Discussing the Big Ten TV Contract

The Big Ten's television contract expires in 2007, and they have just begun the process of shopping around for a new television provider. ESPN currently has an exclusive negotiating window for renewal, but as Teddy Greenstein laid out in the Chicago Tribune, the Big Ten has other options as well. In this article, IlliniBoard.com weighs the pluses and minuses of the various options Greenstein discussed.

In March 20's online edition of the Chicago Tribune, Teddy Greenstein had a column detailing one of the biggest decisions that will face the Big Ten in the next year, their television contract. With all the publicity surrounding the Big Ten right now in how the conference is going to rebound from what was undoubtedly a very poor performance in the NCAA Tournament, the decision at the corporate office for a national television partner is sliding under fan's radars. The decision the Big Ten makes in their new television contract will determine how it competes with the other major conferences in the ever expanding arena of college athletics.

The current Big Ten television contract for both basketball and football is owned in parts by two separate entities: ABC Sports / ESPN and CBS Sports. When it comes to football, every Big Ten game is owned, and broadcast by one of ABC Sports / ESPN's many different properties. The contract that the Big Ten has in basketball extends across CBS Sports and ESPN for both the regular season and the post-season tournament. While Greenstein's article did not mention whether or not the Big Ten is looking to package these rights together, it is hinted that all he is talking about is football since he stated "ESPN has to be considered the strong favorite to retain its Big Ten rights." With that hint, let's ignore the basketball possibilities for now, and just look at the options the Big Ten has for their football coverage.

Big Ten Coverage as it is Today
This listing of the Big Ten coverage as it is today is not based on the reading of the Big Ten Television Contract with ESPN, it is based on being addicted to watching college football over the years on the various ESPN networks, and through ESPN's Pay-Per-View package, ESPN Game Plan.

  • Normally there will be two games at 11:00 AM Central time, one on each of ESPN and espn2. This has changed in recent years to where there are just two games combined on both of these channels throughout the day.
  • There is always one Big Ten game broadcast regionally on ABC Sports at 2:30 PM Central time. Normally, this game is decided at a later time so as to give ABC the best match up possible.
  • While there are exceptions (like when Illinois is playing a team like San Jose State), the rest of the games will be shown and broadcast through ESPN's regional syndication network, ESPN+. With the advent of ESPNU and ESPN actually deciding to air current games on ESPN Classic last season, some of these traditional ESPN+ contests were moved to ESPN's other cable properties.
  • In some cases when the games were not selected to be broadcast over ESPN+, ESPN has decided to stream the game over the Internet through their service known as ESPN360. An example of this was a few seasons ago, when Illinois traveled to Minnesota, the game was shown exclusively on the Internet for fans with the right Internet service provider.
  • The final item to the ESPN puzzle is their Pay-Per-View package that is available on almost all satellite and cable systems, ESPN Game Plan. ESPN Game Plan will pick up the out of region ABC games, and the ESPN+ games. For a nominal fee, Big Ten fans can find all non-nationally broadcast games via this service.
As a final note, the games included in this package are all Big Ten conference games, and non-conference games involving Big Ten teams that are played at home. For example, last season when Illinois traveled to Berkeley to take on Cal that game's broadcasting rights were owned by the Pac 10, and thus was not part of the Big Ten's television package as described above.

Now that we know what the Big Ten has, we can look for what they could have in the future. The options that Greenstein mentions in his article are: (1) re-signing with ESPN, (2) signing a deal with FOX, and (3) forming its own network while partnering with someone like Comcast. Let's look at all three of these possibilities in more depth.

Option 1: Re-Signing with ESPN
This is the option that Greenstein believes the Big Ten is leaning towards, and it makes the most sense. While they may not pay the Big Ten the most money, they will guarantee the Big Ten the most exposure to the college sports fan. Big Ten games now start right after ESPN's very popular College Gameday, and with ESPN televising their games, the station has a vested interest in ensuring the Big Ten remains on the tips of the tongues of fans across the country.

