ESPN Today Files Lawsuit Against Conference USA Over TV Rights
By John Ourand, Staff Writer

ESPN filed a lawsuit against Conference USA in Manhattan federal court today, alleging that the conference did not fulfill its contractual obligations to the network when it sold its TV rights to Fox in January. ESPN's suit alleges that the two sides reached an agreement in principle. ESPN also claims that Conference USA never gave it a final offer to consider; ESPN says its original contract mandates that it should have been given that right.

“Rights agreements are at the core of our industry," said ESPN Senior VP/College Sports Programming Burke Magnus. "ESPN and Conference USA reached an agreement on a new extension after a prolonged negotiation. The conference then changed their position out of the blue and reneged on that agreement. At best, they violated our right to be given an opportunity to consider a final offer." Conference USA on Jan. 5 announced a $43M media rights deal with Fox.

The basis of ESPN's complaint, as SportsBusiness Journal has previously reported, is that ESPN and C-USA had a meeting as late as Dec. 23 to negotiate final points of their potential deal. On Jan. 4, however, C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky called ESPN execs to say that the conference’s presidents elected to explore other opportunities. The conference the following day announced its deal with Fox. In ensuing weeks, Conference USA brokered talks between ESPN and Fox to try and find a compromise that would allow both networks to share games; none was reached.

As part of the Fox deal, it picks up the rights to a minimum of 20 regular-season football games, including the football championship game that will be televised on Fox, FSN or FX. The deal also includes a minimum of 10 regular-season basketball games. When it announced the Fox deal, Conference USA hyped the nearly 100% increase in rights fees.

It also was happy that Fox would not make its football teams play regularly on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday nights, as they sometimes did on ESPN. The Fox deal does call for some games on Thursday nights.