Posts Tagged ‘Big Ten TV rights’

IMG_2199

The financial news stories coming out of ESPN over the past several months have been quite negative. The Disney-owned cable network has endured several rounds of layoffs and reported  last week that it has lost 7 million subscribers over the past two years. This is of particular interest to the Big Ten, which will be negotiating new television contracts over the next year and has been banking on massive increases in rights fees. All of the Big Ten’s off-the-field moves during this decade, from conference expansion to adding a conference championship, has been leading up to providing the league with maximum leverage in this negotiation. The Big Ten Network has certainly been a boon, but the first tier national TV contract is still the Big Ten’s top priority both financially and in terms of brand exposure by a wide margin.

Many of the Big Ten’s financial projections during the conference realignment process were based upon the assumption that ESPN would offer a massive rights fees increase (which in turn would garner similar bids from other media companies, particularly Fox). However, should the Big Ten be worried with the recent turbulence at ESPN? Do the cost-cutting measures at ESPN mean that the network will pull back on what it could offer to the Big Ten?

John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal recently examined the race for the Big Ten rights and noted that the market may not be as “frothy” as it was when the Pac-12 secured a huge rights fee increase in 2011. However, he still expected “ESPN and Fox Sports to at least double the conference’s annual average payout and share the rights” despite the overall market factors (and he would have as great of an insight of what’s likely for sports media rights as anyone in the business).

I completely agree with Ourand on the likelihood of ESPN and Fox splitting the Big Ten rights (as I also predicted in my last post). This would have the effect of ESPN and Fox not having to each completely break their individual banks yet provide the Big Ten with much larger overall rights fees compared to one single contract holder. At the same time, I believe that the Big Ten greatly values the exposure the ESPN provides via its multiple platforms that can’t be matched by any other media company (even with pressures on the basic cable model). I don’t buy the notion that the Big Ten would walk away from ESPN completely – Jim Delany has set up this league to be like the NFL with multiple high profile media partners viewing it as an essential product. (See this article from Ed Sherman from this past March pointing out the presence of ESPN, Fox-affiliated BTN and CBS all at the Big Ten Tournament.)

At the same time, Big Ten fans shouldn’t pay attention to the arm chair observers (i.e. partisans from other leagues that would love to see the Big Ten fail to meet its expectations) that simply assume that ESPN cutting costs in its operations will mean that it will cut its spending on rights fees (and thereby the Big Ten). Ultimately, content is king, and ESPN in particular needs live sports content whether we live in a basic cable world or cord-cutting a la carte/over-the-top streaming world. If anything, retaining premium live sports programming becomes even more critical to ESPN as more people drop basic cable. It’s not going to sell over-the-top subscriptions like HBO Now with more Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith shows. The only way ESPN is going to get people to shell out $20 (or $30 or $40 or $50 or more per month) if it has to move to that environment is to have the broadest suite of exclusive live sporting events that large audiences want to watch as possible. That includes the Big Ten.

The adjustments that ESPN’s corporate siblings at Disney in Hollywood have already made years ago provide a template for sports programming expenditures in the future. Movie studios have already had their revenue and profits eroded by the Internet much more quickly than the television industry. Box office revenue is only being buoyed by ticket price increases (masking a general decline in attendance) while increases in digital streaming and downloads have not been enough to offset the decline in sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs . It’s harder than ever to make money in the movie industry today.

However, that doesn’t mean that Disney has slashed all of its movie budgets. Quite to the contrary, Disney will greenlight massive production and marketing budgets for its tentpole franchises and brands, such as Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar, that dwarf the figures that have been used in the past even on an inflation-adjusted basis. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is estimated to have a production budget of $200 million and films of that size typically have marketing costs that come close to matching that number dollar-for-dollar on top of that. The Avengers: Age of Ultron had a combined production and marketing budget of over $340 million. When it comes to premium content, Disney isn’t skimping because those tentpole movies have downstream impact on the company’s business, such as merchandising and theme park tie-ins. (This classic Spaceballs clip is now literally the business strategy for all of Hollywood.)

Disney will also greenlight lower budget movies, such as documentaries out of its Disneynature unit. Other Hollywood studios have figured out that really cheap horror films provide the best returns on investment in the business, which is why consumers now get a steady diet of new horror movie releases throughout the entire year.

What Disney did completely cut, though, was its middle budget film division. Disney sold off Miramax in 2010 (less than a year after Disney purchased Marvel), which was the Oscar nominee producing machine of films such as Pulp Fiction. The prestige film business might provide nice publicity during awards season, but it doesn’t generate the top-to-bottom movie/merchandising bonanza of tentpole films like Star Wars or the pure ROI of low-budget movies. As a result, Disney has gotten out of the mid-budget film market entirely.