While it would be great for the game to start later than the traditional 11:00 AM start time for conference games if they are not on ESPN, this is a small price to pay (and my liver thanks the conference and ESPN) for the amount of exposure generated for the conference. The biggest downside is how ESPN is going to position the Big Ten in relation to its other college football properties, and how many of the "national" games are going to end up on ESPN-U versus being available on ESPN and espn2, especially with ESPN / ABC Sports now owning the rights for the Big East and ACC.

Option 2: FOX Sports
This possibility might have the most potential from an overall marketing perspective, but it is also very risky. FOX Sports just purchased the rights for the BCS Bowl Games (not including the Rose Bowl) starting in 2007, and they would love to have a conference that plays games throughout the entire season on FOX leading up to their big finale with the BCS. Before Notre Dame resigned with NBC, FOX made a run to get the Notre Dame television rights in anticipation of this, and they would love to have the Big Ten.

Benefits:
  • FOX will probably offer more money than ESPN because they need to overpay.
  • Cross-Promotion for Big Ten football games in other FOX sporting events during the time period (NFL Football, Major League Baseball Playoffs, and the World Series)
  • Proven ability to broadcast sports.
Negatives:
  • There is only one cable channel to broadcast games on, and it is not national. In fact, some major cities like Chicago have their local FOX Sports station flailing away due to regional sports networks like Comcast Sports Net (or YES).
  • There is no proven method to syndicate games on the Internet across the country.
  • There is no proven method to allow for all Big Ten games to be available to fans who are willing to purchase a pay-per-view package.
  • No national lead in show to the early games, as FOX Sports does not have a college football studio show.
While it would be great for the Big Ten to be FOX's college football partner, the negatives far outweigh the positives for all of the team's across the conference. It probably would not happen, but the absolute worst outcome of signing a deal with FOX, exclusively, could turn Big Ten football into Pac 10 basketball.

Option 3: Creating a Big Ten Network
This is the new way professional sports teams are going across the country. From YES to the various Comcast Sports Net's across the country, professional sports teams are starting to realize that is they produce and broadcast their games themselves, they can reap in the benefits of the advertising revenue and control what is shown. The NFL has also seen the benefit of doing this, and they have even gone as far as to using the NFL Network to airing some late season Thursday night and Saturday night games. If the Big Ten were to do this, they would need to partner up with someone like Comcast who could distribute the newly created channel.

Benefits:
  • The Big Ten would have complete control over their television properties and revenue.
  • It is possible than an entire channel could be created around Big Ten athletics. This could become a place where Big Ten Coaches Shows could be aired, and even minor Big Ten athletic contests.
  • It might be possible to have one or two national games broadcast through OLN, the channel Comcast is attempting to turn into a true competitor for ESPN.
Negatives:
  • Pretty much the same negatives as a deal with FOX Sports, but magnified even more.
  • If you attach on to a distribution provider like Comcast, it will probably be difficult to get the channel on their competitor's lineup. While Comcast Sports Net is available on other providers like Dish Network and DirecTV, it is still difficult to find it on other cable providers.
SUMMARY
I can see some fans now saying, "Let's stick it to ESPN and show them that we don't need them" in advocating either options two or option three, but in both of those options it is not ESPN that is hurting it is the fans of Big Ten football. By partnering with either FOX or creating your own channel with the assistance of someone like Comcast, the Big Ten would be making their games infinitely more difficult for fans across the country to find. Were this to happen, it would probably be a boon financially for the conference in the short term, but it would also hold long term consequences like a possibly decreased national fan base due to less exposure. Thankfully, it does appear that the Big Ten will eventually decide to re-sign with the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" for their football contract because it does offer the best for the conference and its fans.

The Big Ten would not be doing its due diligence were it to not look at all of the options on the table. Looking at FOX, CBS, or any other broadcaster besides ESPN is a smart move, but the decision should come down to ESPN assuming the coverage of Big Ten football remains at the level it has over the last decade from the Disney owned property. There is no better way to increase the fan base than by having a kid watch your program on ESPN and start to love it for whatever reason, and removing that possibility would be a bad thing for the Big Ten as it fights to keep its position as one of the premier conferences in college athletics with the Big East, ACC, SEC, Big XII, and Pac 10.

Just ask the Pac 10 and Big XII what happens when you sign bad TV deals. I mean who knew you could catch Big XII football on TBS?


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