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Big Ten’s title game rights to hit market

The Big Ten Conference is preparing to auction the TV rights to its new football championship game, a move that industry insiders say could fetch $15 million to $20 million a year.

The conference also plans to reopen its current deal with ESPN to account for the addition of Nebraska, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said an increase in its rights fee from the network is expected.

The championship game, which will debut in 2011, is not part of the conference’s current media contract with ESPN and will be treated as a separate property.

“It’s going to be a full-fledged jump ball on the championship game,” Delany said. “This will be a stand-alone entity, in terms of the media negotiations.”

Delany already has had preliminary talks with ESPN, Fox and CBS for the game, while NBC and Turner also are expected to show interest, industry sources said. ESPN and Fox are considered the clear front-runners for picking up the rights. While ESPN has its existing media deal, Fox has partnered with the conference on the Big Ten Network.

Bidding is expected to start in October, after the conference settles on its two new six-school divisions.

In addition to the championship game talks, the Big Ten early this fall plans to seek a raise over its current broadcast deal with ESPN. With Nebraska officially joining the Big Ten next year, as of July 1, Delany said he expects the conference to be paid more than the $100 million-per-year average that ESPN agreed to in 2007-08 as part of a 10-year deal.

It’s expected that the conference’s best will play for
the title in prime time.

The inaugural Big Ten championship game will be held in December 2011 in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. The game is expected to be played in prime time, following the SEC’s championship game, which is carried by CBS and in recent years has had a late-afternoon Saturday kickoff. The Big Ten game would fill a slot that has been occupied by the Big 12’s championship game, which typically has had an 8 p.m. ET kickoff.

With the Big 12 losing two schools in this summer’s conference realignment wave, the Big 12 as a 10-school conference won’t have enough members to stage a championship game under current NCAA rules.

Championship game ratings in 2009 Games were played Dec. 5
Conference Teams Kickoff (ET) Net Avg. rating
(no. of viewers)
SEC Alabama-Florida 4 p.m. CBS 11.1 (17.969 million)
Big 12 Texas-Nebraska 8 p.m. ABC 7.5 (12.693 million)
ACC Georgia Tech-Clemson 8 p.m. ESPN 1.6 (2.541 million)
Sources: The Nielsen Co., SportsBusiness Daily archives

Industry sources believe the Big Ten championship game could command $15 million to $20 million a year for a number of reasons. First, it has at least two serious bidders in ESPN and Fox. In the past few years, ESPN has made a big bet on college sports, picking up as many rights as it can. Fox has made no secret of its desire to pick up college football rights and made a surprisingly bold run for the ACC earlier this year.

Second, ratings for similar games have been high. Last year’s SEC championship game pulled an 11.1 rating and 17.969 million viewers, the highest-ever viewership for the SEC’s title matchup. The game featured Florida and Alabama, the nation’s top two teams at the time.

The Big Ten’s marquee regular-season matchup — Ohio State and Michigan — pulled a 4.2 rating and 6.773 million viewers on ABC last year even though the game kicked off at noon, a traditionally weak time slot for ratings, and featured a subpar Michigan team with a 5-6 record.

The SEC, Big 12 and ACC previously have not broken out their championship games as separate entities from their overall broadcast agreements.

The SEC’s championship game was valued at $10 million to CBS in 2008 when the conference and network struck their 15-year deal for an average of $55 million a year, according to sources familiar with the talks. But a more current valuation of the title game is closer to $15 million.

Each broadcast deal includes a “conference composition” clause that allows a contract to be renegotiated if the member schools in a conference change. ESPN elected not to exercise the clause with the Big 12 after it lost Colorado and Nebraska in June. But with the Big Ten’s addition of Nebraska — and the Cornhuskers’ reputation as a college football powerhouse — Delany said ESPN should pay more.

With the Big Ten entering the fourth year of a 10-year deal, it remains to be seen whether these talks will produce an extension as well. The composition clause will not lead to an increase in the number of Big Ten games on ESPN or ABC.

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