The surprising reality with the Big East — if it stays together in its intended 13-team and 18-team formats — is that it could still be a lucrative league. Football drives the financial bus, and basketball provides boundless inventory. While there have been plenty of jokes about who would want to watch San Diego State and Connecticut play football, apparently someone is willing to pay to find out.
Neal Pilson, a media consultant and former president of CBS Sports, predicted that the Big East could surpass the deal it turned down last year, which was considered similar in value to the A.C.C.’s $155 million annual deal.
“I think if they stay together and negotiate as a single unit, I think they can come away with a reasonably favorable result,” Pilson said. “Even more than what ESPN offered a year and a half ago. I think the competition will drive it.”
That’s not the case anymore, as stories this week are all about how the Big East’s TV deal could fall way short of the conference’s expectations. It seems odd to me that these stories started coming out only three days after NBC and Fox Sports representatives made presentations at last week’s Big East meetings that suggested otherwise. Maybe “odd” isn’t the right word… “Convenient” might be more appropriate. It appears that we may be entering a period of public negotiation, with both sides taking their cases to the media. The outgoing Memphis athletic director isn’t exactly an unbiased source, and obviously the Big East wants to appear optimistic coming out of its own meetings. Pilson may or may not have an agenda (I have no idea), but at least he’s named so we can scrutinize his comments accordingly. On the flip side, “industry sources” could have just as much motivation to use public perception to drive down the Big East’s asking price. (In fairness to McMurphy, he points this out at the end of his article).
Some of those comments from McMurphy’s sources sound like bargaining points, but they can be pretty easily refuted.
“ESPN has mitigated any potential programming loss, the Big East has lost value and by the time they negotiate their deal, about $8 billion will have been spent on other college football deals [since last spring],” a source said.
Sure, but the majority of that $8 billion comes from one source: ESPN. NBC hasn’t spent a dime, and Fox isn’t exactly tapped out either. Even ESPN probably still has more money to play with, especially if they’re motivated to keep NBC out of the college football and basketball market. The idea that there’s just no money left for the Big East is nuts. Consider this: in 2010, the total TV advertising revenue just for that one bowl season was $318.9 million. One bowl season! That’s only 35 games! Granted, that includes BCS games, which are among the highest-rated of the year. But with these contracts, we’re talking about multi-year deals for entire seasons’ worth of games (including conference championships) across football and basketball. If one bowl season is worth that much ad revenue, does $8 billion for a decade of all-sports programming across 5 conferences seem nearly as remarkable? On top of that, advertising revenue is just one piece of the puzzle. Cable channels (like NBC Sports Network and the Fox Sports channels) have the dual revenue streams of advertising and cable/satellite subscription fees. Adding more major college football and basketball to your programming lineup allows you to charge higher fees.
If NBC doesn’t get real content for its sports network, it’s going to fail. It needs live games to force cable providers to add it to their lineups on basic programming packages for wider distribution. Fox has been itching to start an ESPN competitor for years, and might finally be ready to pull that trigger. They have no chance of success without a robust college football and basketball package. Both networks need the Big East. You don’t think there’s more juice to squeeze out of this grapefruit? Of course there is.
“It’s not the most ideal scenario, especially when there is other college football programming available of similar quality.”
Sure, if by “similar” you mean that there are other conferences with teams that wear uniforms and tackle people. That’s about where the similarities end. In what way is the Big East “of similar quality” to the Mountain West or Conference USA? Not in TV appeal. The Big East is transforming itself into a national conference with a reach into tens of millions of homes. The Mountain West is a regional conference that covers some of the the least populated areas of the country. That is a big reason why The Mtn failed. Adding the WAC’s leftovers won’t fix that, just as adding Sun Belt programs and I-AA upstarts won’t add to C-USA’s drawing power. They aren’t of similar quality on the field, either. Conference USA lost three of the four teams that played in its last two title games to the Big East. The Mountain West lost every program that ever finished in the top 25 since the conference was formed with the exception of Colorado State (#14/#15 in 2000). In fairness, some of their WAC additions have been ranked at the end of the year, but that doesn’t make up for the losses. Since 2000, 7 teams in the new Big East have finished the season ranked in the final AP poll a total of 20 times. Compare that to the new Mountain West (4 teams/4 times) and the new C-USA (3 teams/3 times). Since the 2004-2005 season (when Miami and Virginia Tech defected), new Big East members have more BCS bowl wins (3) than the ACC (1). The Big East is clearly superior to other conferences seeking new contracts, in both television appeal and on-field performance. There is no “college football programming available of similar quality.”
“All of the schools they added are coming from the Mountain West and Conference USA, so how will they now suddenly be worth more in the Big East?” the source said.
The same way BYU was suddenly worth 5 times as much as an independent compared to what they were worth as a member of the Mountain West. Now they make almost as much per home game as they did in an entire year under the Mountain West’s television contract. While none of the new Big East programs have the draw of BYU, the point is that simply coming from the MWC or C-USA doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth more as Big East members. Who you’re associated with matters. Besides, the ACC added two teams from a supposedly weak Big East and was able to renegotiate a giant contract with ESPN. Apparently Pitt and Syracuse are suddenly worth more in the ACC.
“Name me two or three Big East Conference games of national interest.”
Define “national interest.” Name me two or three ACC games that would meet that criteria. The Army-Navy game will be part of the Big East’s television package every other year once the current CBS contract expires. That’s about as consistent as “national interest” gets, and in the off year the Big East will get Navy-Notre Dame instead. And that’s just with Navy. For the most part, games of “national interest” are dependent on who’s good at the time. Which game was of more “national interest” last year: Miami-Florida State, or Boise State-Georgia? Very few games in any conference can truly be considered to be of “national interest.” The Big East will have at least one that is.
Conference television deals have exploded in recent years because they were undervalued for so long. Until now, those contracts haven’t kept up with the proliferation of channels and the rise of digital viewership. If you run a sports network or a sports department and you don’t have live games, then you have nothing. That’s a lot of motivation both for networks trying to break into the market and those wanting to keep their competitors out. The Big East is in a good position here as long as it sticks together. It’s not time to panic.