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Volume 21 No. 1


ESPN will buy the second half of the Big Ten’s media rights package, ending months of speculation that the two were about to sever their 50-year relationship.

ESPN will pay an average of $190 million per year over six years for essentially half the conference’s media rights package, according to several sources close to the talks. Two months ago, Fox Sports agreed to take the other half of the package for an average of $240 million per year. CBS Sports also has told the conference that it will renew its basketball-only package for $10 million per year.

Ohio State-Michigan will probably move to Fox Sports.
The six-year, $2.64 billion media rights haul represents a big win for the Big Ten Conference, of course, which will see its average media rights payout nearly triple when it takes effect next fall.

More significantly, the deal is a good sign for the broader sports business, showing that ESPN will remain an active player in the live rights business, especially when it comes to premium rights.

All the headlines of cost cutting and layoffs coming out of Bristol, Conn., during the last 12 months — combined with dropping rights fees from properties like Conference USA — led some industry observers to expect the Disney-owned company to take a pass on Big Ten rights in order to further save costs. Those doubts increased in April when word leaked that ESPN submitted a lowball bid on the first half of the Big Ten’s media package, which ended up going to Fox. By agreeing to pay a hefty fee for a sizable package of rights, ESPN is showing that it is not paralyzed when it comes to paying for the rights that it wants. News of the deal should serve as a much needed morale boost to the company’s rank-and-file.

Who's Up Next?
Major U.S. media rights deals expiring by the end of 2020
Property Current rights holder Length of current deal Year deal expires
NFL Thursday night CBS, NBC* 2 years 2017
Verizon IndyCar Series ESPN, NBC 6 years/10 years 2018
UEFA Champions League Fox 3 years 2018
UFC Fox Sports 7 years 2018
PGA Championship CBS, Turner 10 years 2019
Belmont Stakes NBC 5 years 2020
Note: The total value of the NFL's current Thursday night package is $450 million. Financial terms are unavailable for the other deals listed.
* Each network will air five games and produce four games each for NFL Network.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

The six-year agreements with ESPN and CBS are being vetted by lawyers, and Big Ten officials hope to have official announcements for its entire media package ready by its annual football kickoff luncheon July 26.

The $2.64 billion deals with Fox, ESPN and CBS average $440 million per year and nearly triple the amount ESPN and CBS had been paying for the same programming. ESPN signed a 10-year deal worth $100 million annually in 2006 — a payout that increased to $150 million this year due to the addition of Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers to the conference. CBS paid an average of around $6 million for its current basketball-only deal.

The deal does not include Big Ten Network’s package of rights, which runs to 2031-32. Fox owns 51 percent of BTN.

Like Fox Sports, ESPN will have around 25 football games and 50 basketball games each year — programming that will provide big ratings and an advertiser-friendly audience of diehard alumni in some of the country’s biggest media markets.

The difference between the two packages is that Fox Sports will carry the Big Ten football championship game every season, which is a strong draw each December. Fox also will have game selection advantages over ESPN, which almost certainly means that the coveted Michigan-Ohio State rivalry will move to Fox most years.

Before each season, the networks will pick the weeks where they get first choice of games. Fox will have the first pick every year; ESPN will have the second; Fox will have the third, and so on.

ESPN will carry Big Ten football games on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. ESPNU will see far fewer Big Ten games than it has in the past.

The Big Ten’s ESPN deal will further a relationship that dates back five decades. ESPN’s sister station ABC started carrying Big Ten games as far back as 1966; ESPN carried Big Ten games in its first year of operation, 1979.

Conference officials experienced some angst earlier this spring that ESPN’s cost-cutting measures would keep the sports media powerhouse from submitting a competitive bid. That led the conference to engage other networks, including NBC Sports Group and Turner Sports. Both media companies expressed interest, but neither was close to a deal.

Soon after news of Fox’s deal leaked in April, however, ESPN President John Skipper called Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and said he wanted to re-engage. After a flurry of phone calls and emails, Skipper and Delany reached a broad agreement on price. John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president of programming and production, and Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling, shook hands on an agreement with Delany and conference lawyer Jon Barrett during a May 19 meeting at the conference’s New York office.

The deals were finalized June 7-8 when executives from ESPN and Fox were holed up in a conference room at the Big Ten’s Chicago offices over two days to hammer out details on how each package would look. Wildhack and Magnus headed up Bristol’s group; Fox Sports executive vice presidents Larry Jones and Bill Wanger and senior vice president Mike Mulvihill were there for Fox. Delany represented the Big Ten, and Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman represented BTN.

Separately, CBS agreed to its deal, keeping the Big Ten basketball tournament semis and championship game on CBS through 2023.

For Delany and the Big Ten, the deal is a clear win. Not only did the conference pick up a significant increase in a down market, but the relatively short length of the deal means the Big Ten will be the first major college conference to renegotiate a new deal in what it hopes will be a more robust marketplace.

The fact that the conference brought in such a healthy increase has to be heartening for the larger sports industry, which viewed these deals as bellwethers for the sports business. Leagues and conferences increasingly have grown concerned that shrinking cable distribution was going to cause sports rights fees to drop.

Plus, the Big Ten was considered the last truly big media rights deal for another five years, when the NHL (2021), Major League Baseball (2021) and NFL (2021-22) see their media rights deals expire. The PGA Tour can opt out of its media deals with CBS and NBC in 2018, and UFC’s deal with Fox ends in 2018.

Sports Illustrated later this year will start a new site about the NBA, similar to the NFL-focused MMQB.

The Time Inc. brand originally contemplated a basketball-themed site during its pursuit last year of NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski. SI came close to landing Wojnarowski, but he ultimately signed a four-year contract extension with Yahoo Sports last summer that paved the way for January’s debut of The Vertical.

Chris Stone, newly installed this month as SI’s editorial director, said the yet-to-be-named basketball site will not be as personality driven as The Vertical or The MMQB, led by longtime SI football writer Peter King. But like The Vertical, it will explore elements of basketball culture and lifestyle in addition to coverage of the league itself.

“The NBA is clearly on an extraordinary arc. There is a great audience and a huge appetite for more content,” said Stone, who is succeeding SI Group Editor Paul Fichtenbaum, who is leaving SI June 30 after 27 years. “There’s something really compelling we want to do in this area, somewhat in the mold of The MMQB. We see this as a logical next step for us.”

It will debut likely around the start of the 2016-17 NBA season. Specific staffing and budget has not been determined, but SI basketball writers Lee Jenkins, Chris Ballard and Andrew Sharp will be among those involved. Like The MMQB, content will comprise text, video, audio and social media. The look and feel of the site will likely use elements from a planned redesign of, which will go live sometime this summer. last received a substantial refresh two years ago.

A basketball site would extend SI’s corporate strategy to create new content franchises. SI last week began a new vertical devoted to technology and media in sports in partnership with sports technology site SportTechie. The company previously rolled out SI Films, Swim Daily, Campus Rush, SI Play and Planet Futbol, among other projects.

“Look at everything our bosses [at Time Inc.] have signed off on in the last 18 months,” Stone said. “They have not only been accommodating, they have been aggressive, and I would expect that to continue.”

Stone, previously SI’s managing editor, said he also intends to expand the brand’s presence in live events. SI runs an annual Sportsman of the Year event in New York, and recently expanded its Swimsuit fan festival into a twice-a-year initiative with a new summer event, also in New York, to join activities each February related to the issue’s publication. Stone said he intends to develop several more.

“There is a real opportunity for us to venture into more non-core assets that in turn will help enrich the core,” he said.

It seemed like we were watching the future of television last year as Fox Sports used drones to supplement its live U.S. Open coverage from Chambers Bay and, two months later, CBS Sports and TNT also used drones during their live coverage of the PGA Championship in Whistling Straits.

The drone shots were unique and added high production quality to both telecasts. They offered perspectives not usually seen on television. The further development of drones in live sports telecasts seemed to be a natural path for the technology — for years, sports business executives talked about using drones more frequently in their productions. They were going to be the next big development in sports production.

Drones were part of live coverage by CBS and TNT at the PGA Championship last year.
But network technology executives put forth a different view, declaring that drones are not ready for prime time, at least not for live video. This year, neither Fox’s coverage of the U.S. Open nor CBS/Turner’s coverage of the PGA Championship will use drones for its live coverage. Producers and tech executives say the planes’ propellers make too much noise, and they aren’t safe enough to use over a crowd yet.

“There aren’t that many locations to use a drone,” said Tom Sahara, Turner Sports’ vice president of operations and technology, who worked on last year’s PGA Championship. “They’re great for novelties now. They’re great for shooting pre-production, like the opening sequences where you see these dramatic shots on empty golf courses. But during a live event? I don’t see the risk management people signing off on that.”

Because of the vast spaces involved with it, golf has become the sport that has seen the most drone coverage. Networks aren’t going to start flying drones inside arenas or stadiums any time soon.

Around the sports media world:
The TV tech we’ll all soon be talking about

“You have to do it in a safe environment,” said Ken Aagaard, executive vice president of innovation, research and development for CBS. “You can’t fly drones over crowds. We’ve got to put them in places where we can pre-tape things and it’s safe. As time goes on, my guess is that drones will be more accepted and become safer and able to be used for live sports.”

Neither NBC Sports nor Golf Channel has used drones on its live golf coverage, citing safety concerns. Golf Channel feels restricted by Federal Aviation Administration guidelines that say drones have to stay 3,000 feet from spectators, said Jack Graham, Golf Channel’s vice president of golf events.

