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Why have ESPN pulled out of Big Ten rights negotiations?

After 40 years, it looks like Big Ten football and basketball will not be shown on ESPN. We take a look at where it fell apart and where they go from here

After 40 years, it looks like Big Ten football and basketball will not be shown on ESPN. We take a look at where it fell apart and where they go from here
Michael HickeyGetty

The Big Ten are the quintessential Division I football conference. And this coming from a Southerner, who was weaned and learned to walk around SEC football. But when it comes to the classic fall game, you can’t think of college football without thinking of Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State. The Big Ten predates the NCAA and college football is as intertwined with the Big Ten as anything you can imagine.

So now, after a 40 year relationship, ESPN’s walking away from negotiations is both strange and saddening. Early reports were that the Big Ten made a final offer of seven years for $380 million to the cable sports broadcaster and they turned it down.

It seems that there is a double edged sword at work in these negotiations, with Fox owning a 61% share of the Big Ten Network, and ESPN’s loss could also be their gain. And vice versa.

Let me try and clear that muddy water for you.

ESPN, it would appear, have decided to go all-in on the SEC, which will make their national viewers less pleased, but push their sales through the roof in the long run. In the NCAA football top 25, you can count on having in any given week at least half of the ranked schools in the South Eastern Conference. Often, it is much, much more than that. ESPN will have a lock on arguably the highest quality football in the country.

But this is more than simply a tactical move on ESPN’s part, with the Big Ten having a fall-back plan that will mean their earnings could more than triple.

There is a television rights deal that is reportedly in the final stages of negotiations to have Big Ten football and basketball broadcast on Fox, CBS, and NBC. These free-to-air channels, representing three of the big four national broadcasters, will be collectively paying the Big Ten in excess of $1 billion for the rights.

Billion. With a “B”.

The Big Ten would be the first conference to step beyond that milestone.

The writing has been on the wall for some months that this sort of thing was bound to happen, ever since the SEC picked up both Texas and Oklahoma, and knowing that the late-night window on ESPN meant that they would be sure to push hard to pick up the Pac 12 rights. The Big Ten pulled off something of a coup when they grabbed UCLA and USC from the Pac 12, gutting the west coast conference of their serious national contenders. This meant that ESPN would have to pay big money to three different conferences in order to keep the SEC, the Pac 12, and the USC-UCLA games that they really wanted.

For the Big Ten’s part, it was a savvy move, and one that meant that they brought serious leverage to the table. In the end, ESPN may have declined to bid further, but it was the Big Ten who pulled the negotiations rug out from under their feet.

ESPN will likely remain aggressive when going after the west coast games, and it is almost a lock that they will pay almost anything to keep the playoff and NCAA Championship rights under their banner. But this blast across their bows may just be the beginning of more shakeup to come in college football.


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