The Big Ten is poised to deliver a stunner when it finalizes its media rights negotiations at some point in the coming days. Barring a last-minute surprise, ESPN is not expected to land one of the Big Ten’s packages, a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations confirmed to The Athletic.
In addition to Fox, which had locked up Big Ten rights months ago, the conference is likely to partner with both CBS and NBC. Such deals, if finalized, could result in the following Saturday slate: a noon ET game on Fox, a 3:30 p.m. ET game on CBS and primetime on NBC. Multiple sources involved in the negotiations have reiterated over the past month that the Big Ten has prioritized exclusive windows throughout the process.
Sports Business Journal first reported the developments and noted that ESPN is still negotiating with the Big Ten, so there is still a chance the network will end up with a package. If ESPN does not end up with any Big Ten football and basketball games in this round of negotiations, it will be historic. ESPN has carried Big Ten games for the last 40 years; it has shared rights with Fox in the current deal, which is set to expire in 2023.
The Big Ten is also expected to add a streaming package, though it is not yet clear if that will go to Amazon or Apple, a source told The Athletic. Both companies have significantly increased their investment in live sports programming in the past year.
Here’s what we know about the potential options:
How ESPN losing the Big Ten impacts its battle with Fox
If the Big Ten were to move on from ESPN, this would add quite a bit of fuel to the fire brewing between ESPN and Fox. ESPN has exclusive rights to the SEC, and Fox would have primary rights to the Big Ten — so, the rivals would each be backing a different horse as the two 16-team conferences are set to pull away from their peers by the end of the decade. What could that mean for programming decisions? Framing? Future media rights tied to an expanded College Football Playoff?
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren opposed early efforts to expand the CFP last winter, in part because CFP expansion prior to the end of the current contract (which expires in 2026) meant that ESPN would have an exclusive negotiating window. Warren has long advocated for the CFP to have multiple media partners, which many in the industry have taken to mean Fox getting involved.
Everyone I’ve talked to in and around the Big Ten throughout the last few months has stressed the league’s desire for exclusive windows. I asked if there could be too many partners for a league to have & was told nope.
— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) August 9, 2022
What Warren has envisioned for college football’s premier postseason event is akin to the NFL playoffs: Multiple media partners broadcasting different rounds and investing more in their coverage of the sport year-round to support that.
What this means for the Pac-12, Big 12 and Notre Dame
If ESPN doesn’t get a Big Ten package, you’d have to think this bodes well for both the Pac-12 and Big 12, whose rights are coming up next. The Pac-12 opened its exclusive negotiating window with ESPN early in the aftermath of USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten.
What is perhaps equally — if not more — interesting is how Notre Dame fits into these developments. Could NBC’s relationship with the Big Ten help push the Irish toward joining the conference? With longtime rival USC and a footprint that now stretches from Los Angeles to New York City, the Big Ten believes it has never been more attractive to the independent Irish. The checks that the conference is about to hand out to its members thanks to this new media deal won’t hurt either. Multiple outlets have reported that the Big Ten is seeking to eclipse $1 billion in rights fees per year in its new deal.
The impact on future conference realignment
The Big Ten’s decision to add USC and UCLA earlier this summer sparked another wave of speculation about super conferences. Though the SEC and Big Ten are both going to be at 16 members apiece by 2025, the expectation throughout the industry is that neither league is going to stay at that size forever.
But there has not been any major movement since that news broke at the end of June. The Pac-12 is beginning to work through its media rights deal and figure out what it is worth to partners without the LA schools. That is likely the next important piece of the puzzle, as will be any sort of contractual relationships that tether schools such as Oregon, Washington and Stanford to the Pac-12 for a set period of time. The Big Ten opted to add just two schools back in June. Now that the media deal is nearly done, could it look further into the possibility of a western wing? If the Big Ten really wanted to, it could look both to the Pacific Northwest and the Bay Area. That could give the conference inventory for the Saturday late-night TV window — a fourth window, for those keeping track at home — and also allow for easier travel opportunities for all sports for the LA schools.
Could the new media rights deal and relationship with NBC convince Notre Dame to make a move? The Big Ten would surely act quickly if that became a possibility.
These potential decisions did not need to be made and locked in before the Big Ten signs this deal. Multiple people involved in the process told The Athletic that they expect that the league’s contracts include triggers that would either allow for renegotiation in the event of conference membership addition or incrementally adjust the payouts automatically in such an event.
Where could a streaming package land and what could it look like?
Scott Dochterman, college football staff writer: Big Ten officials were tepid about a streaming-only option because of the risk of alienating fans like it did when BTN launched in 2007. Those administrators grew more comfortable with streaming potential throughout the late spring and early summer.
The NFL debuts a weekly package on Amazon Prime beginning this fall, Apple TV streams an exclusive MLB game on Friday nights and MLS inked a 10-year deal with Apple TV beginning in 2023. Other college leagues have streaming options as part of its media-rights arrangement but not an exclusive package. Amazon Prime long was considered the favorite to pick up the Big Ten’s streaming rights, but Apple TV rejoined the negotiation following the USC/UCLA expansion announcement on June 30. NBC’s Peacock also could become a stand-alone streaming option if the linear network wins a Big Ten package.
How could viewing windows play out?
Dochterman: An industry source said Big Ten officials approached school administrators this spring about revisiting options for Friday night or mid-to-late November primetime kickoffs. Currently, the Big Ten schedules four Friday night kickoffs with only two outside of Labor Day weekend.
The league’s media rights agreements with Fox and ESPN allow for network-controlled primetime scheduling through the first weekend in November. From the second weekend onward, both schools must agree for a game to move into primetime. However during the pandemic in 2020, arrangements were made for additional late-November primetime kickoffs. By adding UCLA and USC, weather won’t be a major issue for primetime kickoffs as it is in the Midwest and East Coast.
It appears the Big Ten will air games in all three coveted windows: noon, 3:30 p.m. and primetime on linear networks Fox, CBS and NBC, respectively. FS1 and BTN, of which Fox owns 61 percent, also will spread out kickoff times. Big Ten officials have asked schools to consider joining Iowa-Nebraska as a second Black Friday option, which now could be in play with USC and UCLA joining the league in 2024. To this point, all have declined.
(Top photo: Aaron Doster / USA Today)
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