Since word began swirling that the Big Ten was on the brink of throwing in the towel on college football season, television executives have been forced to wrestle with a maddening sense of frustration and uncertainty. As conflicting accounts began to pile up, the fall football season was at the same time both indisputably dead and still very much alive—Schrödinger’s cat in a tiny Riddell helmet and shoulder pads.
If 2020 is likely remembered as a year in which hardly anyone ever quite knew what was going on at any particular moment, there is no mystery as to which networks stand to suffer the most should the Big Ten decide to punt on its 125th season of football. In the absence of the Buckeyes, Badgers, Wolverines and Nittany Lions, Fox Sports and the Walt Disney Co. stand to lose a substantial amount of advertising revenue.
According to Standard Media Index data, Fox and its cable sibling FS1 last year raked in $98.3 million in sales with their slate of Big Ten matchups, a roster that included the annual Ohio State-Michigan hate-fest and the Dec. 7 conference championship showdown between the Buckeyes and Wisconsin. Toss in another 11 non-conference games and the Fox nets generated a grand total of $124.8 million with their Big Ten coverage last year, a sum that represents 64% of the company’s total college football sales.
A healthy chunk of the cash Fox Sports generates on fall Saturdays is derived from those two aforementioned broadcasts. Per Nielsen, the 116th meeting between the Buckeyes and Wolverines scared up 12.4 million viewers and a 7.1 household rating, making it Fox’s second most-watched college football game of 2019. (This despite the fact that the 11-0 Ohio State made short work of their 9-2 rivals, crushing Michigan in the Big House by a 56-27 margin.) The following week, Fox delivered the highest-rated Big Ten Championship in six years, as the Buckeyes’ 34-21 defeat of Wisconsin averaged 13.6 million viewers and a 7.6 rating.
Unsurprisingly, those two games were also Fox’s biggest money makers. According to SMI pricing data, which is derived from agency invoices and includes corrections for make-goods/audience deficiency units, The Game brought in $18.5 million in sales while the title tilt commanded another $19.4 million.
Aside from the SEC Championship, which aired on CBS and boasted an average rate of $323,043 per 30-second unit, the Big Ten title game was the season’s most expensive non-bowl buy ($257,296 a pop). Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh on Monday joined Ohio State’s Ryan Day in voicing his support for fall football. While it’s unlikely the khaki-clad Harbaugh will have much say in the matter, there’s no question that Fox and Disney share an outsized fondness for the rival programs, which are responsible for a staggering amount of ad spend. Ohio State alone helped the two media groups sell $79.1 million in inventory, while Michigan games accounted for north of $60 million in spend.
All told, Ohio State throws off the most ad revenue, averaging $3.32 million in sales per game, up 11% versus its 2018 deliveries. Michigan ranks No. 4, trailing LSU and Auburn, with an average draw of just over $3 million in revenue per game—an improvement of 39% compared to the previous season.
Disney’s Big Ten earnings are also considerable, as ABC and ESPN combined to take in some $74.5 million in intra-conference ad revenue, a tally that swells to $89.9 million upon application of the dollars brought to bear by their short stack of seven non-conference games. But the numbers really start adding up when all the postseason units are factored into the equation; per SMI, Big Ten teams that appeared in the seven bowl games that aired on ESPN/ABC helped Disney churn up another $110.1 million in sales.
Among the biggest draws were the Fiesta Bowl (Ohio State-Clemson), which stuffed $46.5 million into ESPN’s coffers, and the Rose Bowl (Oregon-Wisconsin, $34 million).
The Big Ten last season accounted for 20% of Disney’s regular-season college football sales. The Mouse House’s rights portfolio, which includes the ACC, SEC and Pac-12, is sufficiently broad and deep to withstand the loss of one of the Power 5 conferences, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether a Big Ten retreat will precipitate a more far-reaching shutdown in the days to come.