Last week, the Big Ten announced the largest media rights deal in college football history — by a long shot. Given the reach of the conference, including huge brands and large media markets that make advertisers salivate, the conference engaged a set of networks who were willing to pay up rather than focusing on a more limited partnership. Notably, the $7 billion deal effectively cut ESPN out of the conference’s repertoire in favor of a mélange of CBS, FOX, and NBC.
The move felt shocking, but natural — like when the last carriage left the streets of New York as automobiles took over, because Big Ten football on ESPN, in its glory days, is a vestige of another time.
For many years, ESPN was the gold standard of sports as cable television overtook broadcast production in terms of quality. Monday Night Football, moving from ABC to ESPN, was the premier game of the week. The Disney halo made the event magical, something to brighten the doldrums of Mondays.
More recently and in the collegiate sphere, the College Football Playoff is an example of how that excellent production quality translated to college football. I will always associate the black and gold branding of the CFP when I hear Fall Out Boy’s Centuries, and the pageantry of that first championship in 2014 was on a different level.
But like Icarus, ESPN flew too close to the sun. They went too far with the pageantry to the point where even finding a classic view of the game at hand became a challenge. For elite games, ESPN’s natural goal is to fill all of its many networks and radio stations with content, but the dueling simulcasts, the skycams, the local voiceovers, the competing commentary — it’s all too much and it’s a distraction when I simply want to watch a football game.
Some of these ideas in isolation are cool — who didn’t love Peyton and Eli’s complementary broadcast during Monday Night Football? — but in aggregate, they are overwhelming.
In many ways, College Gameday has gone much the same way as the rest of ESPN: Overproduced, overwhelming and over-the-top. It pains me to acknowledge that, because Lee Corso is all of our grandfathers.
Moreover, the focus on the pageantry seems to detract from the on-field product with core competencies like broadcasting (though I will forever love the crew of Molly McGrath, Todd Blackledge, and Sean McDonough). ESPN has lost some of its high-profile talent in recent years to the networks, including Tom Rinaldi and Maria Taylor.
Does this focus on production impact the bottom line? January’s College Football Playoff Championship, even rebounding from a low in 2021, still saw low ratings. Moreover, the Big Ten and SEC Championship and rivalry games in the final weeks of the season, including Ohio State vs. Michigan, were played on FOX and CBS — and beat ESPN in ratings by a long shot.
Compare ESPN’s production to the incredible quality of what is now the gold standard in football production: Sunday Night Football. From the team in the studio on Football Night in America anchored by Maria Taylor (a smooth transition from the post long held by Mike Tirico, who is moving to fill Al Michael’s role alongside Chris Collinsworth) to the on-field talent, it’s a clean, classy, drama-free production.
In particular, NBC has managed to weave analytics, which had become a buzzword, into an actual differentiator. As much as we might roll our eyes that it is Collinsworth’s company, Pro Football Focus, that supplies the analytics for Sunday Night Football, there’s no denying their analytical focus is far better than the regular analysis of Jon Gruden that “He’s a football player!” It makes the modern game more interesting when viewers can learn about data rather than hear announcers ogling over big hits. How cool will it be to see those tools applied in real-time for Ohio State games?
More broadly, now, the Big Ten can benefit from the halo of production value. From a talent perspective, might we even see Maria Taylor playing a role on the Saturday night crew? She was incredible in her days on ESPN on the sideline, and maybe someday we’ll see her in the booth (I can dream!). Taylor already holds one of the most coveted broadcast roles in sports in her aforementioned new role hosting Football Night in America.
NBC as a network is also no stranger to college football, given their long-standing contract with Notre Dame which is already in the process of renegotiations. If this contract is renewed (though perhaps not at the valuation the Fighting Irish are hoping for), the Big Ten also serves to benefit from advertising for Saturday night football during Notre Dame’s noon and afternoon games.
Even on FOX, Big Noon Kickoff has become an oft preferred alternative to College Gameday, having beaten out the behemoth in ratings for the first time in 2019 and continuing to provide top-tier analysis directly ahead of FOX’s oddly branded primetime slot.
That’s not even to mention the afternoon slot on CBS, which also tends to draw in significant national audiences.
What does all this mean for Ohio State? On the deal side itself, the Buckeyes bring exactly what the advertisers for these major networks want: eyeballs. There’s no doubt that Ohio State pulled the greatest weight of any individual team when it came to negotiating the media rights deal overall. Ohio State has brought broadcast and cable television some of the most highly-rated football games of the last decade (and beyond that), with the Buckeyes regularly in the top three of most-watched games year in and year out.
Naturally, FOX will be looking to book Ohio State in its own primetime spot — Big Noon kickoff — while NBC will be jockeying to put the Buckeyes on Saturday nights. It will be interesting to see how the push and shove of these two networks with their non-competing premier timeslots will play out.
For fans, the new media rights deal means fresh and quality production on networks that have proven themselves experts in college football in recent years.
We also must remember that it’s not all about Ohio State. Negotiation based on one team would have resulted in a Longhorn Network equivalent and we all saw how that turned out. Expansion — and the announcement thereof — only further emphasizes Kevin Warren’s savvy as commissioner. The Big Ten brings a lot to love for advertisers, from the top-three media markets in the US (New York, LA, Chicago) to big brands even beyond Ohio State.
But back to the season at hand — or what the season at hand will be in a few short years: The production value for Big Ten games moving forward looks to be incredible. As a fan, I simply cannot resist — which is exactly what those advertisers were going for.