How ESPN-Big Ten split impacts everyone in college sports

How ESPN-Big Ten split impacts everyone in college sports

Up until recently, Bob Thompson described himself as a “social media pariah.” Name the platform—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok—and he was not on it.

But what better time to join the fray, he thought last month, than while recovering from shoulder surgery? The former television executive, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., has spent the last few weeks laid up in bed with his arm in a sling.

And so, as one does, he joined Twitter. He was in for a rude awakening.

“Boy,” he says, “I learned pretty quickly that there are lots of experts out there.”

Thompson’s new venture aligned perfectly with a seismic time in the sport as the new-look Big Ten finalizes the richest TV contract in industry history, estimated at around $1.2 billion a year. The timing was no coincidence. Thompson, the president of Fox Sports Network for a decade until he stepped away in 2009, is fascinated by these mega-million media rights agreements that are ultimately altering the landscape of college sports.

No TV deal is as fascinating as the one commissioner Kevin Warren & Co. are amassing in Chicago, where starting in 2024 three different networks are expected to acquire the rights to broadcast his league’s games in three different windows: Fox (noon), CBS (afternoon) and NBC (primetime). In a somewhat expected but still shocking move, the conference is moving on without the Worldwide Leader in sports.

ESPN and ABC are out, and the college sports world is awed.

“It is surprising,” says Thompson. “They’ve been together for 40 years.”

“It is jarring that ESPN is not a part of a major partnership in college sports,” says one Power 5 conference administrator. “It has a shock value.”

Former Fox Sports president Bob Thompson, pictured here in 2005, is among the sports media figures fascinated by the Big Ten moving on from ESPN.

“Weird,” “unbelievable” and “risky” are words industry stakeholders used to describe the splintering of a four-decade-old partnership between the country’s top sports network and, arguably, its richest college sports conference. The ESPN–Big Ten marriage dates back to the third year of ESPN’s existence, and the relationship with ABC is even older. In 1966, the network nationally televised Michigan State’s 10–10 tie with Notre Dame—the first college football game to be broadcast in Hawaii and to troops overseas in Vietnam.

While the conference says deals are not yet finalized, an announcement is expected as early as next week.

In a move indicative of college sports’ shift toward television revenue and away from time-honored traditions, the split is expected to have wide-ranging impacts, notably freeing up TV space and money for the Pac-12 and Big 12, both of whose media rights agreements expire over the next two years. “It was a really good day for those two conferences,” says Thompson, who believes ESPN wants at least a piece of each league.

Like many others, Thompson believes that the Big Ten’s inclusion of NBC ensures Notre Dame’s independence, something its own athletic director suggested to reporters Wednesday. The Irish, as expected, don’t seem to be in a hurry to join any league and are now likely to use the new market rates to mine NBC for more cash.

Thompson says NBC’s new role with the Big Ten now provides Notre Dame an opportunity to “marry” its game with a weekly Big Ten game in a smorgasbord of high-level college football action on a network that for so long had mostly stayed out of the sport. “NBC will try to make Saturday night college football like Sunday night NFL,” Thompson says. “It’s a big show.”

ESPN’s divorce from the Big Ten is yet another wave in a sea of change that has engulfed college athletics. The network carried 27 football games and 80-some-odd men’s basketball games a year. It partnered with the two leagues to operate the ACC–Big Ten Challenge, an annual basketball event that started in 1999 and one many presume will now end.

There is a nostalgic piece here. College football Saturdays often kicked off with a Big Ten game on either ABC or ESPN or both. “It was a right of passage to turn the TV on at 11 [central] and see Northwestern and Indiana,” says one Big 12 administrator. “It was like a ‘O.K., the day has started!’”

ESPN’s promotional power within the sport is undeniable. It remains the only 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, all-sports national network with multiple platforms. The network broadcasts about 90% of bowl games and has exclusive rights to the College Football Playoff and the CFP Selection Committee’s much-ballyhooed rankings show.

ESPN’s clout is such that one conference commissioner says, “It’s surprising that the Big Ten wouldn’t take a few less dollars and stay with ESPN.”

A Group of 5 athletic director calls the Big Ten’s decision a “bad move” and compares it to Big East basketball losing relevance once it left ESPN. “While you can’t ignore Ohio State, you don’t break up with ESPN over a few million per year,” the AD says. “It’s not worth it.”

Ultimately, the money was the sticking point, sources tell Sports Illustrated. The network decided not to bid against CBS for the afternoon slot and declined to meet the Big Ten’s package for the prime-time TV window. The prime-time package—seven years at $380 million per year—included roughly half of the inventory (13 to 14 Big Ten games) that the network currently owns. The network did not feel it was valuable enough for such a steep price, especially given their new SEC deal.

Starting in 2024, the league is paying the SEC roughly $300 million a year for that conference’s top games. Space is somewhat limited. ESPN has a primary deal with the ACC as well, along with other contracts with Group of 5 conferences. “Half as many games for twice as much money, that gives everyone pause,” says Thompson.

An ESPN-less Big Ten will not see the kind of promotion on the sport’s flagship network it has in the past, most agree.

Says one athletic administrator at an SEC school: “Gotta figure GameDay isn’t going to show up at a Big Ten game very often. You gotta think they won’t be spending too much time on the Big Ten. It’s going to be fascinating to see.”

From a recruiting perspective, it is a concern for some coaches in the league, one Big Ten administrator says. But it’s not such a worry as it would have been just a few years ago. “Five years ago, they would have freaked out,” the administrator says.

