Big Ten Signs New Media Deal: Lots of Money, No ESPN

By RossWB on August 19, 2022 at 4:33 pm
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© Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports
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The Big Ten's current media rights deal (with ABC/ESPN, FOX, and CBS) is set to expire after the upcoming 2022-23 season and discussion about the Big Ten's next deal has been a consistent source of background chatter over the last year or so. That chatter has ramped up in the last few months and in the last few weeks details about the size of the new deal (BIG) have been flying around. But yesterday the Big Ten released more official details of the new media rights deal, which begins in 2023 and runs through the 2029-30 season and will pay the conference more than a billion dollars per year by the end of the agreement. Welcome to the three comma club, Big Ten. 

The Big Ten's new deal dwarfs any other collegiate media rights deal (or at least any other conference media rights deal; CBS/Turner Sports pay the NCAA around one billion dollars per year to air the men's NCAA Basketball Tournament), even that of the mighty SEC. Worse news for the SEC? This new Big Ten deal will expire in 2030, while the current SEC deal won't expire until 2034, giving the Big Ten another opportunity to negotiate a new deal (potentially even bigger than this) before the SEC is able to go back to the market. (The SEC may find fewer options available to bid for their media rights at that point, too, if FOX and CBS have considerable money tied up in Big Ten media rights, as well as NFL media rights.) 

The financial impact of the new deal won't be felt immediately, though. In 2023-24, Big Ten teams are expected to get conference distributions of around $60 million (around the same as they'll get in 2022-23). That figure is supposed to increase slightly in 2024-25, before increasing significantly in the final five years of the agreement. That's when Big Ten schools are expected to receive annual distributions from the Big Ten of around $100 million per year. (That $100 million figure includes money from this media right deal, as well as money from the NCAA Tournament, bowl games, and the College Football Playoff.) 

Long-term media rights deals have long been appealing to conferences and school administrators because they offer stability and guaranteed money over a lengthy period of time. As noted, the SEC's current media rights deal doesn't expire until 2034, while the ACC has a media rights deal with ESPN that doesn't expire until 2036 (!). The Big Ten has bucked that trend in their recent media rights negotiations, though; Jim Delany opted to sign a shorter agreement in his last deal before retirement and now Kevin Warren has signed a 7-year pact that will put the Big Ten on the market sooner than its rivals as well.

The Big Ten has gambled on the strength of its product -- or at least the strength of the brands within the Big Ten, which have only gotten bigger and more popular with the impending additions of USC and UCLA -- as well as television's need for live sports, and America's obsession with football. Sports remain one of the only things that television viewers still watch live, which means sports broadcasts are the most effective way for advertisers to reach consumers (and they pay broadcast and cable networks handsomely for that privilege). And no sport in America is as popular as football. The NFL is the undisputed king of that particular mountain, but college football is the second-most popular sport, as well as one that inspires absolutely rabid devotion from millions of passionate fans. So long as Americans remain obsessed with football and sports remains the most effective way to get viewers to tune into live broadcasts on cable or network television, sports media rights figure to keep getting more valuable. 

But let's talk about the deal itself -- how's it going to work for you, a viewer of Big Ten sporting events? 

ESPN IS OUT, CBS AND NBC ARE IN

FOX is a major player in this deal -- probably the major player in terms of dollar figures and broadcast volume -- but they were already a major player in the Big Ten's previous media right deal and their involvement hasn't changed too much from what it was then. The big change is that ESPN/ABC is out -- for the first time in over 30 years, there won't be any Big Ten football or basketball games on either ABC or ESPN. Replacing ESPN/ABC will be a tag team partnership from the other two main networks, CBS and NBC. 

Is it weird to hear that music and see Big Ten highlights? SURE IS. It's going to take some time to get used to hearing that theme at the start of some Big Ten games.

The plan is to create an NFL-like schedule on Saturdays, with three major broadcast windows (11 AM CT, 2:30 PM CT, and 6:30 PM CT), with each network partner having a game in one of those windows. FOX will continue its Big Nude Noon Saturday tradition, with a 12 PM ET/11 AM CT kickoff. That timeslot has occasionally featured Big 12 games (like the Red River Shootout between Texas and Oklahoma) in recent years, but it sounds like it will be a Big Ten-exclusive window once the new media rights deal begins in 2023. 

CBS will have the game at 3:30 PM ET/2:30 PM CT on Saturday. CBS has a long tradition of airing games in that window; they'll just be moving from airing SEC games there to airing Big Ten games instead. They are reportedly planning to keep the same broadcast team that they presently use (Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson). 

