Yes, it will get the fourteen schools (Fourteen? Maybe it will be 22 by that point!) and the conference will have more cash to work with. And a few of you mentioned that FOX is your front runner. But everyone has work to do & ESPN might have already been clearing some of the decks to stay in place, at least when it comes to football.
ESPN has already dumped off NASCAR after 2014, which takes up valuable programming blocks on Saturdays. FOX has also dumped off many of their summer & fall NASCAR commitments too though, which will no longer have to cut in to show qualifying for Sprint Cup or the Nationwide Series. They will still have the trucks on a few Saturdays, plus whatever other motorsport commitments they've elected to carry live on weekends.
In terms of college football, the only commitment that will increase slightly is that ESPN can increase the number of Big 12 games they can carry starting in 2016 from nineteen up to 23. Four games that could be shoehorned in anywhere on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU, especially when you consider that ESPNEWS will be a place to show games on Saturdays from the American and Mountain West.
FOX also has the UFC through 2018, which right now has proven to be the one piece of programming that attracts a consistent audience on FOX Sports 1. So there will be Saturday nights where they'll have to cut away from college sports. FOX also has new MLB commitments starting with 2014 where FOX Sports 1 will carry MLB on many Saturdays.
There is also the matter of how were have been working with fifteen week regular seasons in college football in 2013 & 2014. I believe it is better to look at a base of fourteen week regular seasons, and really thirteen weeks when it comes to a conference that plays a championship game because the last week isn't a week that gets accounted for.
To me, if FOX were going to go in for all the Big Ten rights, a few things need to occur:
- A determination needs to be made by FOX as to how many games per week they are willing to show on their broadcast network. With SEC and American syndication ending this year, I counted around ten FOX affiliates that carried ACC Network games plus maybe a few that carried MAC football in the Midwest. Alledgely their affiliates wanted a newscast before the primetime game, which is where FOX only had two afternoon-primetime doubleheaders. Clear that up, do the math and figure out how many games you could show from the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 on a national level.
- A decision needs to be made where MLB division series and league championships will air. The broadcast network will have the World Series, but the other playoff obligations can air on either FOX or FOX Sports 1. Yes, most of those games will take place on weeknights, but they'll likely take up real estate on Saturdays too.
- I really don't believe that FOX would sublicense these rights back to ESPN. Would seem foolish to buy rights for something this expensive and keep a competitor around, if you believe FOX would be trying to poach these rights to harm ESPN. You might look at how FOX and ESPN seem to share rights to the Big 12 and Pac-12, but both I believe were under different circumstances. The Big 12 was trying to keep itself afloat and the Pac-12 wanted to be on ESPN and FOX if at all possible instead of going to NBC.
- FOX Sports 2 will absolutely be a key. Not as some overflow channel, which we found when Texas Tech-Oklahoma moved to FOX News that it wasn't even a consideration, though it became one later in the evening when TCU-Texas moved there in conjunction with airing it on FSN. The last part is the important part though. FOX couldn't move that game over to FS2 without providing the FSN option because FS2 is in far fewer homes than FS1. FOX has to find a way to move some Saturday content, including the odd Big 12 or C-USA game, over there just to create some room and make it content that requires pay TV companies to carry it. They must get in more homes and for pay TV providers, it probably has to be at a lower rate.
- Haven't even touched men's basketball either. If I were FOX, I'd have to make sure that both the Big Ten and Big East were prepared to move games over to FS2, primarily in non-conference play but possibly during conference play too, though the Big East has the luxury of games being sublicensed to CBS Sports Network. In the case of the Big East, more of their games there and make sure the Big 12 is cool with more of their women's basketball being sent there.
- FOX Sports Go is also a key. BTN2Go, right now, is more robust as a product than FOX Sports Go is, not to mention that BTN2Go has the relationships already in place with pay TV companies. The product has to be what FOX must shoot for with FOX Sports Go.
- No, let's not even bother with FSN as an option. Comcast SportsNets cover several Big Ten areas, now and future (Chicago, DC, NYC, Philly) and if they aren't carrying FSN programming now, why press your luck? Remember that FOX already has good terms with Comcast when it comes to FS1 and, allegedly, FS2. Why rock that boat again?
One item I do believe that will occur: the conference championship game will not be its own contract. I believe it will go with whomever gets what is today a 41 game package. Only other thing that would make some sense is that ESPN and BTN share it, where FOX or FOX Sports 1 is allowed to air it in the years BTN has it, similar to the rotation of the Pac-12 championship game. Maybe one network would have the Pac-12, the other has the Big Ten, and that flipflops every year.
Here's one item to watch though, and its closer in timeframe compared to the conference's full rights agreements: FOX has to negotiate with several pay TV companies in New Jersey, New York City and the Mid-Atlantic to make sure that BTN is carried on the right tier in those markets so that any Rutgers and Maryland games on the network are seen by as many households as possible in those areas. Remember that this happened when Nebraska joined the conference. If there are any missteps by FOX or any acrimony that arises between the schools and FOX, could it show up when all rights are available for the taking?
If the rights hit the open market, and I think they will unless ESPN makes a massive offer in exclusive negotiations to keep them, will FOX make a play for at least a portion of ESPN's rights package? Absolutely, but like I said, I don't think they can take on the current 41 game package with how their existing resources are set up. They need work, but they have time and the Big Ten will be paying attention. Right now the Big Ten has it pretty good with ESPN though. Via the reverse mirror option, the conference is guaranteed to get their games shown nationally. I think ESPN has the established spaces and products in place to work with, especially with the extra time they'll earn from losing their NASCAR commitments. Loyalty does go a long way. Live Big Ten football first appeared on ESPN in 1989 if I did my research correctly and Bristol pulled out all the stops last time the rights were out there. I seem to recall reading that ESPN employees were encouraged to wear "ESPN is Big Ten Country" when Big Ten officials were on site.
We shall see though. We're nearly two years ahead of ourselves and a lot of things can change between now and then.