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Big Ten turns away from ESPN to sign record $7 billion deal for TV rights

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren talks to reporters during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big Ten Conference in July, 2022. (Darron Cummings/AP)
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The Big Ten Conference unveiled seven-year media rights agreements Thursday expected to be worth more than $1 billion annually, a monumental windfall that arrives amid a rapidly changing landscape of schools hopping conferences and athletes advocating for a greater share of the increasing riches flowing through athletic departments. The deals, with Fox, CBS and NBC, are the largest in college sports history.

Once synonymous with the Midwest, the Big Ten will soon have 16 teams spread from New Jersey to California, a newly minted national conference in a sporting realm once prized for its regional appeal. The conference recently announced the planned additions of USC and UCLA, which will give the conference a footprint in the lucrative Los Angeles media market and boosted the value of the agreements.

Kevin Warren, the conference’s commissioner since 2020, said this summer that he had been thinking about Big Ten expansion since he interviewed for the job. Warren built the idea of expansion, if not the specific schools, into the earliest term sheets discussed with networks, he said.

“What expansion did for us and for our fans, it really shrunk the United States, shrunk our country,” Warren said in an interview, “to where people recognize they’ll be able to watch our teams compete and their schools compete morning, noon and night and at unique times during the year, like on Black Friday, and from coast to coast.”

All 16 members of the Big Ten, including previous additions Maryland and Rutgers, will be recipients of the financial windfall. The conference’s chief rival, the SEC, has made its own moves, announcing last year that it would add Texas and Oklahoma.

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“The ability of the Big Ten and SEC to generate TV revenue has attracted big name brands like USC and Texas to those conferences in ways that wouldn’t make any sense without all that TV money,” said economist Andy Schwarz, who has been involved in several lawsuits against the NCAA. “It also makes clear that they are running a football team like a business, and in doing so they are treating their players like they’re NFL players, too.”

The tradition-shattering moves and onslaught of TV money — the largest revenue stream in college sports — come as the NCAA continues to face litigation and legislation around the country challenging its long-standing amateurism rules. Last year, the association loosened some of those restrictions to allow athletes to earn money from endorsements and their social media accounts, but there is no revenue-sharing model in place for the enormous TV contracts. Warren said he is open to having a conversation with players about that.

“All of these open issues have to be put on the table to discuss legitimately,” he said.

The new deals, which begin in 2023, illustrate the staggering amount of money filling the coffers of college sports programs, an evolution that can be traced through the Big Ten. In 1996, the conference landed what was then a record deal: a 10-year, $100 million contract with ESPN that put nearly all of its conference games on the network. In 2007, the conference launched the Big Ten Network in partnership with Fox in a deal that netted $2.8 billion over 20 years. The Pac-12, ACC and SEC have followed the Big Ten and launched their own branded networks with varying success.

The Big Ten and SEC remain far ahead of rival conferences in revenue. The SEC signed a deal with ESPN worth $3 billion over 10 years, according to Sports Business Journal, for its top Saturday game, beginning in 2024. (Other parts of that deal bring the value of the SEC’s media rights to around $700 million each year.) But the Big Ten is now back on top.

The new deals will give the conference an NFL-like schedule spread across three broadcast networks on college football Saturdays, with set windows for each — noon on Fox; 3:30 p.m. on CBS; and prime time on NBC. Notably left out of the deal is ESPN, which has been a Big Ten partner for four decades. Even in a more fragmented media environment, ESPN remains the country’s dominant sports network. Its daily talk lineup drives sports conversation of the day, and it retains the rights to the College Football Playoff. ESPN, for decades, was key to putting the Big Ten on TV across the country.

“We’re a key component of college athletics and especially college football,” Warren said. “Everyone recognizes that it’s important that we all work together and all have a collaborative voice. I’m confident, where we stand in the Big Ten, we’ll be able to have a voice in shaping the future of college athletics both on and off the playing field.”

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The Big Ten is just the latest sports property to collect a windfall, proving again the value of live sports to media companies, both traditional and new. The NFL signed a deal with the four broadcast networks and Amazon last year that will pay it around $100 billion over a decade. Major League Baseball’s new deal with Fox Sports is worth more than $5 billion over seven years. Last year, the English Premier League doubled the annual value of its American rights fee when it re-signed with NBC for $2.7 billion over six years. Live sports continue to be key to maintaining cable customers, while streaming platforms hope to use them to recruit new subscribers. (The Big Ten had conversations with Amazon, as well.)

Other Big Ten sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, will air across Fox and Fox Sports 1; CBS; NBC; the Big Ten Network, of which Fox owns 61 percent equity; and Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. Fox and Fox Sports 1 will continue to show a large chunk of the conference’s football games.

In 2023, CBS will broadcast seven football games. The network is still tied to the SEC through a contract that requires the conference’s top game to be exclusively aired by CBS at 3:30 p.m. Starting in 2024, the Big Ten will occupy that afternoon window all season.

NBC will broadcast 14 to 16 football games each season, introducing programming described as “Big Ten Saturday Night,” an effort to mirror the success the network has had with “Sunday Night Football.” Those three major networks will share the rights to broadcast the Big Ten football title game, with Fox televising the game in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029, and CBS (2024, 2028) and NBC (2026) broadcasting the marquee event in the other years.

CBS will broadcast the championship game of both the men’s and women’s basketball conference tournaments.