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Why the Big Ten's second huge TV deal matters for fans

The Big Ten's getting paid for the first half of their TV rights. But what about the rest?

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Last week, the Big Ten shook up the sports media world, as a report surfaced that they were nearing an agreement with Fox over half of their media rights for up to $250M. We wrote about what this particular deal means in more detail, as it could impact other conferences, as well as the TV industry in general. But the major takeaway is that Big Ten schools are about to get a ton of money. That's a good thing.

But Fox is only slated to buy half of the broadcast rights for Big Ten football and basketball games. What about the other half? Sports Business Journal dropped another report about the Big Ten's options last night. Let's dig into what that means.

As an ordinary fan, why should I care about the Big Ten's second TV rights deal?

To be honest, you probably don't need to care about the monetary angle much, especially if you're an Ohio State fan. Big Ten schools are going to make a ton of money from this agreement, no matter who buys the second half of the TV rights. If you're a fan of a smaller school, like Northwestern or Purdue, the additional TV revenue may make a bigger difference, but Ohio State is going to be pretty rich, whether this deal is worth $200M or $250M, and the financial size of the deal shouldn't impact their ability to compete. Ohio State doesn't need to make more TV money, per season, than an SEC program to win a national title.

But the next deal will also determine where you'll be watching Big Ten events on the next several years. Not every TV channel has the best streaming service, for example. Maybe you have really strong opinions about broadcasters, or the broadcast quality of certain TV channels. Maybe you're a penny-pincher with your cable package, and you want to make sure that you have the channel where Big Ten games are going to be on. Ohio State basketball isn't going to get shuffled off to like, TruTV or anything, but it's possible the next arrangement won't be as simple as it was last time.

Why? Won't ESPN just buy the other half?

You might think that. After all, the Big Ten and ESPN have had a long broadcasting relationship, ESPN owns the rights to the College Football Playoff, a gazillion bowl games, and has helped secure big non-conference matchups. And per SBJ, ESPN actually wants rights to the Big Ten.  And they may very well just end up buying the other half of the rights. But it might not be so simple:

ESPN's lowball bid is the most shocking part of these negotiations and could be the first sign that the network's cost-cutting measures are starting to affect its rights deals ... But we can't think of another time that ESPN did not place a competitive bid for a property it really wanted. Sources said ESPN's offer was well below Fox's. This is the network that has set the parameters for sports rights negotiations since the late 1990s, and it should send shock waves to sports leagues that ESPN is more cost-conscious with its rights fees. The question is how long this belt-tightening will last given that most major sports rights aren't up for several years. Word is that ESPN already has set up meetings to bid on what remains of the Big Ten's rights. But if ESPN's bid wasn't competitive for the first package, we're skeptical that it will be competitive on the second one.

You might be aware of the much reported on budget tightening at ESPN right now. Multiple name (see: expensive) broadcasters are leaving the network in the near future, and revenue projections from the company have lagged in recent months. That ESPN wouldn't just buy the whole dang thing isn't a big surprise. But industry sources appear to be very surprised with how non-competitive ESPN's bid was.

It's entirely possible the suits in Bristol could snap back, decide letting Ohio State and Michigan walk isn't good for business, and make a real offer. But it seems the odds that the Big Ten could completely break away from ESPN and go with somebody else are non-trivial.

Who are the other possible bidders?

NBC Sports is one that has been mentioned (note: we should point out that NBCUniversal's invested over $200 million in Vox Media, who owns this website). SBJ doesn't seem to think highly of their chances, noting that while NBC has "open broadcast windows", adding the Big Ten doesn't fit in with their overall broadcasting strategy. NBC tends to buy rights to content it controls exclusively (the NHL, the Olympics, etc). Outside of Notre Dame, NBC also doesn't really broadcast a lot of college football.

Are there any others?

Another possibility that has been bandied about is a combination of CBS and Turner. CBS already broadcasts some Big Ten basketball games, and could add a Big Ten football game to produce doubleheaders with the SEC during the fall. Both networks also already broadcast the NCAA Tournament. TNT hasn't really been in the football business since losing NFL rights in the late 90s, but has shown it can very capably handle pro and collegiate basketball broadcasts.

Fox could also decide to buy the rest of the Big Ten's package, but that seems unlikely, given potentially prohibitive costs.

Do Big Ten coaches have any preferences?

Yes. Per SBJ, coaches absolutely want to stick with ESPN in some capacity, as being on ESPN is something that potentially matters to recruits. Big East coaches expressed concern about moving out of public consciousness after their move to Fox, which led to cratering ratings, and after what happened to the NHL after it left ESPN, concerns about the Big Ten suffering from a loss of exposure don't seem to be unfounded. Even if the conference as a whole could make more money elsewhere, coaches and administrators would prefer to keep some relationship with the outlet that still has the largest influence on college sports.

Do you have a personal preference?

I personally do. I can't say I'm much of a TV "power user", though. I don't have really strong opinions on most broadcast crews, I don't stream sporting events very often, and I don't have really passionate opinions about the packaging or video work from most channels. Generally, I think most of them are fine.

But as a fan of a Big Ten school, I would prefer the conference stick with ESPN, even if that means they can't replicate the $250M for the second half of the rights. Part of this is a convenience factor. I don't want to have to worry about finding/paying for Fox Sports 2, NBC Sports, or other secondary channels. The ESPN family of networks is not hard to find.

But I also agree with conference coaches and administrators, in that I think it would be helpful to continue a relationship with the largest broadcaster of college sports. Ohio State fans sometimes complain about perceived anti-Ohio State bias from ESPN, which isn't necessarily true, but if their conference was not on any of ESPN's properties at all, that could become a slightly different conversation. Why give the biggest mouthpiece in the sport a reason to not talk about you? It probably matters to players, it more likely matters to recruits, and even though we pretend it doesn't, it matters to many others as well.

Maybe the Big Ten divorcing from ESPN in a good move in the long term. But in the short/medium term (i.e, the entire length of this six-year deal), it would make me nervous.