This “high/low” budget strategy while cutting out the middle is almost certainly what ESPN has in mind. Indeed, one the highest profile casualties of ESPN’s recent cost-cutting was the elimination of Grantland. In my opinion, Grantland had produced the best content on any ESPN platform over the past few years (particularly Zach Lowe on the NBA and Bill Barnwell on the NFL) with its mix of sports and pop culture analysis targeted to educated readers. The issue from ESPN’s perspective was that employing the talent to produce such high-level analysis was relatively expensive, yet its mothership website has been getting its most hits for fantasy football lineup recommendations. What is ESPN going to spend its resources on in the future: more top flight reporting on Outside the Lines that is getting marginal ratings, or more lowest common denominator hot take shows where the same broadcast can take up a couple of hours on ESPN2, get syndicated on ESPN radio affiliates across the country and be uploaded to the ESPN website as a podcast? It doesn’t take long to figure that one out.

Believe me – I don’t personally like these trends. Even though I’m a massive Star Wars fan and I’ve got my tickets with the exact seats reserved for opening weekend (along with buying the spectacular Chewbacca Illini T-shirt shown above that might as well have been custom-made for me), I’m also a large watcher of prestige films (and I have zero interest in cheap horror flicks). Grantland was one of my favorite websites and I can’t stand vapid talking head shows (whether news-based or sports-based). We need more resources dedicated to hard news and smart analysis. Unfortunately, the Internet’s business model doesn’t really reward that type of content compared to slideshow click-bait. As a result, prestige content producers may need to go toward an NPR-type funding model.

Putting my personal feelings aside, the high/low budget strategy still works very well for the Big Ten. As far as sports properties go, it’s definitely the equivalent of a tentpole movie franchise and, timing-wise, it’s the only tentpole of any kind available on the TV rights market until the next decade. That’s not hyperbole. Outside of the NFL (which is the undisputed king of TV sports), college football has consistently delivered the best week-in and week-out ratings out of any sport for U.S. viewers and the Big Ten has been at the top of those ratings next to the SEC for many years. This is not a property that ESPN can afford to lose (whether on the mothership cable channel or ABC, whose Saturday programming is heavily reliant on the Big Ten), and this is also not a property that Fox can afford to miss out on. Top tier sports brands like the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, SEC and Big Ten aren’t going to be the ones that are worried about cord cutting because they are all proven drivers of viewership on multiple platforms. Inexpensive sports rights with lower production costs and high ROI (think West Coast Conference basketball with Gonzaga games) will also be in high demand. The sports brands that should be worried are the ones that have relatively high production costs but lower viewership, such as Group of Five conference college football and non-major tennis and golf events.

At the end of the day, ESPN (and likely Fox with them) will end up paying top dollar for the Big Ten just as its Disney corporate siblings continue to pay top dollar for Star Wars films. Going forward, ESPN is in a position where it needs to keep its premium sports rights because that is the only way that it can maximize its value regardless of whether the world stays with basic cable (where such rights are needed to keep the basic cable subscriber fees high) or moves to an over-the-top environment (where such rights are needed to draw in direct paying subscribers). ESPN still paid a premium for more European soccer rights in the past month (as Ourand pointed out) and was still willing to sign up for massive deals with NBA and Major League Baseball when they were fully aware of the erosion of their basic cable subscriber numbers. The Big Ten has tentpole sports content and that will always be in demand.

Advertisements

As we recover from an ‘80s/’90s-style Super Bowl blowout, here are some random thoughts:

“It’s Not Business. It’s Personal.” – Considering how much time that this blog has analyzed objective measures for conference realignment (including the Big 12 Expansion Index late last year), it’s always fun to see how expansion decisions aren’t necessarily always performed using financial analysts and lawyers poring over reams of data and documents. Dennis Dodd told the tale this week of how TCU ended up in the Big 12 during the chaotic realignment days of Fall 2011:

[TCU AD Chris] Del Conte admitted, “the pressure of the entire institution was on my shoulders” to join the Big 12. He worked the phones, calling every Big 12 contact he knew. Support within the Big 12 was growing, including at Oklahoma where good friend Joe Castiglione had been encouraging. But Del Conte knew if he didn’t have Texas, he didn’t have a chance.

“I’ve got one shot,” he recounted, “to go see DeLoss.”

It was a quite a visit. Del Conte grabbed a car, a driver and a bunch of reference material, binders, extolling the advantages of TCU and Fort Worth.

