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Sports Business Journal Speculates on a Thursday Night Big Ten Football Package

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On this week's Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, Richard Deitsch spent an hour discussing sports media with John Ourand of Sports Business Journal, and the topic of the new Big Ten television package came up. Ourand led off by saying he had "no clue" which way the Big Ten was going, but that several media companies were possibilities...and the possibility that ESPN would be out is something that coaches and athletic directors hate.

So if not ESPN, who would it be? Ourand mentioned NBC as a candidate, with a couple of broadcast windows available on Saturdays, surrounding their package of Notre Dame home football games. He then mentioned Turner Sports, who would like to complement their NCAA basketball tournament coverage with some regular season college games.  He also mentioned the idea of a Thursday Night football package to lead into their Thursday night NBA package.

Wait...WHAT?

I get why Turner would want a Thursday night football package.  I don't get why the Big Ten would want to break tradition and ask 100,000 fans to invade campuses on a weeknight. The Big Ten struggled with the idea of Nebraska and Iowa playing on Black Friday, which is essentially a holiday for many people; why a regular Thursday night series?

It really wouldn't make much sense to expand the football schedule on Thursday nights, as ESPN and Fox Sports 1 already have college games that day.  Meanwhile, the NFL has established a solid Thursday night package as well. I don't see any edge in exposure, compared to Saturdays. Certainly not enough to compensate for the issues with closing down campuses to accommodate football crowds.  At a campus like Nebraska's, much of the on-campus parking is needed for fans in attendance, making it impossible to hold classes simultaneously.  Not that professors would appreciate having to shout above the din of the HuskerVision sound system to give their lectures.

I certainly could see NBC and Turner splitting the package, with each getting a football game or two each Saturday. (Hopefully one in prime time each week.) Turner's networks could easily accommodate Big Ten basketball games better than any other potential partner - even better than ESPN, frankly.

In the end, Ourand's gut feel is that, in the end, ESPN is going to come up with the money to retain some share of the rights to the Big Ten. While Big Ten coaches and athletic directors are afraid of losing the exposure of ESPN, ESPN is likely just as afraid of losing the Big Ten. ESPN has become synonymous with college sports, and the Big Ten is the home of some of the biggest brands in college football.  More importantly, the Big Ten is also home to some of the biggest markets (New York, Chicago and Washington).

Ourand went on to say that internet companies do not appear to be significant factors in this market, and for good reason. The money isn't there, and the fact is that while many people are dumping cable for streaming services, more people still subscribe to cable and satellite than subscribe to NetFlix or Hulu. Online services might be an option for the next Big Ten contract, but for now, digital distribution is purely supplemental.