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Conference-Only College Football Season Could Have Numerous TV Effects

As potential college football kickoffs get closer, conferences are starting to make decisions around the fall schedule and how to protect players, coaches and campuses from spreading COVID-19 by traveling to games.

For the Ivy League, that meant cancelling fall sports all together, with the possibility of revisiting in spring. The Patriot League (which is in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision like the Ivy League) has already put early-season games in doubt, and could make the same decision in the near future to just cancel fall sports, too.

For the larger Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences that command millions in annual TV rights fees and own their own networks, the decision to cancel is one they’re actively trying to avoid, especially given projected financial losses already from a (likely) lack of fans in seats this season. The Big Ten was first to announce they’ll opt for conference games only this year, cutting the season to nine games (from 12, initially).

One report indicates that the ACC may not be far behind, dropping those schedules from 12 to eight games. One would expect that the other FBS conferences (there are 10 total) follow suit shortly. The cancellation of non-conference games has numerous effects for the teams themselves, clearly. But also television contracts and rights:

1. Reduced inventory

Removing three or four games from 123 schools’ (total schools in the 10 FBS leagues, minus seven independents) could mean around 200-250 games are cancelled. Using data from iSpot.tv, the Washington Post’s Ben Strauss noted last week just how much college football inventory means to networks like CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC and ABC. However, where removing conference games would really hurt is for local regional sports networks (RSNs), beIN Sports, and digital partners like Facebook, Twitter and FloSports, which primarily wind up broadcasting less competitive non-conference games.

2. How do broadcast partners prioritize remaining games?

Across its family of networks and digital properties, ESPN programs out hundreds of games per week for FBS and FCS teams. That number would now not only be cut considerably, but it potentially tiers out college football broadcasts even more to put a greater spotlight on the top conferences and teams in the country.

Travel issues for leagues could also mean limitations on when games can be held. In the past, ESPN and other networks have been able to scatter contests from Tuesday through Saturday each week, only pausing to avoid NFL broadcasts on Sunday and Monday. By doing so, a lot of smaller teams — in leagues like the Mid-American Conference, Conference USA, Sun Belt and Mountain West Conference would get opportunities to be in the national spotlight. Who knows if the same would be able to happen this fall, or if they’d get relegated to ESPN streaming properties or ESPN+ (a separate paid streaming service where games appear as well).

Adding to the fears that smaller teams could get relegated to streaming is the fact that MLB, NBA and NHL games could all be going on as well — when they typically would not be airing at the same time. That valuable playoff inventory seems likely to push smaller teams off of linear and onto streaming.

There’s also the fact that sports-focused networks like ESPN, CBS Sports and Fox Sports 1 have been hard-up for compelling content in recent months given a lack of live games. That leaves less margin for error to take risks on games that “might” be interesting, and a greater demand on making sure all national broadcasts are ones that help make up revenue shortfalls from earlier this year.

3. Making college football even more regional

With over 100 years of conferences primarily based on geography, college football has always been pretty regionally-focused. However, national TV deals and non-conference games have helped make Saturdays a holiday for fans across the country, breaking down some regional barriers and allowing for a more nationally-focused viewing experience.

Without games against other leagues, though, it could go back to being a bit more segmented — a least temporarily. Along with a lack of non-conference matchups that intrigue fans on both coasts, more owned inventory means conference networks like those controlled by the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC become the home for more important games than normal. That’s good for them. It just might be bad for fans, though, if they’re out of market and their MVPD doesn’t carry it.

4. TV rights deal revamps

If losing the NCAA Tournament and its near-billion dollars in revenues wasn’t bad enough, knocking games off the schedule this year will mean less cash to go around for these athletic programs — many of which were already barely breaking even (at least according to the official books). TV revenues are a big part of what these schools take in for sports to help balance out the escalating amounts they have to pay to retain and attract player and coaching talent. A dent in those totals , even for SEC teams that make over $43 million from TV rights each season, could cause some problems that lead to further cuts to non-revenue sports. While far from the only example here, Stanford cut 11 different varsity sports this week already. And that’s before we know what happens to the college football season.

5. And what about the independents?

Complicating matters further for TV and the leagues themselves is what happens to the seven independent programs: Army, BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State, Notre Dame, UConn and UMass. Even if they just played one another, that only gets them to six games. Army likely prefers to play traditional rivals (and fellow service academies) Navy and Air Force, but how do those schools swing that with their own conference scheduling obligations in the American Athletic Conference and Mountain West, respectively?

For Notre Dame, in particular, playing the other independents is a non-starter since they avoid a conference affiliation by choice, and customize a schedule each year that sees them up against top opponents on national TV nearly every week. The Fighting Irish are partial members of the ACC, and as such play at least five ACC teams per season. But they’re still not “in” the league for football. And that means they’d be a non-conference game for the purposes of this development.

It seems unlikely that Notre Dame would be left out in the cold by the ACC — conference commissioner John Swofford has even mentioned as much — but that’s yet another hurdle to jump over before adjusted plans can be settled on. How that shakes out has effects for ESPN, the ACC Network (owned by ESPN) and Notre Dame’s broadcast partner NBC too, obviously. Where these games take place directly impacts who gets to air them on TV.

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This is far from resolved just yet. And even if this week tells us all 10 FBS conferences announce they’ll be going to a league play-only format this season, a lot can still change as COVID-19 cases continue to increase around the country. As has been the case for months now, TV will have to be nimble and adjust… and hope that football can come back (safely) in some form this fall.