And then NBC will have a primetime Big Ten game each week, starting at 7:30 PM ET/6:30 PM CT. "Each week" comes with a small caveat -- there may be 2-3 weeks during the season when NBC airs a Notre Dame home game in primetime instead of a Big Ten game -- but for the most part you should be able to tune into NBC each Saturday night at 6:30 PM and see a Big Ten game kicking off. 

Games not on FOX, CBS, or NBC (which could encompass up to an additional 14 games per week once USC and UCLA join, although most weeks it only be an additional 4-5 games) will be broadcast on FS1, BTN, and Peacock (more on that in a bit). 

Is it wise to trade the ESPN platform for CBS and NBC? There's a lot of exposure that comes with being on CBS and NBC; those are not games that will be hard for anyone to find or watch. That's a plus. Fans have been slating ESPN for having an SEC bias for years, so getting away from that may also be a plus. On the other hand, ESPN is still an 800-lb gorilla in the sports world and they help drive the conversation around sports in a big way. And that doesn't involve just airing games on ESPN or ESPN2 (or streaming them via ESPN+); ESPN plays a huge part in the conversation by virtue of all the non-live sports programming they air (i.e., highlight shows, talking head shows, analysis shows, etc.). ESPN.com is also a hugely popular website, as is the ESPN app on mobile devices.

Leagues and properties that ESPN doesn't have a broadcast deal with get less coverage and attention from ESPN and its various aspects; just ask hockey fans about the difference in coverage this year (when ESPN had broadcast rights for the NHL) to years past (when they didn't). That could matter, especially in college sports where so much is determined by polls and rankings. FOX has tried to develop some studio programming (i.e., their Big Noon Kickoff pre-game show on Saturdays), to mixed effect. Neither FOX nor NBC have websites with a fraction of the content or coverage that ESPN.com offers. We'll have to wait and see if not being on ESPN has a negative impact on Big Ten sports. 

THE BROADCASTING NUTS AND BOLTS

Here's how the coverage details break down by network: 

FOX: 24-27 football games in 2023 and 30-32 from 2024-2029. (2023 is going to be a bit of a hybrid year in terms of coverage, in part because that's the final year of CBS' agreement with the SEC. The full vision of this new media deal will really kick off in 2024, which also happens to be the year that USC and UCLA are scheduled to join the Big Ten.) 

CBS: 7 football games in 2023, 14-15 games per year from 2024-29. CBS games will also stream on Paramount+ (their affiliated streaming service), though no games will be exclusive to that service. 

NBC: 16 football games in 2023, 15 games per year from 2024-29. Games on NBC will also be streamed on Peacock and there will be 8 games year that will be available exclusively on Peacock. Four of those games will be Big Ten conference games and four of them will be Big Ten non-conference games. 

BTN: Up to 41 games in 2023; a maximum of 50 games per year from 2024-29. 

Additional Notes:

  • CBS is expected to air a game on Black Friday; NBC is also going to be airing a primetime game on Black Friday each year. So you can probably pencil in Iowa-Nebraska on either CBS or NBC (probably CBS most years) from 2023-2029. 
  • NBC also plans to have an annual primetime game on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend.
  • FOX, CBS, and NBC will be sharing coverage of the Big Ten Championship Game. FOX will air that game in 2023, 2025, 2027, and 2029. CBS will air the game in 2024 and 2028, while NBC will get the game in 2026.

WHAT ABOUT BASKETBALL? 

Football is the sport driving this train and the reason the Big Ten is able to command a media rights deal with so many zeroes on the contract, but no college sport produces a greater volume of content than basketball. Basketball is where the loss of ESPN may be felt the most, as ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU reliably aired at least 5-6 Big Ten games per week -- who's going to pick up that slack?

FOX/FS1: at least 45 regular season men's college basketball games per year. 

CBS: 11 regular season men's college basketball games in 2023; 15 regular season men's college basketball games in 2024-29 (13 of which will be Big Ten conference games). CBS will also continue to air the semifinals and final of the Big Ten men's basketball tournament. 

NBC: Nothing on NBC itself, but Peacock, NBC's affiliated streaming service, will be airing several games. 

Peacock: 32 regular season men's college basketball games in 2023-24 (including 20 Big Ten conference games) and 47 regular season men's college basketball games from 2024-29 (including 32 Big Ten conference games.) Peacock will also stream the games from the opening night of the men's Big Ten Tournament; currently those are the 11 vs 14 and 12 vs 13 games, though that may change after the league expands to 16 teams.

BTN: at least 126 men's college basketball games per year. 

What about women's college basketball? Uh, good question. Details are a bit scant on that front right now, unfortunately. Peacock will be airing 30 regular season women's college basketball games (20 Big Ten conference games) starting in 2023-24. CBS will be airing the final of the Big Ten women's college basketball tournament and may be airing some other games as well. It's unclear if FOX/FS1 will air any women's games or not. 

