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SEC Football Rights Deal Shows Limits Of Disney-Fox, ViacomCBS Mergers

Disney bet big and early for rights to some of the highest-rated college football games on television, and looks likely to come out a big winner. While that’s great news for the Southeastern Conference – whose 14 member schools (including my alma mater, Mizzou) will see their annual payments increase by six times – it also says quite a lot about two recent media mega-mergers and the future of broadcasting.

The final deal hasn’t yet been officially announced, but incumbent CBS reportedly blanched at matching the $350 million to $400 million per year in the Disney bid for ABC and ESPN, which already runs a separate cable sports network for the conference.

Under the current deal that runs through 2023, CBS is paying the conference just $55 million per year for what’s been a hugely attractive and highly rated game of the week featuring schools that routinely have top 10 rankings and are competing for the national championship.

After Disney came in with a huge pre-emptive offer, CBS reportedly countered with a reported $300 million per year, but didn’t want to make the payments retroactive to the remaining four years of its current, extremely sweet deal.

It’s understandable why CBS didn’t want to spend a lot more money any sooner than it had to, but that may prove counterproductive in the long run. TV rights for major leagues and sports such as the SEC’s football will become only more valuable to advertisers seeking large, tune-in audiences who are willing to watch their messages. With cord-cutting rampant and new video delivery platforms fracturing audience attention, live sports are one of the few options left.

And CBS already had received a windfall when the league added the University of Missouri and Texas A&M to the 12 schools from Louisiana to Florida to Kentucky to South Carolina that it already had.

That 2012 deal added two substantial Missouri TV markets, St. Louis (No. 21 nationally) and Kansas City (31), and gave the conference a foothold in the Midwest backyards of the Big Ten and Big 12, well outside its Deep South bastions. A&M already has one of college sports’ wealthiest athletic departments and brought along its home state’s many big TV markets, including Dallas-Fort Worth (No. 5), Houston (10), San Antonio (37), El Paso (98) and even Austin (49), hometown of A&M’s erstwhile conference arch-rival the University of Texas.

In the years since, many of the conference’s teams have routinely ranked in the top 10 and vied for the national championship, led by the University of Alabama, which won in 2015 and 2017. Regular-season games on CBS have drawn NFL-level ratings, attracting as many as 16 million viewers for matchups like this year’s various games between Georgia, Florida, LSU, Auburn and Alabama, all of which were in the top 10 for at least part of the season.

Disney’s big bet says a lot about how it’s willing to spend big dollars to lock up valuable content. That starts, most obviously, with its purchase of much of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox in 2018 for about $71.3 billion. That deal not only included Fox’s film operations and library but also Fox’s 30-percent share of Hulu.

Disney’s big content bets continued with its buyout of Comcast’s share of Hulu, and the launch of streaming services ESPN+ and Disney+ over the past year.

The deal also unites SEC sports coverage under one corporate family, with potential benefits for the SEC Network That Disney launched with the league in 2014. That cable network carries many of the league’s other sports, including national powers in men’s and women’s basketball (Kentucky and Mississippi State respectively) as well as baseball, softball, track and wrestling.

Those kinds of major investments are possible when you’re the size of Disney, which only seems to be growing more omnipresent, as Disney+ grabs 22 million subscribers in its first month of operations (not to mention a merchandise-selling meme monster like The Mandolorian’s Baby Yoda). The company’s film studio also is on track for an all-time box office record this year with worldwide grosses closing in on $11 billion.

Basically, we knew Disney was going to be huge after the Fox deal, but I’m pretty sure no one, and especially no Department of Justice antitrust regulator, realized it would be this big, this fast.

That will continue to have implications for everyone from theater chains trying to negotiate over revenue splits to cable operators trying to trim their programming costs to other companies looking to grab a share of sports rights.

All of which brings us to ViacomCBS. Shari Redstone pushed for the re-merger, over four crazy and drama-filled years, of her family’s two media companies. The deal, which closed just a few weeks ago, was supposed create a company with enough heft to compete against not just Disney, but Netflix, AT&T, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google in the reshaped Hollywood.

Instead, ViacomCBS lost out on long-term rights to one of its live-TV jewels at what will be a crucial time. Yes, the company still has the SEC rights for four more years. But it’ll be interesting to see how CBS handles promotions for an asset that it soon won’t control.

And it begs the bigger question: can even the merged ViacomCBS compete with the beasts now prowling Hollywood? As it was, Wall Street investors and analysts were already less than impressed with the merger’s outcome. Shares are down 21 percent, or more than $11 a share, from their highs this summer, though that at least represents an improvement over the mid-fall swoon to about $35 a share just as the deal was closing.

I’ve admired the smart, digitally focused acquisitions that ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish engineered in the couple of years before the merger, including Pluto.TV, Awesomeness, Vidcon, and WHOSAY, and an investment in Pocket.Watch. Just last week, ViacomCBS announced it would buy a 49-percent stake in Miramax’s admirable film library from beIN Media Group.

By happenstance, that deal will cost ViacomCBS what it called a “total investment of $375 million” over the next five years. That’s pretty much what a year of the SEC would have costs CBS.

Instead, VIAC’s Paramount Pictures gets access to more than 700 titles, including four Best Picture Oscar winners, strengthening an aging and modest-sized library and creating new remake and distribution opportunities.

That certainly has some value, but one can’t help wondering if a bunch of well regarded but older films will have the same impact on ViacomCBS’ bottom line as a regular string of attractive live events involving the biggest teams in the biggest conference and the biggest sport in college.

The news release announcing the beIN deal said the two companies also “will explore other strategic partnership opportunities across content production and distribution, live events and recreation globally.”

Let’s hope for ViacomCBS’ long-term sake that includes some of the global soccer and other TV rights that beIN’s sports division also controls. Size matters more than ever, and this SEC football negotiation just showed why.