SBJ/March 21-27, 2011/Media

Pac-10 seeks college's richest TV contract

The Pac-10, deep into its talks with ESPN and Fox, is seeking the richest media contract among all college conferences, according to industry sources.

The conference, which is expanding to 12 teams next season with the addition of Colorado and Utah, has been in exclusive negotiating windows with both networks. Sources said the Pac-10 has told the media companies that it wants considerably more than the $205 million per year that the SEC got combined from CBS and ESPN for an all-in package.

Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott has said in the past that his priorities, in addition to the additional revenue, are to start a conference channel and to significantly boost the conference’s national exposure.
The league currently receives about $54 million annually in media rights fees from ESPN and Fox, which is the lowest of the six major conferences.

The Pac-10 allowed its exclusive negotiating window with ESPN to lapse earlier this month. ESPN was negotiating for a 20-game football package. The conference also is expected to let its exclusive negotiating window with Fox lapse without a deal at the end of the month. Fox is negotiating for a package that includes both football and basketball games.

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If the Pac-10 enters open market, package will include football, basketball, online and marketing rights.
The conference would then go to an open market in April with a comprehensive package of rights to sell, which would include football and basketball, online and full marketing rights.

The most likely new bidder would be Comcast, which is interested in acquiring sports content in markets where it runs cable systems. Now that its NBC acquisition is complete, sports rights holders are hoping that the company becomes more aggressive in acquiring rights.
 
Turner Sports also has made inquiries about the Pac-10’s media rights and would present a fourth bidder, which would be a best-case scenario for the conference. The Pac-10’s negotiations are being led by Scott, with Chris Bevilacqua of Evolution Media Capital consulting.

The Pac-10’s pursuit of the richest media deal of all the conferences was emboldened, sources say, when it learned how much the Big 12 was expecting to make from its rights deals. Fox is close to a deal that will be worth an average of $90 million a year for the Big 12’s cable TV football rights.

Each new media rights deal seems to reset the market in the college landscape. Fox’s Big 12 deal would represent a 350 percent increase over its current fee of $20 million per year. Fox, though, would wind up with much more content than it currently has, doubling the number of football games it is allowed to carry, from 20 to more than 40, as well as all digital and mobile rights to those games. No basketball was included in the deal and the Big 12 got the raise despite having two fewer teams with the defections of Colorado to the Pac-10 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.

The Big 12’s $90 million figure also represents an increase from the $60 million that Fox suggested it would be willing to pay last summer as part of a new cable rights deal. Those talks surfaced as the Big 12 attempted to hold its conference together during realignment.

During its negotiation with ESPN, the Pac-10 was seeking to get more than four times the $25 million the network currently is paying for its package of football games, sources said.

As part of the exclusive negotiating windows, the Pac-10 must come back to ESPN and Fox if the conference winds up accepting a bid that is lower than the last price the conference offered during the window. Such terms are standard in many media rights contracts.

Pac-10 officials have been open about their desire to launch a channel, akin to the Big Ten Network. The difference is that the Big Ten sold broadcast rights to ESPN for $100 million a year and a smaller basketball-only package to CBS. The Pac-10’s first option appears to be combining the national broadcast rights and the channel into a single deal.

ESPN and CBS convinced the SEC to shelve its plans to launch a channel when they agreed to pay a combined $205 million per year for the rights to SEC content in 2008.

Last year, ESPN agreed to pay the ACC an average of $155 million per year for an all-in deal that included all sports and online.

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