“If your only ability at a tournament live is to use it away from the actual action, I don’t think that enhances the broadcast,” Graham said. “Right now, we can enhance a broadcast better, still, through the use of blimps or fixed-wing airplanes.”

Drones have to become quieter. They worked at last year’s golf tournaments because the networks kept them away from the action: Fox flew its drones over Puget Sound and CBS/TNT kept theirs over Lake Michigan. This year’s venues, the U.S. Open’s Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburgh and the PGA Championship’s Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, aren’t situated near large bodies of water. Drones would have had to fly over crowds or too close to the golfers, neither of which was an option.

“There’s no place this year where we can fly them without noise issues,” said Michael Davies, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of technical and field operations. “Typically if you can find a place to fly where there is some ambient noise to mask the drone sound, it works. We have had luck at most courses, just not Oakmont.”

For his part, Aagaard preached patience, saying that it sometimes takes decades for certain technologies to take hold. Aagaard told a story about first using Skycam in 1983 at the Orange Bowl — two decades before CBS started using Skycams on NFL games. The NFL tested the technology — a remote-controlled camera suspended by cables over a game — during the 1990s, but the league never warmed up to it.

“The XFL came along and started to use the Skycam in 2001,” Aagaard said. “Everybody saw how great the Skycam shot was during XFL games, and the NFL couldn’t ignore it any longer. So CBS started to use it on NFL games in 2002.”

Skycam technology continues to improve. Soon, Aagaard hopes that camera shots will be able to incorporate virtual reality graphics, something that it’s currently not able to do.

“We are trying to get data on the screen in a meaningful way other than using an all-22 camera,” Aagaard said. “That is an example that all of us are working on right now with the Skycam guys and graphics guys.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

I asked several technology executives at various TV networks to identify a new production technology that they believe will become more popular over the next year. Everyone mentioned drones, as written above, especially for taped pieces, not live. These are the other technologies that were most frequently mentioned:

Augmented reality

TV producers are excited to see what comes from Intel’s $175 million acquisition of Replay Technologies, an Israeli company that develops 360-degree video technology.

A Hawk-Eye control truck at a soccer match.
“The technology that’s coming to sports is coming fast — there are few things that you just can’t do anymore,” said Michael Davies, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of technical and field operations. “For a while, the video game companies looked to the broadcasts and said this is how they are going to make their video games and sports simulations. Now, I feel like we’re looking at the video game companies and trying to learn from them a little bit in terms of what people want to see in the coverage.”

ABC and Turner Sports have used the technology during their NBA playoff coverage, using a replay to freeze a play, spin the image around and zoom into it from different angles.

It used to take at least 10 minutes for producers to develop that 360-degree replay. That lag time has dropped, said Tom Sahara, Turner Sports’ vice president of operations and technology.

“We’re hoping with Intel’s involvement, we’ll get that to where that turnaround can become almost immediate,” Sahara said. “What we’re looking at is being able to have that within a minute or two, while the replay is still fresh in everyone’s mind.”

Smaller cameras

Last football season, CBS and ESPN installed miniature cameras in the pylons on the goal lines of NFL and college football games. Executives with both networks said they plan to expand the use of the technology this season, as leagues and conferences like them.

“You’re going to see more, not less, of our pylon cams,” said Ken Aagaard, executive vice president of innovation, research and development for CBS. “The NFL likes the idea of pylon cameras because it gave them another look. It’s a dramatic shot for us, as well. One of the reasons we were able to do that is because we have these really incredible small, high-resolution, high-definition cameras that give you a spectacular picture with a perfectly wide-angle lens.”

ESPN executives sounded a similar theme.

“It’s not only been a difference maker for our big game coverage but has generated incredible attention from the conferences we televise — they want it used on more games,” emailed Ed Placey, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer. “Pylon cam has the ability to impact the game, providing views of plays at the goal line and sidelines that can confirm or overturn calls on the field.”

Hawk-Eye technology

Most sports fans associate Hawk-Eye with tennis, where the ball-tracking technology helps determine whether a shot is in or out. NBC Sports Group plans to use Hawk-Eye during its British Open coverage this summer to graphically demonstrate where a golf ball lands and how far it rolls. Jack Graham, Golf Channel’s vice president of golf events, says the technology will be particularly effective at a links course like Royal Troon, where The Open Championship is being held in July.

“The way that links courses often work, you may land the ball 50-75 yards short of the green and let it roll up,” Graham said. “We want to use that technology to show where the ball landed and how far it actually rolled along the ground. This is the type of technology that is going to offer better storytelling, which is really where we’re trying to head. We’re not using it for a gimmick.”

— John Ourand