Friday, January 23, 2015

Looking into the future for C-USA's upcoming rights negotiation

The 2015-16 athletic year is the final year of Conference USA's rights deals with FOX Sports, CBS Sports Network and Sinclair Broadcasting/American Sports Network.  The conference has had several membership changes over the course of the existing television contracts, with the latest being the loss of UAB as a football member and the possibility the school will either leave or be removed from the conference.

With the most recent membership changes occurring over the past two offseasons, the conference has seen declines in the number of televised games on CBS Sports Network.  The contract with FOX started with FSN being the primary outlet for games and the addition of FOX Sports 1 has increased the conference's ability to be seen nationally, but men's basketball has taken a bit of a step back with just three regular season games on FS1 in 2014-15.

The conference made changes in scheduling for men's basketball coming into the 2013-14 season with games being scheduled on Thursdays & Saturdays with some exceptions could be made for television.   When the conference left ESPN, a key item cited was to get away from playing football  games on Tuesday & Wednesday nights.

So where would the conference go?  And what would deal look like?

I believe that FOX and Sinclair will stay in the picture.  FOX has for the most part stuck to their word on the weeknight scheduling in football of Thursdays & Fridays.  They've reclaimed the men's basketball conference championship game from CBS (one could ask whether CBS would continue to show it with the changes in membership) and given it a more palatable time slot.  FOX gave ESPN the football championship game to satisfy a lawsuit between the conference and ESPN.  I believe a renewed contract would allow FOX to keep the game.  Whether FOX would ask to move more games over to FOX Sports 2, or to provide for some exclusives via FOX Sports GO, if they want to compete for the Big Ten rights in the future would likely be part of the negotiations.

Sinclair has talked about the possibility of creating a full time national sports channel around the American Sports Network and C-USA's rights could be a starting point.  Getting some of the rights that CBS Sports Network has currently would be a good addition to the syndication rights they have today.  Remember that the person in charge of Sinclair ASN venture once tried to start a network with a bunch of rights from several conferences.

I am unsure whether the existing FOX or CBSSN agreements includes any right of first refusal language into their contracts.  I would assume that they do.  I don't see ESPN being involved and if it is, I believe it will be dependent on the nights the conference is willing to have televised football games on ESPN, ESPN2 & ESPNU.  Games on ESPNEWS, if needed, would likely on Saturdays.  Another aspect of a deal would likely be for a large number of football games on ESPN3.    NBCSN seems to be a bit of a wildcard.  Can they carve time out around golf, Notre Dame football, Barclays Premier League and NASCAR?  Maybe, maybe not.  They have a different strategy compared to the others, and I don't find a lot of fault with it.

The rights fee cost won't break the bank for anybody.  C-USA isn't exactly in a position of power when you consider the changes in membership they have had.  When you look at the American Athletic Conference getting around $18 million per year as a conference from ESPN, they've set the bar and I believe the Mountain West is close or equal to that amount between CBS Sports Network and ESPN.  The MAC was ten million dollars below that amount at an average of $8 million per year with their most recent extension.

Length of the contract is where C-USA may have trouble.  Networks are willing to pay for a proven stable commodity.  If there are concerns about the schools that make up C-USA, or concerns about their ability to offer sports like football, networks could use that to their advantage and look to offer a shorter term deal.  Conversely, if a conference proves its worth and stability over a shorter period of time, they have the chance to get a bump in their rights fee at a more rapid rate.

No comments: