Saturday, December 14, 2013

Is FOX really a player for the main Big Ten rights?

I posted something re: rights agreements & realignment being relatively stable this offseason -- but some of  YOU couldn't be patient (say the last part in the tone of Lewis Black without yelling).  Naturally what you brought up is the Big Ten rights deals, which run for another three athletic years.  Clearly, some of you couldn't leave this well enough alone, at least for 18 months.

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?
The conference needs to figure out how many of its existing quirks will remain in place.  Night games in November allegedly will be relaxed in future years, but how will those games be determined?  Will a game be set aside, then 12 days before hand the rightsholder(s) can decide to place the game on a particular outlet?  Will homecoming kickoff times continue to be set far in advance or be placed into the 12 day selection process?  Will midseason Thursday night games be an option at some point (I don't think so, but its worth asking)?

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.


Morgan Wick said...

First, I think Fox would be going after Big Ten rights for its own sake, not simply to harm ESPN. Ratings for Fox college football on the broadcast network are way behind their competitors and it's because they don't have the SEC, Big Ten, or Notre Dame; the Big Ten Championship suddenly propelled them into the stratosphere when undefeated Ohio State got knocked off in it. Fox Sports 1 needs a conference with the depth of popularity of the SEC or Big Ten to attract college football eyeballs to the network on a regular basis without resorting to shenanigans like with Oregon/Washington.

Realistically, the only reason the package is as huge as it is is because ESPN is involved, because only ESPN has the outlets to accommodate all the games it requires. Fox can only make a play for all the rights if the Big Ten is willing to shaft a number of games to BTN, which I think they might be tempted to do. But I think ESPN will want to keep the Big Ten not just for its own sake, not just to harm Fox, but also because the only difference between ABC without the Big Ten and Fox now is the ACC and maybe the American. Yeah, yeah, I know, "ESPN cares about sports on ABC?" but is Saturday Night Football that big a deal without any Big Ten games? Especially if Fox is counterprogramming Big Ten games against it?

I think Fox, because of their existing BTN relationship, is the only realistic contender to take any rights away from ESPN, and it will be a matter of how much money they can pony up. If ESPN keeps all the rights, I think you can draw a direct line from that to Fox's inability to get cable operators to pony up for Fox Sports 1. Even then Fox has shown a propensity to spend money like there's no tomorrow. The Big 12 and Pac-12 deals were mostly motivated by a desire to shut out NBC. What would motivate ESPN to share Big Ten rights? Possibly only if Fox is already breaking the bank for them.

Matt Sarzyniak said...

I think we're looking at it from alternate viewpoints but coming to many of the same conclusions. As for whether FOX would shift a lot of games to BTN, I don't know about that only because we're already at a point where BTN is showing multiple games in telecast windows. As I understand it, some cable companies do not provide multiple BTN alternate game feeds in football. This is where I think it is imperative for all parties to gauge the Big Ten's interest or lack of it around night games. Can more games be played at night & can they be played later in the season. I count nine stadiums of fourteen with permanent lights (Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn St., Rutgers, & Wisconsin). Ohio St. has approved a $2 million project to add permanent lights in 2014 or 2015.

Incidentally, I found this article re: who pays for lights. Per Purdue's AD, ABC/ESPN pays for lights on their games while the schools pick up the tab for those that air on BTN when they are needed there.

And as you said, ESPN will keep the the conference's rights as long as they want to and it makes sense, fiscally, to do so. Using the word "harm" was a little strong on my part, because it would take a lot more body blows to do that to ESPN.

Morgan Wick said...

I think this raises the question of whether or not it's a good idea for conferences with networks to expand to 16, if the Big Ten is already having problems filling the time slots. I think the Big Ten may want to split the rights just to have more networks and time slots to put games on.

Matt Sarzyniak said...

I think you're right on that one. I do still believe that the law of diminishing returns will bite someone eventually. I mentioned this way back when the concept of the Pac-16 seemed to be close to reality. We still have only 24 hours in a day & roughly 14 of that gets programmed for college football on a given Saturday on cable & around seven on ABC. The Big Ten leaves some of those hours on the table as the season goes on with their various outlets right now. Rights agreements, at renegotiation time, tend to be tilted in favor of incumbents when it comes to exclusive negotiations and rights matching, etc. I just don't believe FOX is the slam dunk for the whole ball of wax, but I've been wrong.