“I get up at 8 o’clock in the morning and drive to Darrell K. Royal Stadium. I get to [Dodds’] office. Nine comes around, 10 comes around. I’ve got a GA [graduate assistant] outside waiting for me, by the way. I tell him, ‘Just wait 10 minutes I’ll be back.’ Pretty soon it’s 3:30.

“[DeLoss] comes out and says, ‘Who are you?’ Chris Del Conte, Texas Christian U. He doesn’t hear ‘Chris.’ he hears ‘Del’. ‘Del, let’s go get ourselves a drink and discuss it.’

“We went to a restaurant and had a little libation at 3:30. By the time 8:30 rolls around, we were [into it] pretty good but we got ourselves in a situation. I kept trying to give him my [binders]. He said, ‘I’ve heard enough, Del’ and just walked away.”

The Big 12 ADs had a conference call the next day.

“The next morning I got up. Joe [Castiglione] goes, ‘I don’t know what you did but it worked.’ We got the vote. The Frogs are in,’ Del Conte said.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like for a Cincinnati or UConn fan whose programs are twisting in the wind when it appears that all it took to get Deloss Dodds to throw the support of the almighty University of Texas behind you was getting him liquored up on tequila shots. Granted, TCU’s addition to the Big 12 wasn’t that simplistic (at least I think so… right?) as it was coming off multiple BCS bowl appearances and a Rose Bowl victory. I had been a champion of TCU long before that when they were still dreaming of just an invite to a then-BCS-level Big East (much less the Big 12). Regardless, it goes to show you that personal relationships still matter beyond the quantitative analysis behind conference realignment. Oliver Luck of West Virginia and Tom Jurich of Louisville were tireless advocates for their respective schools and built up incredible networks of connections that they tapped into when the old Big East was collapsing. Former Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti was critical in getting the school into the Big Ten when the conference was looking for a partner with Maryland. When Creighton got the call to go to the new basketball-focused Big East as opposed to more geographically-friendly and larger market schools like St. Louis and Dayton, it could point to the fact that Creighton’s president happened to be on the Marquette Board of Trustees.

So, it looks like the lesson for any school still trying to get out of the Group of Five ranks is to send booze over to its power conference counterparts early and often on top of all the binders and PowerPoint presentations.

Conference Championship Games the Way We Want ThemJohn Swofford and the ACC sent the NCAA over a proposal to give leagues more flexibility in determining who can participate in conference championship games. The ACC wants the ability to remove the requirement to have divisions in order to hold a conference championship and let conferences determine how the participants are chosen by any criteria that they’d like, such as simply taking the top two teams with the best conference records and having them face off. Personally, I am all for it and hope that Jim Delany and the Big Ten hop aboard in support of the measure. As much as conference realignment fascinates me and believe that power leagues such as the Big Ten need to constantly be on the lookout for expansion opportunities, the obvious drawback as a fan is witnessing the games and rivalries that I actually care about get reduced. No amount of exposure in New York City or Washington, DC for Illinois is going to replace the excitement of playing Michigan or Ohio State. At the same time, if a school is only playing teams in the other division once out of every 6 years (as the SEC is set up now outside of cross-division rivals), that’s more akin to a non-conference scheduling arrangement as opposed to an actual unified conference. Therefore, if there’s a way to continue to hold conference championship games while eliminating divisions (or at least modifying the rules where teams don’t have to play round-robin schedules within their divisions), that provides a lot more ability for expanded conferences to adopt scheduling policies to play everyone within a league more frequently.

If I was running the Big Ten, I’d use the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) strategy of assigning every school 3 permanent rivals that it will play annually based on geography. That would then leave 6 other games to fill on the 9-game schedule every year. This setup allows each school to play everyone else in the conference 6 times every 10 years (a cycle of 2 years on, 2 years off, 4 years on, 2 years off), which keeps conference unity strong while still integrating the benefits of geographic expansion. Here’s how I’d assign the Big Ten rivalries:

SCHOOL RIVAL #1 RIVAL #2 RIVAL #3
Illinois Northwestern Indiana Purdue
Indiana Purdue Illinois Northwestern
Iowa Nebraska Wisconsin Minnesota
Maryland Michigan State Rutgers Penn State
Michigan Ohio State Michigan State Rutgers
Michigan State Maryland Michigan Ohio State
Minnesota Wisconsin Nebraska Iowa
Nebraska Iowa Minnesota Wisconsin
Northwestern Illinois Purdue Indiana
Ohio State Michigan Penn State Michigan State
Penn State Rutgers Ohio State Maryland
Purdue Indiana Northwestern Illinois
Rutgers Penn State Maryland Michigan
Wisconsin Minnesota Iowa Nebraska

The top two schools would then advance to the Big Ten Championship Game. Let’s get this done ASAP.

