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Is the Big Ten Ready to Break Away From ESPN?

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After word leaked that Fox was set to pay up to $250 million a year to claim half of the media rights currently held by ABC and ESPN, two assumptions quickly followed:

  • The other half of the deal would also be worth around $250 million.
  • ESPN would retain much of those rights in that second half.

Two problems with that:  First, Fox really wanted their rights, and they've acquired all that they can.  They've made their bid, and unless they are willing to put football and basketball games on Fox News, likely don't have room to pick up the rest of the package, considering their other commitments to the Big East, Big XII and Pac-12.  Nobody else is going to bid like that for the other half of the package. And two, ESPN appears to be in a cost-containment mode.

And as such, the Big Ten is prepared to go in a different direction, if necessary.  It's nothing personal - at least from the Big Ten's perspective.  It's just business.   Who's going to provide the best deal for the Big Ten, and ESPN may not be willing or able to offer as good of a deal as another network.  Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune talked to Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, and learned the following:

"The Big Ten will do what's best for the Big Ten, and ESPN has to take that same position."

followed by

"No one has amnesia about the relationship we have had with ESPN. John Skipper and that group, they have been a wonderful partner. But we're at a different place and I think they're at a different place in 2016 than we were in the last round (of negotiations). That doesn't mean we can't get to the altar together and get married again. But we're at the dating stage right now."

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany went a little bit further this morning:

ESPN isn't out of the picture, and they shouldn't be.  The Worldwide Leader in Sports can't be ignored completely. But the Big Ten is clearly sending a message that ESPN isn't going to get a renewal discount just because subscribers are dropping cable television. It's an active negotiation, and the Big Ten is signalling that they will take the best deal for the Big Ten, whatever that is.

And that could mean that NBC, CBS or Turner - or more likely, some combination of those networks - is ready to outbid ESPN for the remainder of the Big Ten's media rights. Maybe that's because ESPN is suddenly trying to conserve resources...or maybe it's because the other networks aren't taking the Big Ten's value for granted.

I still believe that the Big Ten ends up working out some sort of deal with ESPN, though it'll be much smaller than it currently is...and I suspect that they'll be sharing the rights with another partner. I don't think it'll be an online platform; that would be an extremely risky move for the Big Ten.  I do forsee that the next Big Ten media deal will include an streaming platform that will make all of the Big Ten's televised games, irregardless of network - whether it's Fox, BTN, CBS or ESPN - available to non-cable subscribers, ala MLB.tv.  In fact, I would expect that MLB's digital arm (reportedly soon to be part of the Disney/ESPN empire) to be a key player in the Big Ten's digital rights package.

But could ESPN be left completely on the outside?  It just might be.  I suspect that NBC, CBS or especially Turner will have to pay a premium well over what ESPN is offering, as their reach on cable is less than what ESPN can offer.  On the other hand, each of those networks could offer visibility (a guaranteed prime time football timeslot every week, for example) that ESPN cannot. The Big Ten is clearly sending ESPN a message that they are ready and willing to move on with - or without them.