And now? While not having ESPN will be “weird” and an adjustment, the modern-day young person consumes content not as much on SportsCenter as they do on their phones, most prominently through social media channels.

An overshadowed part of the situation is men’s basketball. Around 80 games once on ESPN will have to find a home, and that’s not so easy, says Thompson. He expects CBS to take some games, but wonders, “Does FS1 step up? Does NBC get a piece with Peacock?” 

From the very start, ESPN was at a disadvantage in the Big Ten negotiations, some believe, because of what experts say is uncommon involvement from a broadcasting rival. Fox representatives were in the Big Ten’s media rights meetings with other networks, a sign of just how integral the network is in decisions.

“It’s unusual to have them in on every discussion,” says one college official. “Fox and ESPN clearly have had a falling out.”

The latest conference realignment moves are coming at the behest of the two networks, many within the sport believe. Each of them is closely connected to the two college football behemoths—the SEC (ESPN) and Big Ten (Fox)—and now each own a majority share of their TV rights.

Thompson, however, does not buy into the theory. First off, commissioners and conference administrators ultimately make decisions in media rights negotiations, he says. And secondly, Fox and ESPN both need a healthy FBS—not a two-conference juggernaut that resembles the NFL. Two 16-team conferences don’t currently cover enough markets, though eventually that might change.

“It might happen down the road, but I bet it’d be closer to two 24-team leagues,” he says. “For both networks, it’s important that the ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 remain strong.”

The Pac-12 is in the midst of a second exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and Fox, extending its original window until the completion of the Big Ten’s deal. The league is attempting to secure its 10 members with a strong media rights contract. While ESPN’s ouster from the Big Ten is a positive for the league, the lack of competition is a negative.

CBS and NBC seem unlikely partners now that they are with the Big Ten. And Fox’s situation is tricky. The network is a partner with the league that just poached the Pac-12’s two biggest brands in USC and UCLA.

So who will bid against ESPN for a West Coast league whose games normally kickoff after 9 p.m. ET?

One thing ESPN won’t do is overpay, says one college football official who has been involved in negotiations with the network. ESPN will use its clout and value—“We have all the sports talk shows!”—as a tool to keep the figure low, he says.

“Realize this,” says a retired college administrator with a long history of negotiating against the network. “ESPN is tough, and if there’s no competition, you don’t want to be in that environment.”

For the Big Ten, that environment worked out well. The league devised what many say is a brilliant plan to put out to bid three separate TV windows with intent to negotiate each separately and the goal of partnering with three different networks for a period of six to seven years—half the length of the SEC’s ESPN deal. It ultimately led to a significant pay day for Big Ten schools, estimated to be in the neighborhood of $80 million to $90 million a year in distribution.

Another bonus for the Big Ten is cross-promotional advertisement never seen before in college sports. Imagine Fox, CBS and NBC all promoting their own and each other’s Big Ten matchups during their Sunday NFL broadcasts?

“Having the three flagship networks is unusual,” says Thompson. “From the Big Ten’s standpoint, to have three windows with three networks on every Saturday in this era of cord-cutting is a tremendous accomplishment.”

All of it is good for college sports, says Oliver Luck, the former college athletic director and NCAA executive.

“Take the 50,000 foot view,” he says. “If you care about college football, you want as many of the big broadcasters as possible spending as much money as they can.”

One of those broadcast networks, CBS, has left many puzzled. The network has one of the best TV packages in American sports history, owning the SEC’s top game for about $55 million a year in a deal that ends next season. In 2020, the network pulled out of a bidding war with ESPN in negotiations to extend the package. And now, two years later, CBS is paying roughly $50 million more for the Big Ten’s secondary game than ESPN is for the SEC’s top game?

Those within the college sports and TV industry say CBS misread the market during SEC negotiations, not expecting media rights to soar in the same way college football coaching salaries have elevated so quickly.

“The SEC is the best product outside of the NFL,” says one conference administrator. “You’ve paid more for a second- and possibly third-tier Big Ten product and you are going against the stuff you gave away?”

Through the years, many believe CBS’s relationship with the SEC deteriorated. Even when the league expanded to add Texas A&M and Missouri, the network refused to increase its payment to the conference despite it being ghastly low. “I don’t think there is any doubt that Mike [Slive] and Greg [Sankey] were not happy with CBS. They wanted more,” says a former conference administrator who knows the situation well.

With the new Big Ten deal starting in 2023, CBS will have one year in which it owns the rights of the Big Ten’s second-tier game as well as the top SEC game—an interesting crossover quandary. The SEC’s contract with CBS requires its game to be exclusively aired by the network at 3:30 p.m. ET.

The Big Ten’s deal will be arranged in a way to allow CBS to fulfill its SEC duties in the first year of the contract, a source tells SI, though details were not provided.

Meanwhile, back in Scottsdale, when he’s not tweeting through a recovery from shoulder surgery, Thompson is golfing. On the side, he acts as a television network consultant, too, so he must stay engaged in industry news, much of which can be found on Twitter.

It’s part of why he ended his social media ban, joined the social media platform and now finds himself with more than 1,000 followers. He’s posted nearly 200 tweets, many of them regarding the ongoing media rights saga transpiring across the college landscape. In one tweet, hours before news broke that ESPN had pulled out of Big Ten negotiations, Thompson predicted that the new Big Ten football Saturday would include three games on Fox/FS1, one game on CBS and one to two games on ESPN.

Says a chuckling Thompson a few days later: “So much for that prediction!”

On this week, even the real experts on Twitter were shocked.

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