Big Ten Nears Billion-Dollar Deal as ESPN Exits and CBS Eyes SEC Swap

The Big Ten is expected to sign off on its new media-rights package within the next few days, with all indications suggesting that the conference has secured a series of deals that will bring in well over $1 billion per year—or at least two-and-a-half times what incumbents Fox and ESPN pay under the current arrangement. The latter has bowed out of the talks, bringing an end to 40 years of Big Ten Football on ESPN.

While Fox locked in its portion of the Big Ten’s media bounty more than a month ago, maintaining its top-rated “Big Noon Saturday” window, the network has played an unconventional role in the negotiations for the two other TV slots. Fox, which owns a 60% stake in the Big Ten Network, effectively installed itself as the broker of the 3:30 p.m. ET and primetime slates, in a power grab that a rival executive has characterized as “truly bizarre.”

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After dealing itself the Big Noon package, Fox effectively never left the table, sitting in on the process as competitors ESPN, CBS and NBC submitted their own bids. While none of the networks vying for a piece of the Big Ten was exactly thrilled with the situation, they played the cards they were dealt, Fox or no Fox.

For ESPN, the price of retaining a portion of the Big Ten was higher than anyone was willing to go. After a protracted head-to-head showdown with NBC, ESPN stepped away from the talks once it became apparent that a winning bid for the primetime slot would come in at around $380 million per year—double what the network pays under its legacy deal.

Along with the inflated price of the linear TV slate, ESPN dealmakers were also said to be put off by the lack of a streaming component.

While ESPN ended its talks with the Big Ten without reaching a successful resolution, the network will continue to be aggressive on the rights front, provided the cost of securing a given package is sustainable. Since the pandemic began in 2020, the network has negotiated a blockbuster $28.1 billion renewal with the NFL, while expanding its college football empire with its $3 billion SEC deal. Other recent acquisitions include an eight-year, $1.4 billion pact with Spanish soccer’s LaLiga and a $2.8 billion deal to bring the NHL back to Bristol.

In a sense, ESPN’s decision to bow out of the Big Ten race serves as a favorable omen to the Pac-12 and Big 12, both of which will have renewals to hash out over the next few years. As much as the Pac-12 has been devalued by the twin defections of USC and UCLA, the West Coast windows remain an area of fascination for ESPN.

ESPN’s departure leaves NBC with a wide-open track to the primetime showcase, which the network hopes to use as a means to separate advertisers from their money over the course of every fall weekend. If NBC closes out the Big Ten deal as expected, the network would now own the rights to a Power Five matchup on Saturday nights that would serve as an appetizer for the main course that is Sunday Night Football.

While the absence of a direct-to-consumer option played a factor in ESPN’s decision to walk away from the Big Ten, NBC is said to have worked out a streaming deal for its Peacock service. Along with a simulcast of the live TV games, an as-yet-unknown number of Big Ten outings will be carried exclusively by Peacock once the new deal kicks in at the head of the 2023-24 college football campaign.

For its part, CBS looks to have the 3:30 p.m. window all but nailed down, and while the loss of the SEC made it imperative for the network to scramble for a replacement package, the cost of the Big Ten games may give Paramount Global investors pause. CBS is expected to pay upwards of $350 million per year for the late-afternoon window, which is an even heftier sum than the $300 million or so that would have been required to retain the SEC rights.

At the time, CBS balked at the SEC’s asking price, given that it marked nearly a 450% upgrade from the sweetheart deal the network carved out back in 1996. Under the terms of that pact, CBS was on the hook for just $55 million per year, making its expiring SEC deal the biggest bargain on the sports-media market.

Pending a formal announcement, the new Big Ten deals are expected to extend until the end of the decade. In a statement released Tuesday, the conference emphasized that the “overall constructs of the new agreements have not been finalized” and that talks with the networks and direct-to-consumer players are ongoing.

While Fox’s noon package was the biggest draw among all college football windows, CBS’ SEC coverage was tops when each network’s full Saturday roster was put to the test. The Tiffany Network finished the 2021-22 season with an average draw of 5.22 million viewers per game, topping Fox’s 3.9 million.

The Big Ten and SEC last year accounted for nearly all of the 10 most-watched college games, as the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry scared up a season-high 15.9 million viewers on Fox, while CBS’ coverage of the SEC Championship Game between Georgia and Alabama served up 15.3 million viewers. Other top draws include Fox’s broadcast of the Big Ten Championship (Michigan-Iowa, 11.7 million viewers), CBS’ presentation of the 86th Iron Bowl (10.4 million) and Fox’s Oct. 30 Michigan-Michigan State game (9.29 million).

ABC’s biggest delivery came courtesy of its Sept. 4 Saturday Night Football opener, a Georgia-Clemson outing that averaged 8.86 million viewers. Once bowl season kicked off, all eyes were on ESPN, which twice drew 16.6 million viewers (Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl) before going on to top all comers with the Jan. 11 Georgia-Alabama title tilt (22.6 million viewers).

College football games accounted for seven of the 100 most-watched broadcasts of 2021. Regular-season games generated some $800 million in advertising revenue, with the Ohio State-Michigan hate-fest accounting for the largest single-game take (nearly $19.5 million).

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