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ESPN’s College Football TV Rights Consolidation Play

As discussed in this space last week, Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC has major TV implications — most notably for the two biggest players in college football TV rights, ESPN and FOX.

The short version for those not following the ongoing conference realignment drama: Texas and Oklahoma are two of the biggest brand names in college sports, and joining the SEC (the most powerful conference in college sports) is an immediate boost to both the teams’ TV revenues as well as how much ESPN is going to have to pay the SEC annually. After signing on the dotted line for a 10-year, $3 billion deal back in December for ESPN to be the exclusive home of the SEC, this move will bring the two parties right back to the negotiating table.

However, the question now becomes how much of a net expense ESPN really incurs here. Because while they’re paying the SEC more for Texas and Oklahoma, this also drives down the cost of its portion of the Big 12 deal (which it splits with FOX through 2025). No matter which replacements the Big 12 finds — if the conference winds up being able to tack on new teams at all here — it now seems unlikely that ESPN will be a major factor in retaining those rights when negotiations come back around… unless FOX isn’t interested in the rights at all without those two marquee brands, at which point, ESPN would be negotiating against itself for one, but also getting Big 12 rights at a steep discount.

This, of course, assumes the Big 12 exists by the time we get to 2025 and the next rights negotiation. Because if not, ESPN winds up paying even less overall than it does now for the SEC and Big 12. Those rights would be worth a combined $500 million annually if you combine the SEC’s new deal and the Big 12’s current one, but potentially something in the ballpark of $400-$450 million if it’s just the SEC with the Longhorns and Sooners.

Bigger still than those savings is the fact that it’s taking some of FOX’s most valuable college football inventory away, consolidating it under the ESPN banner — which includes all of the ESPN networks, ABC, the SEC Network and the Longhorn Network, which is likely to be folded into SEC Network content once Texas joins the league, saving ESPN even more money in the process.

If there’s no Big 12, FOX is left with half of the Big Ten and half of the Pac-12, while ESPN owns the rights to the other half of both, plus all of the ACC’s rights and rights for the AAC as well. On that front, should the Big 12 dissolve, a member like Kansas could head to the Big Ten and force minimal adjustments for ESPN from an outlay standpoint. Same goes for West Virginia, if the school joins the ACC. Remaining Big 12 schools don’t have the same sensible landing spots those schools have, and could wind up being absorbed as part of the AAC… resulting in a revised rights deal that’s an increase for the AAC from its $83 million or so per year, but not by a ton. So realistically, ESPN’s still winning out there, too.

The key here is that they’re writing fewer checks for less overall dollars, but you could argue they’re gaining upgraded inventory in the process.

As the exclusive home of two of the country’s top three conferences, plus the AAC and a partial home for the Big Ten and Pac-12, ESPN goes back to the dynamic that was the case just a few years ago. It owns nearly all of the premium inventory around college football. And if you want to watch college football during a given fall weekend, you’re likely tuning into an ESPN-affiliated network to do so.

While ESPN’s let go of some rights in recent years (including a reduced investment in Major League Baseball), it’s also spent more time and money building a moat around its college sports rights empire, growing the amount of content on ESPN+, jumping back into bed with the NHL, and increasing its presence with the NFL. As linear TV subscribers jump ship, ESPN’s certainly felt the brunt of that transition as the potential albatross of cable packages. Yet, it also understands that people still watch major sporting events and popular content.

It’s why they made the moves above, and why they’ll likely pay up when the NBA media rights return to the open market (with ESPN and Turner getting a first crack at things) in a couple years. And it’s why they may even consider trying to either force FOX to overpay for Big Ten and Pac-12 rights, or just take those from the rival network too.

Admittedly, that’s more likely when it comes to the Pac-12 than the Big Ten. The former needs a liferaft in terms of TV rights with a conference network no one can watch and no clear path to expansion if this next round of conference realignment turns to chaos. ESPN could fix a lot of those issues, but only if it has the room on Saturdays to do so, and it may not when the dust settles here.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten is one of sports rights’ only remaining sure things. The league was an early mover on its own conference network in a partnership with FOX, and currently makes more per year ($440 million) in its combined deal with ESPN and FOX than the SEC is projected to under the new arrangement with ESPN pre-Texas/Oklahoma. The FOX tie means it’s likely to stay affiliated in some way, and if anything, the other half of the media rights could go to a player like NBC — if Notre Dame winds up joining the ACC full-time, yanking those rights away from NBC — or CBS, which loses lion’s share of its college football inventory when the SEC departs full-time for ESPN. FOX could also just make its bed with the Big Ten. But again, they’ll be paying quite a bit to do so.

So whether ESPN’s involved in the Texas/Oklahoma move or not, it does appear that they’ll benefit greatly from it happening. And better still for ESPN, FOX is all the worse for the move too, with reverberations lasting for years as both battle it out for college football fans’ attention.