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ESPN is writing big checks again, and that may be good news for BYU football

ESPN ended up throwing its hat in on a portion of Big Ten rights. What does it mean for BYU?

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When the first half of the Big Ten media rights deal was reported in April, I wrote about some of the possible winners and losers for our Ohio State blog, Land-Grant Holy Land. I mentioned BYU as a possible loser in this deal and elaborated on that stance a little bit for a post on Vanquish The Foe, again, in late April.

But new developments may signal good news for BYU on the TV front.

The tl;dr for my possible concern went like this:

Assuming BYU doesn’t get a Big 12 invite before the end of its current ESPN TV deal (either in 2018 or 2019), their ability to compete at a high level is in many ways dependent on their ability to get another lucrative TV deal with ESPN. ESPN is an important scheduling partner, and the Cougars would want a price increase from that last deal, especially as the TV revenue gap between BYU and the Pac-12, to say nothing of the Big 12 and SEC, could continue to grow.

There were only two TV deals scheduled to open up before BYU’s: the Big Ten and Conference USA. The Big Ten is either the most valuable, or the second-most valuable set of TV rights in all of college athletics, thanks to its massive enrollment numbers, fanbases, tradition, brands, and favorable time zones. Everybody would want it, especially ESPN, who has been a major partner with the conference for years.

Only they didn’t win the bid for the most lucrative rights, Fox did. And not only that, per the Sports Business Journal, they submitted a “non-competitive” bid.

Why would they do that? Well, the last few months have not been kind to ESPN’s bottom line, as thousands of consumers are ditching their expensive cable packages for cheaper, slimmer television options. The Worldwide Leader has dumped a few expensive employees and slimmed down on other expenses (RIP Grantland), and it was speculated that taking a step back from highly expensive media rights deals might be part of that strategy.

That only intensified at Big Ten meetings in May, when multiple conference administrators and leaders speculated that the Big Ten could straight up split from ESPN. On the Conference USA front, ESPN did decide to jump back into the fray, but thanks to conference departures from expansion, the worth of the contract was obliterated. C-USA schools are now taking a major TV haircut.

If ESPN wasn’t willing to be financially competitive with an exceptionally valuable property, and if the value of a non-premium TV property cratered, that probably doesn’t bode well for ESPN’s appetite to go big on a less glamorous property in a few years, no?

But ESPN changed their minds, and decided to write a big check after all. And ultimately, I think that’s good news.

The SBJ reported earlier this week that ESPN will buy the second half of the Big Ten rights for an average of a cool $190 million per year. They won’t get first dibs on the best games the conference has to offer, so Ohio State-Michigan is probably getting moved to Fox, but they do maintain a sizable presence with the conference.

Big Ten schools could be making as much as $50 million a year just from TV, when you combine what they’re going to get from ESPN/Fox/CBS, as well as its own conference network. That’s not too far away from what BYU spends on their entire athletic department, and BYU wouldn’t be expecting anything close to that from their next TV deal.

My thinking is that any signs that networks are still willing to pay handsomely for live sports content is a promising development. There’s certainly no reason to think ESPN wouldn’t be interested in continuing their relationship with BYU. After all, there are loads of ESPN alumni at BYU and at BYUtv, and by all signs, the two parties have a very strong relationship.

It’s a partnership that makes sense for everybody. ESPN gets a big brand that’s willing to play games on non-Saturdays or in different time slots, and BYU gets additional exposure, scheduling help and financial flexibility.

But a more robust marketplace for TV rights gives BYU the chance to field multiple bids (perhaps from NBC, Turner, a digital outlet, or Fox) to potentially drive up an ESPN bid. With better schedules slated for the future (comparing the next few years with the first few of the indie era), if ESPN has money to spend, BYU could position itself for a nice raise.

How much could another BYU TV deal be worth? I don’t have a good idea, since so much can change with this industry, and with BYU, in the next few years. Maybe BYU gets a conference invite and all of this becomes moot. But if ESPN isn’t able, or willing, to write checks, BYU’s options becomes more limited no matter what else happens. The news earlier this week should provide some small measure of comfort that if the TV rights apocalypse is coming, it isn’t here yet.