Sunday, August 23, 2009

Conference TV Contract: Conference USA

Conference USA's contracts with ESPN and CBS College Sports are due to the last major conference realignment. The conference has taken a major hit in terms of the lack of a ranked program in final regular season poll since the realignment. Yet they've been able to retain a fair amount of national exposure on weekends.

C-USA, like all of the other non-AQ conferences, does not have a presence on any of the four major, national over-the-air networks and gets all of its coverage on cable. The original eight year contract they signed with ESPN back in 2001 would have ended with this upcoming football season and ABC would have had the option of televising the C-USA football title game if they had been able to get to 12 members before the massive realignment in 2005. Unfortunately that never happened, but after ESPN requested the contract be reopened due to realignment, they managed to retain the same level of coverage on ESPN & ESPN2 of ten regular season games per season, plus ESPN took on the conference championship game when it was established in 2005.

CBS College Sports also entered the picture in 2005. Known as CSTV back then, it was able to score the inventory rights to C-USA that were previously held by ESPN Regional Television. ESPN decided to drop the exclusivity that existed in the prior contract and it allowed the deal to take place between CSTV and C-USA. In exchange for CSTV gaining those rights, ESPN must televise all of their C-USA games on either ESPN or ESPN2. No games may appear on ESPNU or ESPN Game Plan. CSTV also took over the website hosting and maintenance for all 12 C-USA schools.

CBS College Sports earned the right to choose up to 24 games for national telecast, but they have not selected more than 19 games for telecast in a single season, with most seasons around 13-15 games. In 2005, they moved six games over to i television (now known as Ion) and at the end of 2006 began selling games to CSS for regional telecasts.

CBS College Sports has also allowed schools to sell games to local & regional broadcasters beyond CSS. As the contract has gone on, more games have been sold off to local broadcasters.

Since many of the games are selected for telecast before the season starts, there is no selection order during the season, though CBS College Sports leaves open some of their late season telecast windows to get the best available game televised. During the offseason, ESPN selects the games they wish to televise and those games are made public usually when C-USA releases the season's entire schedule. CBS College Sports usually announces its selected games 1-2 months after that. Regional telecasts are generally announced throughout the summer.

C-USA's contracts with both ESPN and CBS College Sports ends at the end of the 2010 football season. C-USA's games on ESPN are often on weeknights unless they are home games against AQ conference opponents. The lack of results on the field, coupled with a sagging economy, an interest in broadcasters to invest in more high-profile entities like the SEC & Big Ten and the upcoming ACC rights negotiation could harm C-USA's ability to increase their rights fee and/or retain the amount of exposure they currently have. Will C-USA schools be willing to continue to play games on weeknights in exchange for television exposure? Will ESPN and CBS C be willing to continue the non-exclusive arrangement or will one attempt to bring all of C-USA's games in house and at what price? Could a third party enter the mix? C-USA officials realize that they may have to receive less actual revenues to get the same number of games on TV.

C-USA needs to favorably increase its football profile on a national scale or the upcoming negotiation could be far less than desirable.

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