Unknown said...

I think fox will get a small package of big ten games as of right now they cant take on all of the big ten sports such as football and basketball. they really need to build up fox sports 2 and treat it like a network not an overflow channel. as of right now directv dish fios uverse and some cable companies offer fs2 Comcast is the only major provider not to offer fox sports 2. in the future fox will have to learn to shift some games over to fs2 mainly conference usa games. fox will really have to work on getting fox sports go available to more cable companies as well as only 6 cable companies are offering the service. I think fox will get a small package of games because it is part owner of the big ten network but not ready to take on the full package. fs1 is still a work in progress and I see a split between espn and fox on the big ten.

Thomas said...

Currently ESPN shows B1G games at Noon on ESPN, ESPN2 an ABC (Occasionally). Fox could do that with Fox, FS1 and BTN. There is always enough windows if they want a property. CUSA games can be shuffled to FS2 at Noon. Fox can do a B1G or Big 12 game at 12:30 and/or 4:00. I think Fox makes a very agresive bid to be exclusive B1G rights holder (Fox, FS1, FS2, BTN)

Matt Sarzyniak said...

I'm with you, but only if FOX can get FS2 upgraded enough to move content there. 37 million subscribing homes right now. That's less than BTN I believe. The broadcast component is the interesting one. Does every game go out nationally? Do they try regional games (I doubt it and it would be a step back for the Big Ten). That's where I think its key for FOX to figure out how many OTA games they are willing to do if they want to add the Big Ten and where FS2 needs to be built up over the next year or so. Its doable I imagine.

Matt Sarzyniak said...

Also, remember the # of games increases with Maryland & Rutgers coming aboard. At least another 14 games per year, assuming both schools get seven home games. That's kinda where apples-to-apples doesn't necessarily exist when looking strictly at today's games.

Anonymous said...

are these rights just for Football? what about the basketball rights when are they up for grabs for this conference.

Matt Sarzyniak said...

I mostly discussed football in this post but did briefly touch on men's basketball under the indented bullet point about FOX Sports 2. It would be for both.

Thomas said...

Matt. I agree FS2 needs more HHs. Big ten would help get that.

Matt Sarzyniak said...

I think that's a bit of the rub here. Is the Big Ten willing to be patient and be the driver that gets FS2 in even more homes (let's assume that it ends up in more homes over the n.ext 18-20 months) or are they looking to be the folks that see the relatively open programming slots and say "we're willing to fill some time here".

On the surface its somewhat comparable to what the NHL did nearly ten years ago w/OLN (yes, there are many other factors that don't make it a full comparison). OLN had openings to fill, was willing to give the league a platform and the league elected to take the lumps from people who said "Can't find your games" and "why did you leave ESPN?". All depends on whether the Big Ten is willing to take some of the hit.

Thomas said...

You could also see FS2 become a CUSA dumping ground, along with some unattractive Big 12 Games. Since this will not begin until 2017, Fox still has some time to get FS2 in over 50-60 million homes. If so, I think B1G would be ok with it. They could also reduce package and shift more games to BTN.

Serge said...

FOX could also use FX (and FXX eventually) for reverse-mirror options on Saturdays (or in case affiliates don't want to dump highly-profitable infomercials from the early Saturday slot)...

bigddan11 said...

I could be mistaken, but Fox College Sports could easily be a player as well. They are using FCS to air some CUSA and Big 12 games exclusively, and they were simulcasting most of the FSN games on FCS. It seems to me if they let go of some of the smaller contracts (North Dakota, Northern Arizona) and cut back on the number of replays, they could easily start doing a weekly triple header on FCS with a lot of exclusive games. The content of the Big 10 should also make FCS more desirable for groups like Dish to get their hands on and add it.

Matt Sarzyniak said...

Until they start showing FCS in HD, I wouldn't bother. At least FS2 is in HD. There were also no Big 12 exclusive games on FCS last year. There were four in 2012. Just a few FSN simulcasts.