Saturday, March 3, 2018

Key Points of the Sun Belt Contract Extension with ESPN

Here's some key points I found while reading through the various releases & articles on the extended Sun Belt & ESPN rights agreement.   For your reading & audio enjoyment:

Audio Conference

* While I deal with the topic of financials far less, maybe because it's not as relevant to me, the AP is reporting the Sun Belt will increase their rights fee payment from ESPN.  I expected some form of increase in rights fee, but the conference was starting from the floor compared to many of their peers & even a doubling of their rights fee from ESPN would only result in an average per school of around $200,000 to start, with non-football members like UT Arlington & Little Rock receiving another, presumably reduced, amount.   I don't know if Idaho or New Mexico St. received any rights fee when they were affiliate members in football.  Hawai'i doesn't from the Mountain West unless certain revenue targets are met and I doubt Navy did from the American when they have had side deals for the Army-Navy game and their own home games with CBS Sports.

Per the audio teleconference, commissioner Karl Benson referred to the rights fee as being on par with other Group of Five conferences.  The MAC's purported rights fee is around $833,000 per school, $10 million to the conference per year.  If they were closer to that, then Benson is right that the increase is significant, even if the number is small by the standards set by the Power 5 conferences.

* I don't know how this affects the deal that UL-Lafayette (or Louisiana, I know there's been squawking about the branding for several years) recently signed with Cox Sports in Louisiana to televise several events in market with ESPN3 showing them out of market.  It was brought up during the audio conference, but how it fits is rather vague.  It would only cover through the remainder of the existing rights agreement, so maybe the length of the deal was on purpose due to the forthcoming ESPN extension.

* Karl Benson confirmed on the audio conference something that I suspected as for the reason for the early extension: they had to account for the addition of the football conference championship game, which was no different than what happened when the Pac-12 and Big Ten added conference championship games in the middle of their television agreements (I believe the American's was negotiated as part of the commencement of their rights agreement with Navy as an incoming member).  ESPN may have had the first crack at negotiating to carry any football championship as part of their existing contract and used the opportunity to look forward and stock some college sports content for their upcoming add-on service, ESPN+, which is not to be confused with the entity ESPN Regional Television ran for several years to syndicate college sports content from several conferences & schools.

* Not mentioned: ESPNews.  I suspect the Sun Belt would gladly take any appearance on that network, but unlike the American & Mountain West press releases of prior years where ESPNews was listed as a potential outlet, I suspect the focus for linear pay TV was ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

(Side note since it debuted this past week - CBS Sports HQ, the new digital sports news channel from CBS, looks a lot like ESPNews, and maybe that's where ESPNews should be headed full time.  Back to the Belt)

* In terms of linear TV, I found the increases to be on the small side, but I didn't expect a lot more appearances, though it could be viewed under the prism of less schools involved on the football side.  To the nitty gritty:
  • A minimum of three additional football games will air on linear television.  The previous minimum of seven increases to ten.  If you're looking at 2018, so far the minimum has not been met, so you might see a game added as part of the early season selections, such as Boise St. at Troy, or the seventh game may be the conference championship game.
  • Per the audio conference, the football championship game is committed for Saturday as the day of the week.  
  • An increase to a minimum of six appearances in men's basketball, which is on par with how many appearances they had in regular season intraconference play (3 games X 2 teams = 6 appearances) in 2017-18.  The previous minimum was four appearances.
  • The schools, to produce digital content for ESPN, will have to upgrade equipment to do so.  Some more than others.  No different from what other conferences, like the MAC, Atlantic Sun, SoCon & others, have had to do, but there are expenses behind that.
  • The content for ESPN+ is still being decided and how much & quickly it moves from ESPN3 is to being determined, so we might know a lot more in the spring.

I don't know that I would use everything about this extension as a barometer for any future contract negotiations with ESPN, but I would expect ESPN+ to be discussed at every one of them.  As mentioned, the dialog for this agreement started with the rights for the football championship game and it morphed into this extension.

The Sun Belt schools weren't receiving a lot of TV money previously and typically received the least amount of linear TV exposure of the FBS conferences.  This agreement, by 2020, would put them closer to the level that the MAC receives on ESPN, ESPN2 & ESPNU (right around 12 games) in football.  The big addition is that the inventory that many schools retained for themselves, sometimes in men's basketball but mostly in all other sports other than football, will move over time to the ESPN+ umbrella.   

What will be worth watching is whether conferences who currently have established relationships with ESPN & who have organized some content outside of those agreements under digital umbrellas, like the American, Mountain West and WCC, would be willing to move that content to ESPN+ for an additional fee.  Another item worth considering, particularly for the MAC and American, is whether it is more valuable to maintain that ESPN provide as much linear television opportunities as possible, specifically when it comes to the sublicensing arrangements ESPN has with CBS Sports Network, or would they be willing to move that content over to ESPN+ for an increase in rights fee.

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