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College Sports Cashing in on TV Again? Depends on Who You Ask

Big-time college sports is a cautious game of balancing the books, keeping up with a never-ending arms race, constant fundraising and putting an entertaining product on the field/court. And obviously that became a lot harder for schools around the U.S. following the cancellation of live sporting events — chief among them the lucrative NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — in mid-March.

Over the last 35 years, the event’s evolved into a month-long spectacle, capturing diehard and casual college basketball fans alike, while now generating at least $800 million each year. As you might have guessed, that sort of windfall is a key part of how many athletic departments manage to stay afloat. Coupled with the loss of ticket sales and TV revenues for those games, much of the spring sports season and those championships as well, the rug’s basically been ripped out from under hundreds of schools.

What’s looming next, however, may be even worse. While it’s not worth speculating just yet, there does seem to be a real chance that the 2020 college football season (typically running from late August through early January) could be postponed or cancelled altogether. As a postseason event, the NCAA Tournament is a boon to the organization’s hundreds of members, yes. But football is the cash cow that drives ticket sales, merchandise, boosters, branding deals and most of all, TV revenue. If it disappears, even for just a season, the repercussions for college athletics could be catastrophic.

Granted, college sports should take plenty of blame for putting itself in this situation to begin with, but that’s a story for another time.

Despite us likely being months away from a potential decision around the 2020 season, plenty of experts are discussing what it could mean for these suddenly cash-poor athletic departments. One of them, Navigate Research CEO AJ Maestas, spoke to the Mercury News’ Jon Wilner (himself one of the best sportswriters in the country when it comes to the college sports media landscape) recently and while he painted a negative picture for college sports in the short-term, he was optimistic in the long run because of the continued geowth of TV rights.

With all due respect, I have to ask why?

In the piece, it’s noted that expanding the four-team College Football Playoff to an eight- or 16-team event will provide a financial windfall (doubling or quadrupling the $467 million ESPN currently pays out), that’s true. But it also states that “… it’s roughly a 50-to-100 percent jump in TV money for all the conferences other than the ACC; they’re just stuck in a very long deal.”

With or without a pandemic, I think I would’ve been bearish on that outlook — and I was here in this space not too long ago. But now with it, I’d tend to think it’s unlikely we see the same influx of cash for most sports leagues; but especially college sports, where the product is very regionally-focused and TV revenues (largely tied to football) have been growing at a seemingly unsustainable rate for upwards of a decade now.

That doesn’t mean the “bubble” for sports rights is bursting quite yet. It just sees reality for what it is. For college sports, there are just two major players at this point: ESPN (Disney) and Fox. Those two only compete against one another for a handful of big properties every five years, and whoever wins pays handsomely to broadcast games from the ACC/Big Ten/Big 12/Pac-12/SEC. There was already only so much money to go around on that front. Now, with media companies struggling in the wake of a pandemic, why would it be such a sure thing that they’d be able to increase rights by 50% or more? To get there, it’s probably going to take offers from the likes of Amazon, Facebook, YouTube or Apple — and that still presents an accessibility issue for plenty of (older) college football fans.

Game attendance has gone down, and attention for four-hour games has also dipped. The College Football Playoff ratings went up this past season… but part of that could just be the teams/fan bases involved. In an environment where most leagues package up condensed highlights, there’s a ton of entertainment options, and you can stream any number of different games at once, I’m tempted to doubt the value of live sports content is doubling on this next rights deal go-around — for anyone, not just college sports.

Rich deals have been signed recently (see the PGA and NFL negotiations since December that provided big windfalls), and rich deals will still be signed in the future. It just seems like before we assume that college sports is just going to keep cashing bigger and bigger checks, we take a look at what’s happening around it.

The increase in value can’t last forever, costs to run football programs are going up and the appetite for live sports is about to be put to its greatest test yet when games finally come back. Will casual audiences be as willing to pay after seeing they may not “need” sports? Are bigger sports fans willing to pay increasing premiums to have access to the content required to follow their favorite teams each and every week?

For what it’s worth, I hope I’m wrong. I hope media companies are able to bounce back, live sports comes back just as strong as ever, and the rights deals they command continue to fuel sports I love watching. But we barely understand this “new normal” yet, nevermind what happens next. At least right now, it seems presumptuous to think everyone’s going to just go back to the way we used to do business, and not take a hard look at what parts of TV are working — versus not.