, only now there are some hard numbers to assign with the Big 12. I don't really think the relentless comparisons between the two is especially helpful or interesting outside of Twitter or message boards, since four million bucks one way or another isn't going to swing the winner of any specific games.
If championships were won on FRS reports alone, Texas A&M wouldn't suck.
The conference that I think should have some element of concern is the Big East
After the Big Ten closed their massive TV contract back in August, I heard some unease from a few Big East administrators. The Big East is tied up with Fox through the 2024-2025 season, and suddenly, the network was about to take on even more Big Ten games that could compete for a finite number of inventory slots.
Now, for the first time, Fox will be broadcasting Big 12 basketball on both their main network and FS1. And unlike ESPN, Fox doesn't have a ready streaming package to park excess inventory. Fox will also carry Mountain West basketball games, NASCAR, and other events.
All of this is to say that prime basketball inventory space could be at a premium, and it's worth wondering if Fox will be willing to pay high prices to reup with the Big East, given that they now have long-term basketball commitments with the Big Ten and Big 12.
There would certainly be other partners who would be interested in Big East basketball, from ESPN, potentially other cable companies like Turner or NBC, or streaming partners. But what kind of money, and perhaps more importantly, exposure could be available for a non-football conference is a storyline worth following.
One big winner? Big 12 fans
18 months ago, it looked like the Big 12 was going to cease to exist. If you rooted for a school like Iowa State or Kansas State, wondering if you were going to end up in the American or the Mountain West was a real concern. Losing historic rivalries, championship access and more was all on the table.
Now, I think anybody rooting for a league school can breathe a sigh of relief. This long-term contract represents significant cost certainty and stability. College sports is going through significant transformational change and nobody can really tell you exactly how everything will be structured in 2029, but it is fair to assume that no matter what the industry looks like in five years, Big 12 schools will be sitting at the big kid's chair when it happens. They will have enough money and enough exposure to compete.
Not only that, but I'd argue that right now, Big 12 fans still get a pretty decent deal as consumers. The bulk of league inventory is still in the central and eastern time, where the majority of Big 12 fans live. Fans won't need to sign up for Peacock or Apple TV or any other paywalled streaming service outside of ESPN+, which they probably already have. To the extent that any broadcast package is consumer friendly, this outcome is as good as any fan could hope for.
Should the league expand to the west coast at some point, that situation could change. But for now, you shouldn't need to remember too many passwords to watch Oklahoma State or Houston football or basketball.
Where's the rest of the money coming from, and how will the school's spend it?
Pollard projects the total takeaway for Big 12 schools to reach close to $50 million a year, thanks to CFP and NCAA money. I don't think that's an irrational estimation, but I would caution fans and readers that we don't actually know how the CFP revenue will be distributed after expansion, nor do we know exactly how NCAAT revenue will be shared if and when the tournament expands. Projections for per-school takeaways into the later half of this decade are making some big assumptions.
Still, it's fair to say that given recent projections, Big 12 schools have to feel pretty good about their conference revenue. And if Yomark is successful in branding the Big 12 as Cool and Hip and Coastally Relevant (which I dunno, maybe!), perhaps the Big 12 could earn even more from new sponsorship revenues. What this league decides to do with sports books/sports data, non-conference events, MMR and other fundraising strategies will be very interesting, and potentially lucrative in a meaningful way.
But I'll raise this point every time we talk about P5 TV revenues...what's the school-specific plan for the money? Is it to create cash revenues, anticipating a post-amateurism future? Is it to double down on the previous model of investment in coaching salaries and capital projects? Will the money be reinvested in potential revenue-generating infrastructure?
Even with the increases, the topline money is still nowhere near the Big Ten or SEC. Is there a spending strategy that recognizes that?
Broadcast money is important. It's a major revenue line-item for every P5 school. These contracts determine how most of your fans will see your games, how recruits will first become introduced to your institution, and how the exposure that your Olympic programs can generate. But they're also just one line on the FRS report, one revenue source among many, one vendor among many, one decision among many. FOX TV money can't paper over coaching misfires, poor culture, insufficient development, and more.
But it's way better to have that money than not have it. So it's time to give credit where it's due...Brett Yomark called his shot, and it looks like he and his staff pulled through. The Big 12 is not going anywhere. You're going to be able to find it on your TV.
Now it's up to see how the local leaders will use these resources.
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