In October, the NBA signed a $24 billion contract extension with ESPN and Turner Sports as the last professional sports league to sign a long-term television contract through the end of this decade. The ACC, Big XII, Pac-12, and SEC all have television deals that last until 2023 or longer. That leaves only one major sports contract to come up for renewal in the next few years: the Big Ten Conference.
The Big Ten's current contract with ABC and ESPN expires after the 2016-17 season, meaning that negotiations will be starting pretty soon. At the time, the $1 billion agreement was the richest in college sports, though that's been eclipsed by the recent deals ESPN has signed with the ACC and SEC. For now. Barring some sort of collapse of the television industry, the Big Ten's next television deal will rise once again to the top of college sports.
Currently, ESPN/ABC has the rights to televise approximately 41 football games each season. The typical breakdown for each week is three to four games each week: typically two 11 am games on an ESPN network, a 2:30 pm game on ABC, and an occasional primetime game on ABC. Whatever ESPN doesn't televise falls to BTN to broadcast.
Moving forward, what would fans like for a new television contract? Ignore the money for now; commissioner Jim Delany will worry about that. Ignore personalities as well; announcers come and go all the time.
Before answering that question, fans have to realize that as the last conference to renegotiate, the Big Ten's next deal has to fit in with the networks existing commitments to broadcast sports on Saturdays. So who might be potential bidders for the Big Ten's next television deal, focusing on football?
Networks: CBS (over the air), CBS Sports Network (typically digital cable)
Other commitments: Late afternoon SEC game, select Military Academy matchups, Mountain West (cable)
Networks: Fox (over the air), Fox Sports 1 and 2 (cable), FSN (regional sports networks)
Other commitments: Big XII, Pac-12, Major League Baseball playoffs
Networks: NBC (over the air), NBCSN (cable)
Other commitments: Notre Dame home games, PGA Golf, NASCAR
Networks: ABC (over the air), ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU
Other commitments: ACC, Big XII, Pac-12, SEC (cable).
Networks: TBS (cable), TNT (cable), TruTV (cable)
Other commitments: Major League Baseball playoffs
Big Ten Network
Networks: BTN (cable)
So what should the Big Ten do?
My first take is that the current ABC/Big Ten contract should be split up, and only some of it should remain on ABC/ESPN. Why? The Worldwide Leader in Sports might be best summed up as "you can't live with them, but you can't live without them." ABC and ESPN's existing contracts don't leave a lot of room for the Big Ten; some late afternoon and prime time games are only broadcast regionally, meaning that some fans outside the Big Ten footprint won't be able to get the game...or will get pulled away in the event of a blowout for a more competitive game. And more often than not, ESPN picks two games for the "kegs and eggs" 11 am window each week. Maybe folks on the east coast like noon kickoffs, but morning kickoffs are a real downer for just about everybody else.
But in this era of "SEC bias," the Big Ten cannot afford to abandon the discussion on ESPN either. They have to be there, or face the consequences of being ignored. Take the example of the NHL and their television contract with NBC. NBC's commitment to the game is much higher than anything ESPN has provided over the years, but the downside is that hockey is now shunned by ESPN. Take last Saturday night for example. With no NBA, NFL, or baseball games that day, SportsCenter still didn't cover a single NHL game that night.
The Big Ten's image has taken a real beating in recent years; Jim Delany cannot allow the conference to be relegated in ESPN's coverage. That means that ABC/ESPN must have a role in the next television contract.
But other networks can provide more attractive broadcast arrangements than ESPN/ABC can, and that should be a focus of the next contract. Where to start? I'd first go to CBS and NBC and explore a prime-time package of games opposite the primetime matchups on ABC/ESPN and Fox. Yes, even in November, though I'd limit primetime games to one per week after Halloween. It should be the first game selected each week. There's no reason to play Purdue/Indiana on a cold November night.
After that, let the market rule and see what's out there. Here are a few thoughts I have:
- Networks should have to determine kickoff times at least 21 days prior to the game. Ticketholders pay upwards of $5 million a week to attend each game; there's no excuse why the networks are allowed to sit on their hands and wait as long as they can to determine the time, forcing fans to wait to set up their gameday plans.
- When BTN has to regionalize game coverage, kickoffs should be staggered just like during the NCAA basketball tournament. When a game hits halftime, you can stay with the channel for a halftime show...or blip around the dial to catch another game in progress. Frankly, if I'm BTN, I'd do it anyway: unless they are showing a tripleheader, have kickoff at 1 pm central time each week.
- Kickoffs should not start any later than 7:30 pm local time. There's no need for 100,000 fans to have to drive out of Happy Valley, Lincoln, or Madison at midnight.
- A maximum of two 11 am kickoffs each week on all networks combined. There's no value in front-loading the day's schedule for fans.
- Each major network (ABC, CBS, ESPN, Fox, and NBC) has a secondary network that they might offer as part of the package: CBS Sports Network, ESPNU/ESPNews, Fox Sports 1/2, and NBC Sports Network. It might make more sense to keep games on BTN than to put them on one of these alternate networks. College basketball fans haven't followed Big East basketball to Fox; would college football fans shun Big Ten games on FS1? As much as any network would covet bigger games on their cable channel, I think it's more important for the Big Ten brand to ensure that their games are readily available on a premier platform.
- The Turner networks have covered college football before, and present an intriguing option that has worked well for the NBA and the NCAA tournament. But with their commitment to the Major League Baseball playoffs, is there room for college football in mid-October?
- The TV contract should be structured to discourage teams from scheduling nothing but home games in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Sun Belt and MAC opponents aren't much more attractive than the now-discouraged division 1-AA opponents. Teams should be rewarded for playing a home-and-home series against Power-5 opponents, and teams should be financially penalized for loading up their schedule with home games against overwhelmed opponents.
I also didn't cover basketball, which is also part of the ESPN agreement as well as a separate deal with CBS that expires in 2017. Considering the Eye's commitment to college basketball, does that make CBS a natural candidate for an expanded role in B1G broadcasts? Likewise, Fox's 51% ownership stake in BTN makes Fox a player in this next contract.
So what would you like to see for the next Big Ten television contract? Is it all about the Benjamins, or does the platform matter?