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Big Ten Television Contract Drama Over NBC Primetime

1987 Rose Bowl Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images’s Pete Thamel broke the story over the weekend how new Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti has spent most of his first month of the season trying to tie up the loose ends of the Big Ten’s new multi-billion dollar contract with CBS, Fox and NBC. At the time, it sounded like the seven year deal that could have been worth up to $8 billion, but now Thamel’s report makes it sound like there are few sticking points that could reduce the size of the deal.

How big are these sticking points? And who screwed it up? The common scapegoat is outgoing commissioner Kevin Warren, but some of this criticism doesn’t hold up when you read the details. And the first thing to keep in mind is that this story came from ESPN - the very network that lost the rights to the Big Ten.

The two main sticking points:

  • The Big Ten will need to reimburse Fox $40 million for awarding a conference championship football game to NBC.
  • Several big Big Ten schools (Michigan and Ohio State, primarily) are pushing back at having to play night games in November.

At face value, both of these arguments seem silly. On the first point, Fox had a seat at the bargaining table because the Big Ten’s media rights actually belong to BTN, not the conference...and BTN is majority-owned by Fox. That’s a weird arrangement, but that’s on previous commissioner Jim Delany, not Warren. Plus with Fox essentially sublicensing their rights to CBS and NBC, Fox HAD to be in control of this situation.

As for the “night games in November” argument, the question has to be asked: “What were you thinking NBC was signing up to do?” The agreement was for a “Big Ten Saturday Night” package, complete with a treatment much like NBC provides for their Sunday Night NFL productions. Were they really going to pay top dollar to show Rutgers vs Indiana? This has been known since last August when the contract was announced. Michigan acting surprised like “What? We have to play at night in November?” seems rather overdone.

Listen, I’m no fan of sitting in Memorial Stadium in November at night. And Lincoln, Nebraska is one of the more southerly schools in the Big Ten, so it’s got to be better weather on average than, say Ann Arbor or Minneapolis. But I also recognize that NBC is a huge platform for the Big Ten, so my take is that the Big Ten should take advantage of this exposure for a network broadcast. NBC primetime? So be it. Now, if we’re talking a FS1 or BTN broadcast, that’s different. Play that game in the afternoon; TV ain’t paying enough for those games. But for a primetime spot on a broadcast network? Grab your long underwear and go.

This quote is rather telling:

“The fault here is with the administrators on campus,” said another industry source. “How did the presidents, chancellors and athletic directors not know this? The universities all signed off on the deal.”

Trev Alberts pretty much sealed the point to me on his Monday evening radio interview:

“At Nebraska, we’ve built our brand on being willing to play primetime games against great opponents. If you’re asking, ‘Will Nebraska be interested in playing primetime games?’ I’ll put my hand up every day and twice on Saturdays because we think playing in primetime is a great opportunity to showcase the state, the University of Nebraska and the football team.”

Another point is that the Big Ten will need to reimburse Fox for the lost games from the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Again, that should NOT be a surprise for anybody. Heck, if it wasn’t for Nebraska (and to a lesser extent, Ohio State), there might not have been ANY football that season. How much revenue would have been lost there?

Basketball coaches do have a legitimate beef about basketball games moving from ESPN platforms over to NBC’s Peacock streaming platform. I get that, but let’s also recognize that this isn’t the first sports rights going to streaming. The NFL is moving a playoff game to Peacock next January, and they’ve already moved the Thursday night package to Amazon. If this doesn’t work on Peacock and NBC is losing their shirts on the deal, those games will bounce back to NBC and their USA cable network as fast as a Tanner Lee pick-six.

My guess is that this story is much overblown by the media outlet that lost the rights to the Big Ten. And schools like Michigan and Ohio State were probably counting on most of the November primetime inventory in future years originating from Los Angeles with Southern Cal and UCLA games. But they aren’t joining the Big Ten until 2024. So to bridge things through, there’s going to be a few cold nights in Big Ten territory.

And if that’s the price to pay to have the premier television contract in college football, so be it.