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Last week, the basic framework of the Big Ten's next media deal began to leak out. The Big Ten will broadcast games with FOX, CBS and NBC. ESPN, who has broadcast Big Ten athletic events since the early 1980s, will reportedly not be a partner.
Assuming all of these reports are correct, this framework creates a unique broadcast arrangement for the Big Ten. It's going to make an absolute boatload of money, with the total value of the deal easily exceeding a billion dollars. It will give Big Ten football three different broadcast timeslots on Saturdays (noon for FOX, 3:30 ET for CBS, and primetime for NBC), and give the conference at least one streaming partner in Peacock.
Naturally, there are all sorts of big questions about this deal. What does it mean for Notre Dame? (Reportedly, Notre Dame is very happy that NBC is making a bigger push into college football) What will the final dollar figure be? How long is the deal? What does it mean for additional conference expansion?
Those are great questions. The Big Ten is expected to announce the deal as early as this week, so some of them could be answered very soon. Others will take some time.
I have three big unanswered questions. One of them, hopefully, should be cleared up whenever the Big Ten drops that press release...but two others won't become clear for a while.
Will the Big Ten's new broadcast partners beef up their non-broadcast media operations?
Last week, SI spoke to multiple college sports industry sources who said that the Big Ten's decision to move away from ESPN is "risky."
One of those reasons is because ESPN wields power and influence beyond broadcast windows. The College Football Playoff is a 100% ESPN-broadcast operation right now (that's...not going to be the case for the next Playoff contract), and the network will have partnerships with the SEC, ACC, and almost certainly at least one (if not both) of the Pac-12 and Big 12 in the near future. ESPN+ also coverers nearly every mid-major conference.
But beyond that mass of inventory, ESPN also has a huge newsroom that covers college sports. They have affiliated radio stations all over the country. They have massively popular podcasts. They can promote their college sports brands on NFL broadcasts, on daytime programming, online, on social media...everywhere. ESPN has the capacity to drive the conversation on basically every platform.
FOX and NBC can't do that the same way ESPN can...or at least, not right now.
Addressing that isn't a totally new concept. I don't think writing this will get me in trouble...but back in 2015, NBCUniversal bought a stake in Vox Media (the parent company of SB Nation, where I worked before launching Extra Points) and Buzzfeed. At the time, there was talk that NBC planned to use their investment, in part, to create digital programming to help promote their sports broadcast partnerships (Notre Dame football, the Golf Channel, professional soccer, etc). For a lot of reasons outside the scope of this newsletter, that mostly didn't happen, and now, of course, Vox laid off most of their SB Nation staff....so that's not really an option anymore.
Fox Sporitsopped most of their online writing staff back in 2017, and even after a few strategic hires, does not have anywhere close to the college sports writing presence of ESPN, CBS, etc. NBC shut down their college football and college basketball web properties in 2020.
It is possible that in 2023, the benefits of being able to support broadcast rights with a robust digital and/or radio presence have diminished. Maybe it doesn't matter that NBC has very little in the way of holistic college football coverage. But I would not be surprised if Fox, CBS, or NBC (or shoot, even Apple, Amazon, or other streaming partners) decided to hire some writers or make strategic investments to support their new multimillion-dollar media rights spend.
What does this mean for college basketball?
Make no mistake about it, Big Ten football inventory is what is driving the bus for these media rights deals. But those aren't the only broadcasts that have value. ESPN, Fox, and CBS currently carry Big Ten men's basketball games. The ESPN family of networks typically carries around 80 basketball games a year, including the highly popular Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Big Ten women's basketball, volleyball, and softball games are occasionally carried on linear networks as well.
That's a lot of inventory, inventory that isn't likely to be completely swallowed up by Fox since they don't have the sports inventory space that ESPN does. Will CBS increase the number of games they cover, likely on weekends? Will more basketball inventory get moved to Peacock or other streaming services? Could Fox even sublicense some of the inventory to ESPN?
Technically, the Big Ten/ACC challenge could continue, with Fox (or whoever) owning the rights to the Big Ten home games, and ESPN carrying the ACC home games. But I wouldn't be shocked if the series simply ends after the current event contract expires, and Fox/CBS/whoever seeks to create their own MTE or conference-wide inventory that they completely control.
At the 11:43 mark, my colleague Bryan Fischer asked Bob Tompson, former president of Fox Sports, about what he thinks the Big Ten will do with basketball rights:
In this interview, Thompson says "don't totally rule out some sort of sublicense deal with ESPN for basketball only."
(You can always watch this full interview by signing up for Collegiate Sports Connect)
What are these schools gonna do with the money?
I am asking this legitimately, not cynically.
Maybe the final headline number is $1.1 billion. Maybe it's $1.4 billion. I don't think it really matters that much. No matter what, Big Ten schools are about to make a lot more money each year from television.
Some of that money will need to go to paying for increased travel and logistical costs. Schools like UCLA, Maryland, and Rutgers could use that money to pay down institutional debt.
But most Big Ten schools are not heavily relying on student fees or cash-related direct institutional support. Most Big Ten schools already have high-level athletic facilities. Most Big Ten schools already pay high salaries for coaches and high-level staff. It is difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to point to many examples of a sport that a Big Ten school wants to be competitive in, but hasn't, due to resource investment. This is not the MAC. These schools, yes, even UCLA, were already rich.
Are we to expect that schools will actually save their cash windfall for several years, in anticipation of a world where they need to directly compensate athletes? Do we expect Big Ten schools to finally take baseball investment seriously? To pay competitive salaries for junior athletic department staffers to actually want to stay in their jobs? To start new sport--lol okay there's no way that's happening without lawsuits, c'mon.
There are only so many things you can gold plate, so many facilities to build, and so many analysts to hire. Saving the money, or sending it back to central campus, would likely be the most prudent pathway, but when has fiscal responsibility ruled college sports? What's the plan, the vision, for a world where Big Ten schools suddenly have $30 million more each season?
The cynical answer is that it just gets spent on consultants, head coaches, assistants, and lawyers. That may be what happens.
Let's see if anybody has a better idea.
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