Why ESPN reportedly breaking up with the Big Ten could mean good news for Big 12

·4 min read
Ron Jenkins/AP

Two of the biggest names in college sports are breaking up, but you won’t find many tears being shed about the separation in Big 12 country.

ESPN has reportedly ended negotiations with the Big Ten for its next media rights contract. After decades of carrying Big Ten games on its networks, ESPN balked at the price tag that came along with renewing its deal with the conference, according to the Sports Business Journal. The Big Ten was reportedly asking for $380 million a year for seven years. ESPN said no thanks.

With ESPN no longer in the picture, that means CBS and NBC are now expected to team up with Fox as the Big Ten’s new media partners.

That could be a good development for the Big 12.

Why? One could argue this deal was the next domino in conference realignment, and it has now fallen. The Pac-12 and the Big 12 are both scheduled to negotiate new TV deals of their own in the next two years, which could shape the future of both leagues.

Many have wondered how much collective value the Big 12 will lose after flagship members Oklahoma and Texas leave for the SEC. We will soon find out the answer. But we already know at least one of the major networks that will be bidding on its games.

ESPN will almost certainly be interested in extending its partnership with the Big 12 now that is no longer affiliated with the Big Ten. And it will have extra money to spend now that it has decided against sending $380 million per year somewhere else.

The network will need more than just ACC and SEC games to televise each week. The Big 12 could provide the answer to its scheduling problems. With future members located all the way from Orlando, Florida to Provo, Utah, the Big 12 can offer games that fill time slots across three time zones in multiple sports.

On a typical fall Saturday, ESPN broadcasts college football games nonstop from 11 a.m. Central until after midnight. It does the same with basketball games in the winter.

Losing the Big Ten will open huge gaps in that schedule that need to be filled with games from other conferences, not to mention the inventory ESPN likes to charge a premium for on ESPN+.

The Pac-12 is currently negotiating its new TV deal with ESPN and Fox. The Big 12 is the next power conference up.

Had ESPN continued its relationship with the Big Ten, it was reported that NBC might be interested in striking a deal with the Big 12 as shoulder programming for Notre Dame home football games. But there was nothing certain about that. NBC could have just as easily pivoted toward pro sports or programming that has nothing to do with athletics. It has been televising standalone Notre Dame football just fine for many years.

But it’s a different situation with ESPN. The Worldwide Leader in Sports is always looking for more college games to show on its networks.

There is one awkward thing about the Big 12 potentially continuing its partnership with ESPN. At about this time last year, former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a scathing letter to ESPN that accused the network of trying to destroy the conference.

“This whole thing has been a complete articulation of deception,” Bowlsby said last summer.

At the time, many speculated that the Big 12 would work to find a different network or streaming service to carry its games along with Fox in the future. Could their business relationship be repaired?

Well, it seems as though both sides were able to put the past behind them. ESPN responded with a letter that said Bowlsby’s claims were without merit. Then Bowlsby said he no longer wished to discuss the situation further publicly, as it would only damage things further.

Bowlsby has since retired. Brett Yormark is now in charge of the Big 12 and he has stated that driving up value and maximizing the conference’s next media deal is his top priority. He is unlikely to let an old grudge get in the way of a good business deal.

There won’t be a new deal for ESPN and the Big Ten. That could open the door for a new, lucractive deal partnership between ESPN and the Big 12.