NFL Thursday Night Games – The NFL agreeing to simulcast a portion of its NFL Network Thursday night package on over-the-air CBS has some major implications both in terms of the entertainment industry in general and college football. First, the fact that CBS ended up winning the package despite already having the top-rated Thursday night lineup led by The Big Bang Theory just goes to show you the power of the NFL compared to everything else on television. Initially, I thought that CBS was going to be the least likely to end up with the NFL package as a result of its monster lineup, but it makes a bit more sense as a defensive move. Note that Disney pushed back on the NFL’s request to move Sunday Night Football games from ESPN to ABC back in 2004 because of an extremely strong prime time lineup featuring Desperate Housewives. That SNF package ended up on NBC, which now has such high ratings that it has turned Sunday night from the place where networks would always put their very best shows (as it has historically been the night when the most people will watch TV) to a scheduling triage unit for half of the year until football season is over. CBS likely noted the history of ABC and moved to protect its Thursday night lineup. Now, CBS can show NFL games on Thursday nights for the first 8 weeks of the season (thereby weakening the strong ratings competition of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal on ABC in the process) and then debut The Big Bang Theory just in time for November sweeps month. This move could have a radical change to how networks schedule on Thursday night (which had turned into the new evening where networks all placed their best shows after SNF ravaged its Sunday night competition).

College football will certainly be affected further as this will draw further exposure away from ESPN’s Thursday night games. Over the past 6 or 7 years, Thursday night had developed into an acceptable time slot for power conference schools to move games to away from Saturday, but that enticement might be eradicated with much stronger over-the-air NFL competition (and it was already getting that way with the NFL Network’s full season Thursday night schedule over the past 2 years). As a result, Thursday night might end up being the purview of non-power conferences again. Also, Friday nights aren’t as attractive to top schools because of conflicts with high school football in many states and lower TV ratings on that evening in general.

At the same time, the NFL’s willingness to move games off of its own network (which has the highest subscriber fees of any national cable network outside of ESPN) shows the tension between maximizing revenue (which would point to maximizing the value of their cable network) and maximizing exposure (going to over-the-air channels or ESPN). The Big Ten should take note as it heads into a period where it may end up renegotiating its TV deals sooner rather than later (as John Ourand of Sports Business Journal has predicted will happen this year). I often get asked about how many more games that the Big Ten will retain for the BTN in its next TV deal and my response is, “Not as many as you think.” As much as the BTN is filling up the Big Ten’s coffers, Jim Delany is smart enough to know that there still needs to be a balance of exposure on entities such as ESPN and over-the-air networks to keep the product viable in the long-term. The BTN is still intended to be a supplement to the widespread coverage as opposed to a replacement – we’re not going to be seeing Michigan-Ohio State on BTN anytime soon. If anything, look for broader distribution for Big Ten games on ABC, ESPN and possibly Fox whenever the conference signs its new TV deals.

Semi-off-topic: City Branding in Columbus – One of my random interests is studying urban development plans and how metro areas can attract investment and transplants, so Urbanophile is one of my favorite blogs to follow these days. Much of the blog’s focus is on Midwestern and Rust Belt cities, so there’s’ a lot of quantitative and qualitative analysis about the economic growth prospects (or in some cases, the lack thereof) of the Big Ten footprint. A recent post dealt with whether Columbus needs better branding in order to attract attention on par with other media-hyped college town/state capital combos such as Austin and Madison or if better job and population growth in and of itself is enough. You’ll see a fairly vigorous discussion in that post, including several comments from me. Anyway, I thought that would be of particular interest to the Ohio State fans reading here and it’s a great place to discuss how many of the other Big Ten markets are doing (which, in turn, impacts the strength of the Big Ten itself will be in the future).

Finally… if there’s a silver lining to the authoritarian, anti-free speech, homophobic and dog killing regime of Vladamir Putin, it’s that it’s going to be really easy to root against Russia in the Olympics again. No one else has really stepped in to fill the U.S. rival role since the Soviet Union fell. (Granted, I’m half-Chinese, so it’s a bit more difficult for me to demonize China as the enemy.) This is as much of a throwback to the 1980s as terrible Super Bowl matchups, so that will certainly add some flavor to the Olympics.

Enjoy the weekend!

(Image from Third City)