SBD/Issue 46/Sports Media

ESPN Officially Signs Deal For BCS Games Beginning In 2011

ESPN today formally announced it has signed a four-year deal for the rights to the four BCS games currently airing on Fox beginning in January 2011, marking the first time BCS games will air on cable. The net also receives the exclusive radio, digital, international and marketing rights to the games. Per terms of the deal, ESPNU and ESPN Classic will have access to re-broadcast past BCS games. The net also will operate BCSFootball.org, the series' official Web site (THE DAILY).

TOO RICH FOR FOX' BLOOD: ESPN bid $125M per year over four years to get the games, while sources said Fox' top bid was $100M per year. A statement from Fox read, "Even with today's vast economic uncertainties, Fox Sports made a very competitive bid to keep broadcasting BCS games free to every home in America, one that included a substantial rights fee increase, and certainly as much as any over-the-air network could responsibly risk. Unfortunately, the University presidents and BCS commissioners were not satisfied and they've decided to take their jewel events to pay television" (John Ourand, THE DAILY). Fox Sports Senior VP/Media Relations Lou D'Ermilio "made clear that it came down to a difference between 'how much they were looking for and how much we could bring in with a single revenue stream.'" D'Ermilio said that Fox, as an over-the-air net, relies "strictly on advertising revenue, while ESPN is paid both by advertisers and cable and satellite TV providers." D'Ermilio, on ESPN, "They can tap both resources to bid on a property like this" (NEWSOBSERVER.com, 11/17).

INSIDE THE DEAL: USA TODAY's Michael Hiestand notes Fox "reaches 114 million U.S. households compared with 98 million for ESPN," though ESPN "cites research finding 92% of Fox's BCS viewers also have cable or satellite television." BCS Coordinator John Swofford: "We know that the number of households that receive ESPN will continue to grow" (USA TODAY, 11/18). Pilson Communications President Neal Pilson said that the deal "could enable ESPN to charge higher subscriber fees to cable providers once current contracts expire." Pilson: "Relatively speaking, college football is of far greater importance to ESPN, given its ABC history, than to Fox. ESPN regretted four years ago that it didn't negotiate a little harder when Fox won the BCS rights" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 11/18). In Chicago, Teddy Greenstein notes ESPN was "able to offer a higher rights fee because it charges cable and satellite companies approximately $2.85 per subscriber." But given that "so many ESPN anchors and commentators have pushed for a college football playoff, it's natural to wonder if this agreement could lead to one" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 11/18).

BCS Will Become First Major Championship
That Belongs Exclusively To Cable Network
CABLE CAR: In Dallas, Barry Horn wrote the BCS will become American sports' "first major championship game or series that belongs exclusively to a network for which viewers have to pay" (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 11/15). The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER's Paul Gough notes cable in recent years has "increasingly become the home for championship-level sporting events." Versus airs the first two games of the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals and TBS owns rights to MLB's Division Series and one LCS each year. Also, ESPN last week reached a deal to air all four rounds of the British Open "on cable with only highlights on ABC" (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, 11/18). Media execs said that moving the BCS games to cable "foretells the end of a decade-long debate over whether putting marquee events on cable will ultimately hurt the mass appeal of a sport," as ESPN's "potency and declining ratings for sports on broadcast television are starting to render the debate moot." The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Matthew Futterman notes only the NFL has kept "all of its postseason games on free television, even though prime-time ratings for NFL games on ESPN are comparable with those on broadcast television" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 11/18). ESPN began airing "MNF" in '06 after it moved from ABC, and Pilson said of the net, "They are the dominant sports carrier." Pilson: "Probably a few events will remain on broadcast television such as the Super Bowl and the World Series, but we're seeing a gradual transition of many sports properties to cable." Sports Business Group President David Carter: "To people under a certain age, ESPN is no different than an over-the-air channel. ... ESPN has outflanked everybody" (L.A. TIMES, 11/18).

