SBJ/February 18-24, 2013/Media

Big East near new TV deals

Conference looks to retool after defections

After months of enduring defections and disappointment, the Big East plans to start rebuilding its brand this month with two new TV deals, albeit at a much lower value than the conference had hoped when it started negotiations more than a year ago.

The Big East is close to finalizing deals with two partners, NBC and CBS, that will give the conference exposure across multiple networks. The agreement with NBC will put football and basketball games primarily on its cable channel, NBC Sports Network, with the ability to move some games to the NBC broadcast network.

CBS also is close to renewing its package of basketball games for its broadcast channel.

ESPN has the right to match NBC’s offer. Sources said that Bristol had not seen NBC’s offer yet, as of late last week. Typically, a network has about a week to decide whether to match a bid or not. ESPN could decide to match the offer to keep the programming away from its rival, NBC. Or ESPN could decide that it’s not willing to pay the Big East as much as NBC.

NBC will pay close to $25 million per year over six years for a bucket of games to go on NBC and NBC Sports Network. The two channels’ football game inventory will be substantially more than the 25 to 30 games ESPN carried each year, according to industry sources. The deal will bring live sports content to NBC Sports Network, NBC’s 24-hour sports channel that has struggled to attract viewers outside of NHL games.

The Big East, in its former model, had eight football teams. With future expansion planning to take the conference to 12 teams, which could lead to a football championship game, NBC will have 50 percent more game inventory.

NBC’s new deal with the Big East would start with the 2013-14 basketball season and the 2014 football season. One of the quirks in ESPN’s current contract with the conference is that it extends through the 2013 football season.

CBS’s contract will pay $2 million to $4 million per year for its package of basketball rights, sources said.

Both the NBC and CBS deals take into account the impending departure of the Catholic 7 basketball schools — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova. The conference is negotiating an early exit with those schools, which are under contract to stay in the Big East for two more years.

But Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco said the conference is unlikely to cede the Big East name to the Catholic schools that are breaking away.

“We’re talking to them,” he said. “Our strong inclination is to keep the name.”

Aresco, a former executive with CBS and previously ESPN, would not discuss specifics of either deal. But he said that solidifying the conference’s media rights is a crucial first step toward rebuilding the Big East brand.

“We’re trying to be realistic. We’re not the Big East of even several months ago,” Aresco said. “But we think we’re the best positioned to challenge [the top five conferences] and put ourselves in a better place with the schools we have.”

It was 2011 when the Big East and ESPN were on the doorstep of a deal that would have paid the conference $150 million a year over a long-term contract. But some administrators in the conference balked because they thought the Big East should take its rights to the open market in an attempt to find a bonanza like the Pac-12’s $250 million-a-year deal.

ESPN has a 33-year relationship with the Big East and was keen on renewing. But the conference now bears little resemblance to the collection of basketball schools that originally made up the Big East.

Shortly after the Big East rejected ESPN’s proposal, around September 2011, Syracuse and Pittsburgh left for the ACC, and later West Virginia departed for the Big 12. Last year, the ACC took Notre Dame and Louisville, and the Big Ten grabbed Rutgers, leaving the conference and Aresco scrambling. Deals to bring in Boise State and San Diego State also fell through last month when both schools reneged on their commitment to the Big East and returned to the Mountain West.

Big East additions have included SMU, Houston, Memphis, Central Florida, Tulane and East Carolina, with Navy coming aboard in 2015.

The Big East knows that it’s not negotiating from a strong position, which is why its TV deals will last six years, a term much shorter than other college conference deals that typically range from 12 to 14 years in length. The hope is that after six years, the Big East will be able to command a higher fee.

“We know we have to prove ourselves on the field,” Aresco said. “We can’t argue that we’re the Big East of the past. We have to accept that and move on.”

Aresco touted the schools that have remained, saying the conference has the potential to be competitive in football with Cincinnati, South Florida and SMU, and basketball with traditionally strong teams like UConn, Temple and Memphis.

“We want to be the conference that can challenge,” Aresco said. “It’s a big part of our heritage. We have schools with the resources that can do it. We have schools with a history of success. … We’re in better shape than people expected us to be. We’re a more geographically coherent conference.”

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