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Volume 26 No. 135
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SEC Football Leaving CBS After 2023, Likely For ESPN/ABC

CBS will walk away from the SEC when its contract ends after the 2023 football season, and all indications are that the package will move to ESPN/ABC. CBS decided to exit the negotiations for college football's most-watched TV package after making an aggressive bid in the neighborhood of $300 million per season -- a massive increase from the $55 million it currently pays annually. CBS Sports execs decided that it made more sense to invest the money they would have paid the SEC into other sports. When contacted this afternoon by SBJ, CBS Sports PR emailed the following statement: “We made a strong and responsible bid. While we‘ve had success with the SEC on CBS, we are instead choosing to aggressively focus on other important strategic priorities moving forward.”

Multiple sources said ESPN/ABC is in the final stages of negotiating a deal that is expected to pay more than six times the $55 million per year fee that CBS currently pays, sources said. Fox Sports execs still are planning to make an official bid presentation at SEC HQ in Birmingham next month. But sources say ESPN’s negotiations are in the final stages. ESPN and Fox Sports would not comment.

CBS plans to carry SEC football for the four seasons it has left on its contract, unless the conference or winning network is able to buy it out. CBS has carried SEC football since 1996 and network execs were interested in extending. When bidding went well over $300 million per season for 15-17 football games, including the conference championship game, CBS opted to bow out.

The decision to move away from CBS carries some risk for the SEC, especially considering that it has been college football’s most-viewed package for more than 10 years running. The conference will go from a network where it is the only college football conference to one where it will be one of many conferences. Insiders credit some of the SEC’s success on Saturday afternoons with being the sole focus of CBS’ Emmy-winning coverage.

The decision to walk away from the SEC does not suggest that CBS is tight-fisted. Since its merge with Viacom, CBS has dug into its pockets for the UEFA Champions League and has agreed on terms for an extension with the PGA Tour that will see a 60% increase in rights fees. CBS is expected to be aggressive in retaining its NFL Sunday afternoon package.

ESPN won the conference over with its argument that it can be more creative with scheduling when it controls all of the rights. With ESPN owning all of the SEC’s football rights, it’s possible that more than one game will be produced for broadcast TV; more top-tier games can be moved to primetime; and the conference can schedule more late afternoon games without having to worry about running into CBS’ exclusive window. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has been concerned about all of the league’s rights being tied up with ABC/ESPN because of the leverage it would give the media company, sources said. It is not known if ESPN opened up its contract to operate SEC Network or its cable rights as part of these negotiations. Those contracts run through 2034.

 

Staff Writer Michael Smith contributed to this story.