WHAT ABOUT SPORTS OTHER THAN FOOTBALL/BASKETBALL? 

Unclear. There weren't a lot of details around broadcast plans for women's basketball in the coverage around this media rights deal, but there really weren't many (or any) details about broadcast plans for other sports. Richard Deitsch, a veteran of sports media business reporting, did note at The Athletic that NBC "gets men’s and women’s college basketball inventory, as well as Olympic sports and golf. The golf inventory is important here given NBC’s Golf Channel ties." 

That sort of partnership would certainly make sense. NBC has a long history with Olympic sports given their long-term broadcast arrangements with the Winter and Summer Olympic Games, so that could be a plausible broadcast home for certain events, like track & field or perhaps wrestling. Of course, when you see "NBC" in that content, you should be thinking "Peacock" -- I don't expect the Big Ten Track & Field Championships or an Iowa-Minnesota dual meet to be airing on NBC anytime soon. I'd also expect a lot of events like that to continue to be aired by BTN as well.

WHAT ABOUT BTN+? 

In recent years, the Big Ten has used BTN+, a subscription streaming service, to supplement sports coverage on BTN (the cable channel) as well as its network and cable partners (ABC, ESPN, FOX, FS1). BTN+ has been used to air things like baseball or softball, as well as some wrestling meets, several women's college basketball games, and a handful of men's college basketball games as well, among other things. Will the Big Ten still be putting events on that service under the new media rights arrangement? That, too, is unclear right now. My guess is that BTN+ will remain an option for a lot of those events noted above. The wildcard here could be Peacock. Could that service take over streaming coverage for all of the events that currently air on BTN+? That seems like a possibility, and one NBC might be interested in to try and get more people to subscribe to that service. 

SO IS THIS GOING TO COST ME MORE MONEY, LESS MONEY, OR ABOUT THE SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY? 

It's not going to cost you less money to watch Iowa sports going forward. I think that's pretty much an ironclad guarantee. Yes, there will be games on FOX, NBC, and CBS in the years to come and pretty much anyone can access those games anywhere -- but the majority of Big Ten teams each weekend won't be playing on one of those outlets, especially after USC and UCLA join. Games on FOX, NBC, and CBS take care of six Big Ten teams (or fewer, if those networks are airing a non-conference game involving a Big Ten team). That could leave eight Big Ten teams (or 10 after USC and UCLA join) in games not being aired on FOX, NBC, and CBS. You'll still need access to BTN, FS1, and perhaps Peacock to watch those games. 

You might be able to save a little money if cable/streaming providers offered a la carte packages and you could stop paying for ESPN -- but no cable/streaming providers are offering that level of a la carte packaging. So while you might not need a cable/streaming package that includes ESPN if you only want to watch Iowa/Big Ten sports, finding a package that includes BTN and FS1 but not ESPN/ESPN2 could be challenging. 

And then there's the Peacock factor as well. FOX doesn't have their own affiliated streaming service (at least for now). CBS has Paramount+, but as noted earlier, there's no indication that Big Ten games in any sport will be airing exclusively on that service. It's only going to be used to provide a streaming option to watch games aired on CBS itself. But NBC has Peacock, which is a separate service with a separate fee -- and it will have exclusive broadcast rights to multiple Big Ten sporting events. You can gamble that Iowa won't be on Peacock for any football games (though my guess is that the Big Ten/NBC will try to ensure a broad mix of teams with a game aired on Peacock; they're not just going to dump four Rutgers games on that service), but it seems like a certainty that some Iowa MBB and WBB games will end up on Peacock. And if you like to watch Iowa sports outside of football and basketball, it sounds like there's an even greater likelihood of those sports being aired on Peacock. 

So, in all likelihood, to continue watching Iowa sports under this new media rights deal, you're probably looking at paying for the same amount of coverage that you have now -- plus the cost of adding Peacock (if you're not already getting it now). Is that annoying? Sure. On the other hand, it also probably won't be a dramatic change in what you're doing now to watch Iowa -- it's just going to involve watching Hawkeye sports on some different networks (and/or streaming services). 

As more details about the coverage plans for Big Ten sports under this new media right deal emerge, we'll be sure to discuss them further here, especially when it comes to things like sports other than football and men's basketball, and what the future of BTN+ might be. And remember that this arrangement doesn't start until next year, with the fall 2023 season. For the next 12 months, you'll be watching Iowa sports in the same places you've been watching it for the last few years -- BTN, FOX, FS1, and, yes, ABC and ESPN/ESPN2. 

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