Friday, July 1, 2022

Are we back to the CFA with more TV access?

I'm sure by now you've seen the news that the Big Ten has accepted USC and UCLA as new members starting with the 2024-25 athletic year.  Compared to the news regarding Oklahoma and Texas moving to the SEC for the same athletic year, the move was lightspeed fast, with news breaking after noon Eastern and being confirmed by all parties later in the day, where the SEC move happened over the course of days once the news broke during SEC Media Days last year.

The timing of getting the move announced by all parties makes sense because of the need for two years notice to keep whatever penalties the Pac-12 would levy to a minimum.  The athletic calendar for 2022-23 ended yesterday, so they gave two years of notice in terms of athletic calendars.

I made a comment yesterday with the news breaking that college football is going back to its CFA roots, with a few networks contracting with a large number of schools for college football coverage.  Here's what I'm seeing:

The CFA solidified itself after a false start in the early 80s after the NCAA lost a Supreme Court case in 1984 regarding how they controlled the TV rights for college football. At this point, conferences and several large independents began to band together in some cases to pitch their TV rights as a group and created the College Football Association to sell those rights as a group, with the Big Ten and Pac-10 keeping their rights for a separate package to pitch. Both groups sold their rights to national networks like ABC, CBS and ESPN. Most conferences also kept the ability to sell regionally syndicated games to outlets like Raycom Sports, Creative Sports and Turner Sports (Turner produced games for the Big Ten for a few years and syndicated them instead of showing them on WTBS).

As you can see with the CFA, selling a TV package of rights for 50+ schools when network TV often regionalized 3-4 games at a time over 1-2 TV windows a week, plus a cable TV game each week on ESPN meant that some schools weren't being shown enough to their liking. Cracks began in the early 90s when NBC took over rights to all Notre Dame home games from the CFA contract, along with games that Notre Dame would sell to networks like SportsChannel America and WGN. Several conferences began to reorganize with the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big East all expanding to varying degrees, while the Southwest Conference, Big Eight and WAC all made plans to reconfigure to make themselves more palatable to TV networks.  While all of that was going on, the SEC and Big East elected to leave the CFA for agreements with CBS and the CFA was no more as conferences pursued individual agreements with networks and syndicators.

The CFA ended in 1996.  26 years later, we're moving back in that direction.  Let's look at the moves that both the SEC and the Big Ten are making.  They're bringing schools into their tents to increase the value of their TV agreements with these networks.  Economics are being used to determine which schools are going to bring increases.  The SEC deal where all content is with ESPN puts the SEC in the new position of being a television agent for these schools.  Same with the Big Ten, where FOX Sports acts as an adviser towards the TV rights.

I don't know where it leaves the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12.  I don't know if it means group TV rights for these parties, at least for the Big 12 or Pac-12 since the ACC is currently anchored to a TV deal for another decade, or independent negotiations.  And now there's no sense in engaging with either of those parties early because there's no clue how those conferences will even be configured.  Remember back to when the American (was it named that at that point?) intended to go to the market with Boise State, San Diego State, Louisville, Rutgers and others expecting a rights fee of X and by the time membership settled, none of those schools were going to remain in the conference and their discussions with potential media partners had a vastly different turnout.

As for those big tents of the SEC, as they get bigger and bigger, the schools need to see how TV can get their games out to the masses.  We've went away from regionally televised games on ABC & CBS in favor of full national telecasts, though we have more networks involved. Everybody wants to be seen on a channel they can find every Saturday they play, but in a media universe where we're not growing out in terms of the number of outlets, but consolidating under digital umbrellas, is the increase in rights going to match up with the change in visibility? 

I don't know and I'm not certain anyone at those TV networks or conferences has a great handle on it either, but they're going to play the strategies they know.