MAKING THE MOVE: SI.com's Arash Markazi writes the increasing number of sporting events moving from network to cable in the past five years "has been nothing short of alarming." He adds it is "almost impossible to be a sports fan without paying for cable or satellite television" (FANNATION.com, 11/18). In Denver, Dusty Saunders wrote, "Did anyone envision, even five years ago, that the BCS football championship might be aired on a channel that currently is in only 70[%] of the nation's TV households? Such is the enormous power and financial solvency of ESPN" (ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS, 11/17). In San Antonio, Buck Harvey writes of ESPN's smaller viewership compared to Fox, "Just as college presidents aren't as concerned about producing a real champion, they aren't as concerned about this. For an additional $100[M] over four years, college presidents might agree to let the Electoral College determine their Division 1 champ" (SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, 11/18). In California, Larry Bohannan wrote, "Can you ever imagine the Super Bowl being broadcast exclusively on ESPN? Or maybe the Masters being shown Thursday through Sunday on the Golf Channel? What about the NBA finals on TNT?" The "big networks likely aren't getting out of the sports business completely, though sports is an expensive gamble for the networks" (Palm Springs DESERT SUN, 11/16). In Charlotte, Ken Tysiac: “Having the BCS games carried live over ‘free TV’ is a goal to which the BCS executives should aspire” (CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.com, 11/18). AOL FANHOUSE's Brian Grummell: "Nowadays most everyone has cable so this isn't a big deal, but most of us are old enough to remember the days before cable television and to think that the Rose Bowl could ever be on something other than a traditional network is still a bit foreign and amazing" (FANHOUSE.com, 11/12).

BACKLASH FROM DC? BROADCASTING & CABLE's Weprin & Eggerton noted the FCC "considers sports must-have programming for which there is no easy substitution," so would there be a DC "backlash if the college football championship moved to cable?" Pilson: "I don't think so. I think Washington has other problems to deal with." Pilson said he does not see events such as the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament moving to cable "any time soon." But he added that he "sees other 'major' events possibly moving to cable" (BROADCASTINGCABLE.com, 11/17).

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO: In Austin, John Bridges wrote of Fox' BCS coverage, "It's been a dysfunctional marriage from the start, since Fox does not carry any regular-season college football. Its announcers swoop in only for the most important games of the year." But Bridges noted there are "also some sticky issues to come for ESPN. The Worldwide Leader's college analysts will now be in the position to shape public opinion that may influence how teams get matched up in the bowls that ESPN will now be broadcasting. That's awfully convenient for the network, isn't it?" (STATESMAN.com, 11/17). In N.Y., Bob Raissman writes now that Fox has "lost rights to the BCS, those college highlights currently airing on the Foxies' 'NFL Sunday' pregame show will disappear faster than you can say Barry Switzer" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 11/18).

Writer Claims Playoff System Less Likely If
ESPN Gets BCS Broadcast Rights
DIMMING PLAYOFF HOPES? In L.A., Diane Pucin notes what the ESPN-BCS deal "doesn't do is offer the hopes of a college football playoff series, even though President-elect Barack Obama has been lobbying for one." A playoff system "seems less likely if ESPN gets the broadcast rights" (L.A. TIMES, 11/18). RIVALS.com's Matt Hinton wrote the "real consequence" of the deal is the "potential for the playoff argument to disappear altogether from the discourse of the sport's most visible, agenda-setting media giant." Currently, discussion of a playoff "gets bandied about pretty regularly on ESPN's various outlets." But companies are "usually loathe to allow employees to pull the legs from underneath a $500[M] investment" (RIVALS.com, 11/11). COLLEGE FOOTBALL NEWS' Pete Fiutak: “Be prepared for any and all critical thought when it comes to BCS discussion to be gone from [ESPN], and for any hint of the P-word, be it for an eight-team tourney or a plus-one format, to be squashed” (CFN.SCOUT.com, 11/18). But in Raleigh, J.P. Giglio writes, “Grouping the broadcast rights with one television partner might be the first step in changing the postseason format” (NEWSOBSERVER.com, 11/18).

GETTING POLITICAL: With Obama appearing on CBS' "60 Minutes" last Sunday and again advocating for a college playoff system, Ohio State Univ. President E. Gordon Gee said he was "absolutely delighted that we have a president interested in collegiate athletics." Gee said of Obama's interest in a playoff system, "From what I know of him, I look forward to having an opportunity to talk to him about that issue" (COLUMBUS DISPATCH, 11/18). But Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe said of Obama's statements, "I am disappointed that there isn't more full discussion before he comes to a conclusion on this. I would hope only that the leader of our country would take under full consideration all the aspects. ... This isn't something you should make a rash decision about" (DALLASNEWS.com, 11/18). Obama on "60 Minutes" said "any sensible person" would favor a playoff. Obama added of getting involved in the issue, "I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit." In N.Y., George Vecsey notes Obama "did not specify how he would throw his weight around." Vecsey: "I think he was making a little joke. ... With all due respect to the new president, college football does not need to be sensible" (N.Y. TIMES, 11/18). In Orlando, Jerry Greene wrote of Obama's support for a playoff, "My problem is that [it] sounded less like a plan and more like political pandering to the masses" (ORLANDOSENTINEL.com, 11/17). USA TODAY's Hiestand writes it "might be interesting to see how the White House could influence college football, but it's hard to imagine how even the proverbial Leader of the Free World could somehow straighten out how the sport crowns its champion" (USA TODAY, 11/18).

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