The University of Oklahoma recently signed a multiyear pact with ESPN+ that will result in the creation of an OU specific network—SoonerVision—inside of the subscription streaming service. The deal is being touted as ”the most expansive” school-specific digital tie-up in college sports and includes 1,000-plus hours of original programming a year.
It is not a particularly high bar to clear considering the Big 12 is the only Power Five conference that returned broadcast rights to its schools following the last round of conference realignment (the others formed conference-level linear networks), and all of its other member institutions—save Texas—have since transitioned the rights to Big 12 Now. But Oklahoma’s decision to park the Tier 3 rights exclusively on the streaming service is reflective of how rights owners now think about distribution. To reach the entirety of the fan base—and to maximize the value of broadcast rights—content can no longer be limited to linear television; it must appear across a range of screens and platforms. “All sports entities, content creators for that matter, have to think about how they can get maximum access and distribution for what they want consumers to see,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “You have to have a strategy that combines it all.”
JWS’ Take: Lee Berke has been a media rights consultant to the Oklahoma athletics department for more than a decade. He helped the school create SoonerSports TV (the destination where its Tier 3 rights currently live), in partnership with Fox, back in 2012. “At the time, it was a trend-setting media platform,” he said. SoonerSports TV “essentially piggybacked on several RSNs. It also had a digital component to it.”
But the most rabid Sooner faithful complained in recent years that they couldn’t see enough of the school’s games on the Fox RSNs, which have since been sold and rebranded as Bally’s. There are several reasons why that has been the case. The first is not a Bally’s-specific problem. “It is with all linear regional and national [cable] sports networks,” Berke said. “[They] are facing a distribution system with MVPDs that is shrinking by 6, 7, 8% a year. The total distribution on cable in 2010-11 was over 100 million households, and by the end of this year or next, there may be as many people outside of the cable ecosystem as there are inside.”
Despite the ongoing decline, cable television still reaches more than three times the number of households as ESPN+. But sports media consultant Patrick Crakes explained linear television’s limited “shelf space” has meant much of the SoonerSports TV content does not get exposure on cable or satellite television, and when it does, discovery is a challenge.
The RSN business model has also been under enormous stress in recent years. Castiglione said that has led to less carriage in the market and thus fewer fans being able to see the content.
As for the digital version, known as SoonerSports.tv, “It has been standing out there alone,” Crakes said. “It is not part of a cooperative tri-cast ecosystem with the rest of OU’s content” (like SoonerVision will be).
As a result, it does not get the promotion needed. “There are hardcore Sooners fans who probably didn’t know it exists [or how to find it],” he added. Tri-cast refers to a combination of broadcast, cable and streaming exposure.
OU should be more accessible on ESPN+. It will certainly reach more people. Castiglione said the school considered running SoonerSports.tv as a standalone service but preferred to have access to ESPN+’s 22.3 million subscribers.
The absence of a streaming solution that would allow the tri-cast model to thrive was another factor in OU’s decision to leave the RSN for ESPN+. “Bally’s has yet to launch [its Bally’s Sports+ offering]. It was going to be May. Now it is more likely the end of the fall. The [issue] is viewers aren’t waiting,” Berke said. The existing deal expires at the end of June.
Castiglione said Bally’s belatedly expressed interest in continuing the relationship but “did not offer a robust streaming option that we needed to serve our stakeholders.”
The preexisting relationship between Oklahoma, the Big12 and ESPN played into the decision, too. ESPN is “carrying a lot of [OU] games on linear television” Berke said, which makes the tri-cast model possible. Financial considerations (the school was believed to be earning $5-10 million/year under the terms of the old deal), marketing resources, “and the fact there is only going to be a greater relationship between Oklahoma and ESPN in the years to come [when the school moves to the SEC]” were also factors in the move.
OU’s Tier 3 rights are a logical addition for ESPN. It is content the most passionate Oklahoma fans will pay for, and some of the programming could potentially be elevated to and used by an ESPN-owned linear network.
Once OU joins the SEC, it will fold the bulk of its Tier 3 programming into the SEC’s agreements and platforms. But there is a chance SoonerVision could still exist in some capacity. Castiglione said it remains to be seen how the SEC handles any member non-event programming that does not have a home on one of its channels.
To be clear, the Sooners are not abandoning linear television (and neither is any other savvy sports property). “Oklahoma’s national packages of games will still be seen on Fox and the ESPN family of networks. There [are also] going to be announcements coming down the pike on regional broadcasts,” Berke said.
The school is simply establishing a robust digital presence that complements and does not compete with those linear partnerships. “It provides inventory heft distribution with [most of] the quality stuff [and real economics] still reigning on linear,” Crakes said.
The deal with ESPN+ is undoubtedly a win for Sooners fans. The most fanatical will gain access to more than 100 OU events a year, plus the balance of the ESPN+ catalog, for $70, or $15 more than they would have paid for last year’s PPV football game. And those only interested in watching the September nonconference football game can now subscribe for a single month for $7 and save themselves $48.
The existing conference networks will prevent a flood of schools from following OU’s lead. But expect all conference and league level negotiations moving forward to include “a substantial amount of streaming, along with linear and broadcast,” Berke said. ESPN already has tri-cast deals with a multitude of conferences and leagues big and small.
“There are [also] a number of pro teams currently on RSNs, that are looking to move on from the traditional linear model,” Berke said, and would consider allocating a portion of their games to digital alongside linear distribution.