BYU's TV deal with ESPN ends in either 2018 or 2019, depending on whether ESPN exercises their option on BYU's final year. The TV rights marketplace has changed quite a bit since BYU signed the deal back in 2010, but most of the big conference rights deals have already been taken care of, and aren't slated to get renegotiated until the mid 2020s. All of them, except one.
The Big Ten's new rights deal is getting redone now, and despite some projections that maybe it wouldn't be quite as robust as folks thought back in say, 2014, it sure looks like they're going to get paaaaaid. According to reports from Sports Business Daily, the Big Ten will sell just *half* of their football and basketball rights to Fox, for up to $250M a year. This would be a six year deal, so the Big Ten's rights would go up again right around the time that the Big 12 and others do as well.
That would be an enormous amount of money, and could also have some important implications for BYU. Let's take a closer look at what this means.
Wait, why is the Big Ten getting so much money? That conference has Purdue and Rutgers in it and stuff
This is a reasonable question, since by pure football quality, the Big Ten certainly isn't the best conference in the country, or the second best, or probably even the third best, on a year-to-year basis.
But as a TV product, Big Ten rights are incredibly valuable, perhaps the most valuable in all of college sports. Big Ten institutions generally have huge alumni and fan bases, buoyed by long athletic histories, large athletic departments, and proximity to not just multiple large TV markets, but smaller markets that have college football penetration. Remember, the biggest and most important college football markets aren't generally in the west. They're in the midwest and south.
When you couple that with the fact that the Big Ten also includes two of the largest, and truly national brands in the sport, in Ohio State and Michigan, it starts to make a little more sense why they get enormous checks.
But yes, it does seem unfair that Northwestern and Rutgers are about to get huge checks. But nothing about this sport is fair.
Is this really a lot of money?
Yes. For some context, the Big Ten is getting $250 million for just *half* of their rights. The Pac-12 is getting about $250M for all of their TV rights in 2019. Once the rest of the deal is signed, it's possible that Big Ten schools could be getting as much as $60 million a year, dwarfing that from the Pac-12, Big 12, or ACC. When it comes to pure TV money, even within the Power Five, there's really a Power Two (the Big Ten and SEC), and everybody else. Even with industry trends moving towards fewer people getting cable and some major players looking to cut costs, somebody still felt these rights were worth a ton of cash.
Okay, but BYU doesn't play Big Ten teams that often and recruits against them even less. What's the BYU angle here?
I think there are two.
First, is this quote from the initial Sports Business Daily story on the initial Big Ten deal. Emphasis mine:
Fox' deal is a blow to ESPN, which had held most of the conference's rights previously. Sources said that ESPN presented a non-competitive bid several weeks ago, as the company continues to look for areas to save costs.
So ESPN, the company that holds BYU's rights and will be renegotiating BYU's deal in the near future, is allegedly so worried about cost cutting that they submitted a lowball, non-competitive bid for the most valuable TV rights that will go on the market for a decade. That, uh, doesn't seem like a great sign?
That isn't to suggest that ESPN is unhappy with their current relationship with BYU. On the contrary, as we wrote back in October, both sides have been full of praise for each other. BYU's deal, of course, would also be way cheaper than any Big Ten rights deal as well.
But if fans were hoping that ESPN would want to renew the deal after 2019 with a healthy increase, this development feels a little worrying. That isn't to say that ESPN wouldn't want to bid again, or that other outlets, like NBC, Turner, CBS or Fox, wouldn't want to bid as well. But if BYU is going to stay an independent after 2019, they probably need a relationship with ESPN to help with scheduling. Will the financial math work after 2020? I don't know. Something to think about.
Okay. So what's the other connection?
Okay, so maybe this heads a teensy bit towards WVU-blogger-dart-throwing here, but stick with me.
Some have speculated that Oklahoma president David Boren's constant and outspoken support of Big 12 expansion is actually a leverage play, in case Oklahoma decided to leave the Big 12, i.e "weaken Texas and give us what we want or else." That isn't a ridiculous notion, by the way. The Big 12 isn't going to reach television parity, or even that close, to the Big Ten, with expansion, even if they add BYU.
Now, with the last few years of the Big 12's TV deal, the Big Ten could be making close to double, per school, what Big 12 schools are making. If the Big 12 doesn't make the changes that Boren wants in the short term, does this give him even more leverage? The fact that Big Ten games getting moved to Fox Sports 1 might move Big 12 games there to Fox Sports 2 or a regional Fox Sports Network could be an even bigger insult. Don't be surprised if the drumbeat of Oklahoma-to-X rings a little bit louder, which would threaten the stability of the conference BYU would like to join. I'm not saying it's necessarily the most likely outcome. But I don't think the status quo is stable, or likely to remain untouched through the length of this TV contract.
At the end of the day, does all of this money really matter? I mean, how much does BYU actually need?
I mean, if you want to get really existential about this, no, none of this really matters. Sports are irrelevant. Go turn your computer off unless you're going to go do some family history work or something.
I think there's a bit of truth to the idea that BYU's success has always come without being able to win all the bidding wars, and that the major heavyweights of the sport getting even richer doesn't impact them that much. But as the gap between haves and have nots grows, the importance of maximizing that revenue becomes even more important. Faculty improvements, coaching salaries, scheduling guarantees, recruiting travel and more -- all of that costs money. If everybody else is seeing their budgets grow at a clip that far outpaces BYU's, their ability to win on a "Moneyball" level is going to get harder. Not that it's impossible, but it will get harder.
In the short term, what happens with BYU's TV deal in the next few years should be very interesting, especially after the Big 12 reaches some sort of resolution this summer (maybe). And if nothing else, it's probably worth double checking to see if you have FS2 on your cable package. You might just need it in a few years.