Last month, details started to leak out about the Big Ten's new media rights deal, and they indicated the conference was about to get paid. The Big Ten reportedly agreed to sell just half of their media rights package to Fox for as much as $250 million, an amount that would further launch the conference into the monied elite of the sport.
Of course, that's just for half of their media rights, meaning the Big Ten still needs another partner. ESPN would make the most sense, given their long history as a broadcasting partner with the conference, and their stature and cachet in the sport. But the Worldwide Leader is still in cost-cutting mode, and reportedly low-balled the Big Ten with their first offer for a chunk of the media rights. But c'mon, the Big Ten wouldn't really sign a media package without ESPN, right?
From the sound of Big Ten administrators at their Spring Meetings, it certainly seems possible now. Here's Northwestern AD Jim Phillips on the status of those negotiations:
"No one has amnesia about the relationship we've had with ESPN. It's a great group. They're terrific. But we're at a different place and they're at a different place in 2016 than we were in the last round. That doesn't mean we can't get to the altar and get married again. But we're at the dating stage right now. And that's a process. That always occurs when you go through a renegotiation. You'd certainly love to stay married with that current partner but ultimately you have to do what's in the best interest of the 14 institutions."
In case that wasn't clear enough, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein adds:
Abundantly clear that ABC/ESPN might not be part of next B1G media rights package— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) May 18, 2016
It's not hard to imagine why this could be the case. Beset by losses after cord-cutting throughout the industry, ESPN's appetite for another massive media rights deal may be waning. And it's not like the Big Ten would be lacking for hypothetical other broadcast partners. If ESPN isn't in the mix, the conference could turn to CBS, TNT, NBC, Fox, or some combination thereof, and potentially for a more lucrative package. It is entirely possible the most lucrative bid for these rights would come from somebody other than ESPN.
But that doesn't mean they should take it. Even if the money isn't perfect, these two sides need to figure out a way to get to a deal.
There may be something deeply emotionally satisfying about telling ESPN that they're not needed, but even with Fox and others making strong bids for programming rights, ESPN still wields the single most influence in this sport. They own the rights to the College Football Playoff. They own almost all of the bowl games. They help broker non-conference scheduling arrangements. And more than any other broadcasting company, newspaper, blog or media outlet, they drive the national conversation of the sport.
That's not a trivial thing, and coaches understand this. John Ourand of Sports Business Journal, said that the ACC was considering a similar move, only for their coaches to rebel against it:
Years ago, the ACC was flirting with leaving ESPN and going to FOX. A whole bunch of really powerful ACC coaches like Coach K and Gary Williams almost revolted. They turned that deal. The difference with the Big Ten is that Jim Delaney, he runs the Big Ten."
Coaches understand that high school players want to be play on ESPN. That exposure, that brand, resonates with them. If you're a program that isn't getting a ton of attention, like a Purdue or a Maryland, being able to use that ESPN relationship can be even more of an advantage. And in a sport where subjective evaluation is more important than in arguably any other, is leaving a business relationship with the most important driver of conversations that wise?
The Big East, after all, saw their ratings and Q-Rating fall off considerably when they left ESPN for Fox Sports. The NHL also suffered in the short term when they left for NBC Sports. In the immediate future, it's hard to imagine Big Ten exposure not taking a short-term hit if they left for another broadcasting network.
Could the Big Ten make more money elsewhere? Sure. But who benefits from that arrangement? Let's say the Big Ten could make $50 million a year more with TNT/CBS than with ESPN. That's a little over $8 million a school. Is that $8 million the difference between Purdue being bad at football, and average at football? Is it enough to allow a Big Ten program to start a hockey team? Is that what pushes Nebraska over the proverbial hump?
If we're being honest, it probably isn't. The Big Ten is already rich. It's going to be even richer with their next deal, no matter who they sign with. A lack of funds is not what it keeping some of their teams from being competitive. An increase in funds isn't going to the players who earn it, and if it isn't being used on new sports programming, it's probably going to facility improvements of dubious need, coach and administrative salaries, or on other projects that won't impact fans, won't necessarily positive impact the welfare of the revenue-sport athletes, or the competitiveness of the highest profile athletic teams.
Breaking up with ESPN could impact all of those things. It could hurt recruiting, could hurt the fan experience (especially since the streaming platforms on many ESPN competitors are inferior technology), and could even, at the margins, impact postseason options or scheduling arrangements.
Hopefully, these statements being leaked are a way to increase pressure on either side to find a way to actually get a deal done. If not, the conference risks making a mistake. The extra money isn't worth it. They should find a way to keep ESPN involved, even if that means taking a bit of a haircut.