The Big Ten Conference recently announced a new seven-year, $7 billion-plus media rights agreement with a trio of networks. Fox, CBS and NBC will carry league football games beginning in the fall of 2023, along with FS1, Peacock and the Big Ten Network. Fox is set to remain the Big Ten’s primary broadcast partner. ESPN, a B1G broadcast partner since 1982, was not included among them.
While some have positioned the pending break-up as the latest casualty in a “war” between ESPN and Fox, former Fox Sports Networks president Bob Thompson said the narrative is simply wrong. “This is just business,” he tweeted on Aug. 9. Every network is trying to “best position [themselves] for a piece of the next iteration of the CFP playoffs.”
Both companies declined to comment.
JWS’ Take: The ESPN-Fox war hyperbole is driven by another incorrect narrative—that the two networks are spearheading realignment and the anticipated consolidation in college sports. “It’s easy for someone sitting from afar to make the assumption Fox and ESPN are puppet masters and these conference commissioners are all on strings,” Thompson said in an interview with Sportico. “It is just not that way. The commissioners, presidents, chancellors and, to a lesser extent, athletic directors are the ones initiating these moves.”
Sure, one could argue television dollars drive their decisions. But Thompson was clear it is not a “bribe-type situation.” Each network is “paying for packages that [it] hopes will bring some value, and when it gets to an expanded playoff, [they all] want to have a seat at the table,” he said. Logic suggests the more Power Five representation a network has during the regular season, the more likely it will be to receive expanded postseason broadcast rights.
Of course, the conferences, including the B1G, benefit from multiple networks bidding on expanded College Football Playoff rights, too. “The NFL model of splitting up games is going to be the optimal model for the CFP to maximize their dollars,” Thompson said. CFP revenue trickles down to the individual conferences.
The last time around, ESPN was the only viable home for the CFP. “Fox hardly even took a look at it,” Thompson said. The CFP awarded ESPN the exclusive rights to its postseason in November 2012. While Fox had Big 12 and Pac-12 rights at the time, it did not gain control of half of the Big Ten’s broadcast rights, which made it a destination for college football, until 2017. The company was “not enthralled with the format of the playoff,” either, he said.
While it has been suggested “Fox screwed ESPN,” navigating behind the scenes to cut the cable broadcaster out, Fox reportedly wanted ESPN to have a piece of the package. “That is telling in terms of where the real war is. It is between either the B1G and ESPN, or the B1G and SEC. But it’s not [between] ESPN and Fox,” Thompson said.
Yes, there is a healthy amount of competition between the two networks, but there is also some collegiality. “It is not ‘we hate those guys,’” Thompson said. “[ESPN is] doing what they’re doing for their company, and the Fox guys are doing what they’re doing for the benefit of their company.”
There is also “a lot of collaboration that people don’t realize,” Thompson said. The existing Pac-12 and Big 12 rights packages, which are split between ESPN and Fox, were “negotiated jointly” by John Skipper and Randy Freer, he said.
And while those two executives are no longer running things at ESPN and Fox Sports, respectively, the companies are still “on the phone every Monday figuring out who is picking what game,” Thompson said. “You would be surprised at how much swapping or sports trading goes on within those calls.”
There have been joint ventures between the two companies, too. “We owned an Asian sports network, called Star Sports, with ESPN for years,” Thompson said. There were “News Corp board members on that, and there were ESPN board members on it as well.”
The Big Ten is said to have been less than enthralled with ESPN’s perceived SEC bias, but the Worldwide Leader in Sports didn’t exactly view retaining the conference’s rights—at nearly twice as much money per game—as mission critical, either. Remember, ESPN recently inked a 10-year deal with the Southeastern Conference for the premium package of games that had been on CBS in the 3:30 p.m. ET window to go along with the rest of its rights. Its seat at the expanded CFP negotiating table is safe.
The falling out between the Big Ten and ESPN started in 2006, Thompson said, under Jim Delany, the previous head of the conference. “Jim Delany originally talked to ESPN about a B1G Network, and they weren’t interested,” Thompson said. “Then [ESPN] went to do a rights deal, and the [offer] greatly offended Jim. That is what caused him to reach out to us, and out of that became the B1G Network deal, then the B1G Championship deal, and then the Fox Network broadcast deal. That’s not Fox versus ESPN.”
It is fair to wonder if the B1G will lose relevance without its games on ESPN. When the network didn’t have NHL rights, hockey highlights dwindled on SportsCenter.
But with games airing across three broadcast networks each Saturday, future exposure doesn’t appear to be an issue for Big Ten football.
However, considering ESPN’s stranglehold on the other major intercollegiate sport, it could have an effect on the perception of B1G basketball. Thompson predicts ESPN will find a way to sublicense a slate of B1G basketball games.