Webs win out in college football game of musical chairs

When the Pac-12 announced its 12-year, $3 billion TV rights deal with ESPN and Fox in May, nearly every major sports-playing university saw dollar signs floating in the air, setting off a game of musical chairs among schools and collegiate athletic conferences that threatened to realign college sports into four super conferences of 16 teams each, reducing the number of rights-sellers and enriching the packages they had to sell.

Over the past few weeks, the music has stopped long enough for everyone to scramble for seats in this huge media rights game, and the winner may be … the broadcast, cable and regional sports networks that air the games.

The movement of teams from one conference to another has been far less than envisioned, and the Big 12 Conference, which many considered to be on the verge of failure, has survived. With the six majors all still doing business, winners and losers can be determined more on a conference-by-conference level based, perhaps unsurprisingly, by location more than by football prowess.

Of all the conferences involved, the Atlantic Coast Conference appears to have done the best in terms of improved earnings potential. The addition of the U. of Pittsburgh and Syracuse U. (both previously in the Big East) represents an important broadcasting opportunity for the conference. And while it may not feel as jarring to fans as the moves of the U. of Nebraska to the Big Ten or Texas A&M’s plan to bolt from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, in terms of sheer broadcasting dollars, it figures to have the most heft.

“From a TV perspective, Pittsburgh is a larger market than any other in the ACC other than Boston (with Boston College), Miami (U. of Miami) and Atlanta (Georgia Tech),” says sports media consultant Tom Buffolano, who chairs the College Sports Video Summit for the Sports Video Group.

And because of its strong New York City alumni fan base, Buffolano says Syracuse puts the ACC in the No. 1 market in the country. “Other than (New Jersey-based) Rutgers, there are no other schools that would allow the ACC to reach that market,” he notes.

Last year’s ACC championship football game between Virginia Tech and Florida State earned a lackluster 2.0 rating on ESPN; the SEC’s title game between Auburn and South Carolina pulled in a 6.3 rating on CBS, and the Big 12’s Oklahoma-Nebraska matchup scored a 5.3 on ABC. The ACC’s draw was comparatively small even when accounting for its having aired on cable instead of broadcast TV.

With impressive football and basketball histories — Syracuse and Pitt have won a combined 10 national football titles and have appeared five times in NCAA basketball’s Final Four — these universities will undoubtedly spur some changes to the ACC’s already lucrative 12-year, $1.9 billion deal, which it signed with ESPN last July. But those changes won’t be dramatic during the life of the current contract.

ESPN senior VP of college sports programming Burke Magnus says there’s a provision in agreements between conferences and the cabler that allows for universities to come and go within the life of the contract. “It doesn’t reopen a deal and it doesn’t take an agreement that we had and make it null and void,” he says.

It does, however, allow the conference to ask for more money, and it does let ESPN revisit such elements as preferred scheduling, broadcasting windows and increasing the number of the conference games it can broadcast. But based on experience, Magnus believes that while the conversation with the ACC will be complicated, it will not be one beset by brinkmanship.

The U. of Texas also has indirectly benefitted from this round of changes. While the departure of Texas A&M means an end to one of UT’s biggest rivalries in the Big 12, which will engender modifications in rights fees (an increase for the SEC, a decrease for the Big 12), the lack of further movement of teams away from the Big 12 marks an end to the instability that has plagued that conference over the past year. With Texas’ recent launch of its proprietary Longhorn Network, distributed via ESPN, it means a key reason the network had struggled to maximize distribution has been addressed.

“The realignment conversations … paralyzed conversations (with distributors),” Magnus says. “I think that has cleared up at this point. It is obvious the Big 12 wants to stay together.”

The Big East, meanwhile, has been hit hard by the two defections. Earlier this year, the conference passed on an offer from ESPN for a TV deal reportedly worth $130 million a year for overall rights. Now, the league is in a much-weakened bargaining position when its current six-year $200 million deal with ABC/ESPN ends after next season. It was counting on powerhouse Texas Christian U. coming aboard in 2012, but the school has elected to join the Big 12, leaving the traditionally strong basketball conference suddenly thin on high-profile football programs. And while basketball programs are nothing to sneeze at, it’s football that brings home the bacon when negotiating rights deals.

Despite the loss of Pitt and Syracuse, if the Big East is successful in courting enough football schools (estimates for what it will need range from four to six additional programs), its future may not be as dim as many think.

“They still have an opportunity because they are the last one to go into the marketplace,” says Chris Bevilacqua, who served as adviser to the Pac 12 in their TV rights deal. “All the other product (from major conferences) has been bought for the next 10, 12 (and) 15 years so there is an opportunity for the Big East.”

If that’s the case, then this game of musical chairs may be far from over.

“College sports are now a mature industry,” Bevilacqua says. “And when industries mature, businesses consolidate.”

Bevilacqua says just as pay TV distributors have consolidated to gain greater buying power, content players like collegiate conferences must consolidate to maintain leverage at the bargaining table.

ESPN’s Magnus agrees that more schools will change conference affiliation, but “it won’t necessarily be the seismic shift that seemed inevitable over the last couple of months — that march to 16 teams by at least four conferences. The Big 12 will need a 10th team and the SEC will need a 14th.”

But for now, there are plenty of buyers — and sellers — to go around. n

Want Entertainment News First? Sign up for Variety Alerts and Newsletters!
Post A Comment 0