In part one, I discussed why Big Ten fans might feel reluctant to continue watching games on ESPN after recent programming and marketng decisions. The question now is how the Big Ten should negotiate its next television rights package, which ends after the 2016-17 season. Currently, the conference is in the second-to-last season of a 10-year, $1 billion rights deal with ESPN (along with a smaller $72 million deal with CBS for college hoops). According to SBJ's John Ourand, an expert on sports media, Jim Delany and company will begin negotiating the next rights package this spring. A couple years ago, The Lafayette Journal & Courier received documents saying that most Big Ten schools were projecting to make $44.5 million per year under the first year of the new TV deal, regardless of what network it's with. Thus, there's huge money at stake, and as a result, the B1G will want its product to be exposed in the best possible way.
So if ESPN's coverage of the conference has been deemed too contentious, what are the other options for the B1G?
Turns out, according to Ourand, there aren't that many.
With CBS and NBC having relatively small cable sports offerings and less money to bid on rights packages, the only network that could put up a serious fight to ESPN would be Fox Sports. Fox would seem like a decent ally for the Big Ten, considering they own a majority stake in the conference's own Big Ten Network. The main Fox network already hosts the B1G title game in football, and cable network Fox Sports 1 covers plenty of football and basketball games in other conferences as well. Fox employs two of the better college football writers out there in Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel, has some good broadcasting talent such as Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery, has really funny on-air talent like Katie Nolan, and is committed to live sports - their NFL coverage has them on in homes of several major media markets every fall Sunday, they'll show the next two World Cups, have shown every World Series for the past 15 years, and secured rights to golfing recently too with the US Open.
However, Fox has some serious drawbacks to it as well. If you think the SEC bias at ESPN is bad, keep in mind that Fox employs noted SEC troll Clay Travis, who goes out of his way to promote the conference, as well as promoting his other terrible opinions about controversial topics such as the confederate flag. He's also not a fan of the B1G: Two years ago he tweeted that the conference had been eliminated from a title on September 6th - four months later, OSU won the whole thing. Fox Sports 1 is also the station where Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd defected to, after their opinions proved too loud, stupid, or controversial (or a combo of all three) during their stints at ESPN. Fox Sports has also had trouble drawing viewers to their network, even after changing their format to resemble Fox News, and become louder and bolder and with more hot takes. All of this doesn't sound like a great fit for the Big Ten.
Furthermore, despite the misgivings of ESPN's recent coverage, the network still has plenty of selling points. Walk into any sports bar in America, and the default network that will be showing is ESPN. Go work out at a gym, and many of the TVs will be set to ESPN. And while it may annoy fans of the other 12 B1G teams, there's no doubt that ESPN has given plenty of attention to what Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh are doing at Ohio State and Michigan, respectively. If you want a hype machine for your team/sport/player, there's no better venue to do so than the Worldwide Leader. What they've accomplished for Ben Simmons this season, they might someday do for your favorite Hoosier. Here, let Chris Fowler tell you how important the B1G's success is to the network:
B1G fans convinced SEC coverage traced to company business: NOTHING would boost abc/ESPN CFB biz more than a dominant B1G. Nothing. Trust me— Chris Fowler (@cbfowler) October 22, 2014
Also, what about that $44.5 million estimate for every B1G team? Due to recent changes in how people view television, this might even be overinflated. Fox Sports has had to cut several staffers recently, and the Fox network is looking to cut jobs in general, so they might not be in a position to make a huge bid to swoop B1G rights away from ESPN. As for the Worldwide Leader? They're having issues as well, as more and more people cut the cord due to cable monopolies charging exorbitant prices, and non-cable outlets like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon broadcasting compelling shows that aren't shown through a cable box and can be viewed at any time. As a result, fewer cable subscriptions means that parent company Disney, which has often relied on ESPN to bring a steady profit, is not in a great financial situation either. Thus, that $44.5 million per year estimate may be off-base. Regardless, one major thing saving cable companies right now is live events such as sports, and the fervor of Big Ten school fans, plus the B1G's proximity to, well ya know, the major cable markets like NYC and DC, still makes it an attractive prospect for stations.
Ultimately for B1G fans, the mantra of "better the devil you know than the devil you don't" might be appropriate for the upcoming TV rights battle. As much as I'd love for a channel to focus on college basketball, I also realize that the sport doesn't have the same pull as others do in terms of ratings. Thus, my hope is that for both football and hoops, the B1G negotiates a deal that is similar to the SEC's, which shows major games on CBS and several on ESPN or SEC Network. In the B1G's case, the conference could have most games on ESPN/BTN, but with a "game of the week" on Fox on weekends. Because Fox has a majority stake in BTN, and ESPN has has a long-standing commitment to B1G games and gives great visibility for its product, the conference shouldn't sever its relationship with either, and should negotiate a contract that is in its best interests before the sports TV bubble bursts.