I don’t exactly have a perfect record of predictions on this blog (as evidenced by the regular stream of friendly visitors from TexAgs that still remind me of what I wrote about Texas A&M and SEC expansion a few years ago), but one big picture issue that I understood from day one (meaning literally right when it was announced in 2006) was that the Big Ten Network would be a massive game changer for the conference and college sports overall. What others saw as vanity project destined to fail compared to the SEC’s then-traditional TV deal with ESPN, with the harshest criticism coming from Big Ten country itself, I looked at as the platform to turn the Big Ten into the New York Yankees of college sports financially. Many sports fans look at the BTN as shooting fish in a barrel money-wise now, but a lot of them have collective amnesia about how much criticism the network took in its first year of existence (including Tom Izzo publicly calling it a “PR nightmare”) and beyond when the SEC signed what was a then-large guaranteed deal with ESPN in 2008. Even when the Big Ten initially announced that it was looking to expand in 2009, many commentators didn’t bother taking into account how much the BTN would drive the process. If it wasn’t clear with the addition of Nebraska (which, despite its small market, could effectively have the BTN charge whatever it wanted to games and Husker fans would pay up), it was blatantly obvious with the expansion with Rutgers (New York/New Jersey market) and Maryland (Washington, DC/Baltimore market).
So, I can imagine how satisfied Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and the rest of the conference officials must feel with the BTN on the precipice of capturing the great white whale of college sports: the New York City market. According to the Star-Ledger, BTN has entered into deals with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision for basic cable carriage of the channel in the NYC area (with discussions with Comcast moving along well). That means every the BTN (and by, extension, every Big Ten school) is going to receive a significant chunk of change from each Time Warner Cable and Cablevision basic subscriber covered under the deal. (Awful Announcing had a back-of-the-napkin calculation of at least $48 million per year for the Big Ten just from this single carriage deal, although that likely overstates the immediate impact since it doesn’t take into account Fox’s 51% ownership interest in the network and various expenses. Still, this market represents tens of millions of dollars per year for the Big Ten solely based on the BTN.) The skeptics of whether Rutgers would pay off for the Big Ten (myself included) are about to eat crow. This was the financial end game for the Big Ten when the expansion process began nearly 5 years ago: the addition of a massive market the size of either Texas or New York for the BTN. The Texas Longhorns weren’t willing partners on the former, so the Big Ten moved onto the latter.
Frankly, the fact that the BTN was able to negotiate a deal this quickly (several months before football season starts) in any part of the New York DMA was surprising (and bodes very well for the Washington and Baltimore markets where Maryland has a stronger sports presence compared to Rutgers in the New York area). Cable and satellite industry consolidation (the ongoing regulatory approval process of the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable and AT&T’s newly announced deal to acquire DirecTV) is likely in the backdrop, while BTN co-owner Fox has the ability to leverage its cross-ownership of YES (and there isn’t much more powerful programming in the NYC market than Yankees games).
Now, no one should be naive enough to believe that this cable TV money train will run into perpetuity. Cord cutting is on the rise and that will likely continue to accelerate among non-sports fans that can get their programming fixes from online sources such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. However, sports are still the killer app when it comes to live TV, which is why NBC/Comcast signed yet another expensive long-term extension of its Olympics rights that will last until I’m close to retirement age in 2032. Meanwhile, the Big Ten itself is gearing up to go to market with its first tier sports rights (with the new contract starting for the
2016 2017 football season) and will almost assuredly sign what will be the largest TV deal in college sports history without even including BTN money in the equation.*
(* For what it’s worth and this is strictly my semi-educated guess, but I believe that the Big Ten will end up with a split of rights between ESPN and Fox similar to how the Pac-12 and Big 12 deals are structured. It makes sense from the exposure and financial perspectives, while ESPN and Fox have clearly shown a willingness to partner with each other on large deals. The latest example of this is the recently-announced MLS/US Soccer deal with ESPN and Fox splitting the rights.)
With the Midwest having a lower proportion of the US population each year**, the East Coast has become a critical focus for the Big Ten out of necessity. The recent announcements of the Big Ten/Big East basketball challenge and the awarding of the Big Ten Tournament to the Verizon Center in Washington, DC in 2017 are important pieces to the league’s Eastern strategy, but the BTN carriage is definitely the clinching factor in all of the B1G plans.
(** Note that this different than the gross misnomer of the Midwest “losing population” that is often perpetuated in the national media, which simply isn’t true. What’s occurring is that the Midwest’s growth is much slower than other regions of the country. Granted, the legacy populations of places like Illinois, Ohio and Michigan are still extremely large to the point where it would still take many years, if not decades, for smaller faster growing states to catch up to them.)
(Image from CBS Chicago)