Major sports leagues earn BILLIONS of dollars every year. That money comes directly from YOUR cable bill.

How ESPN’s Control Over College Football Hinders Its Journalistic Efforts

Flickr photo by James WillamoorHow much control does ESPN have over college football in the USA? According to the New York Times, the cable network practically runs the sport.

This Times article from last Saturday details ESPN’s absolute dominance over college football, with a heavy emphasis on how the network controls the master schedule for every major conference. ESPN has this much control because of the amount of money it pours into the colleges and conferences that put on the games. Here’s a quick overview of how much money ESPN will pay for college football for the 2013-14 season:

Conference / OrganizationESPN Rights Paymentn(2013-14 Season)
TOTAL$1.332 billion
Bowl Championship Series$610 million
ACC$240 million
American Athletic$18 million
Big Ten$100 million
Big 12$110 million
Mountain West$6 million
Pac-12$98 million
SEC$150 million

To be fair, much of the conference rights also include men’s basketball and various “non-revenue” sports, but it’s a small percentage of college athletic departments that value basketball over football, and nearly all of the conference deals listed above were struck with football in mind. Compare the $87.1 million per game ESPN will pay for the seven-game College Football Playoff, which starts next season, to the $11.3 million per game that CBS and Turner pay for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The American obsession with college football spans decades, and its unwavering popularity makes it the straw that stirs the drink in college sports today. 

So where does all this money come from? If you have ESPN on your TV dial, it comes from you. ESPN and ESPN2 combined account for roughly $6.08 of your monthly TV bill. Based on current subscriber numbers, which put ESPN in 97,985,000 homes and establishments, you will contribute $13.59 to college football this season through your TV bills — whether you watch college football or not. And that’s just through ESPN. Clearly, college football isn’t called a “revenue sport” for nothing. It is the revenue sport.

What was most interesting about the Times article, though, was the role that pro football played in helping to elevate college football to this level. The article glossed over this, but it’s worth highlighting this point:

Like most cable networks, ESPN draws revenue from two sources: advertising and subscriber fees. When it struck a deal with the (National Football League) in the late 1990s to carry a full season of games, that revenue stream became an ever-quickening cascade of cash. N.F.L. games, probably the most valuable commodity in televised sports, became the leverage that allowed ESPN to demand more money from cable companies, with fees nearly quadrupling in one seven-year period.

That deal coincided with the explosion of fantasy football. CBS launched the first online fantasy football game in 1997, and within three years, every major sports web site, including ESPN’s, had its own NFL fantasy game. That fueled demand for NFL games, which ESPN had with its 8-year, $4.8 billion deal for Sunday Night Football that began in 1998. Having those games allowed ESPN to demand more money from carriers, who in turn passed the costs on to their customers. ESPN then used that money to take virtual control over college football — which continues to be the NFL’s de facto player development system.

Fifteen years later, you have two multibillion-dollar corporations who rely heavily on college football to maintain their dominance in the American sporting landscape. ESPN needs college football for programming, and the NFL needs a steady stream of well-trained new players every season.

So when NFL Roger Goodell reportedly put pressure on ESPN to disassociate itself from a PBS documentary about football and concussions, there was far more at work than just the network’s relationship with the league. The NFL struck an 8-year, $15.2 billion deal with ESPN for Monday Night Football, which takes effect starting next season. Goodell is in no position to rip up that contract and move those games to NFL Network. Carriers would balk at increasing the network’s subscriber fee by more than a dime per month, and Monday Night Football games on ESPN don’t earn more than $200 million in advertising per season. NFL owners, who aren’t exactly keen on making less money, would probably fire Goodell on the spot for making such a move.

So why would ESPN cave to NFL demands in this case? As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote, it not about those 17 Monday night NFL games, but the 450 college football games ESPN airs every season.

The powers-that-be in Bristol, who by virtue of their ownership by Disney ultimately answer to a board of directors and in turn to shareholders, need to stay the course that has made ESPN worth a whopping $40 billion.

Take away 17 regular-season NFL games, and subscription fees in excess of $5 per month per home will drop. Take away 450 college football games, and the monthly charge plummets.

ESPN has built its empire in large part on college football.  If college football goes away, or if at a minimum becomes diminished, that hurts ESPN a lot more than the NFL ever could.

Thus, if ESPN continues to report on the medical studies that link football to brain injuries, what happens to the player pool for college football? If young athletes are turned away from football in droves, what happens to fan interest in the game? If fan interest decreases, what happens to the ratings for those 450 games ESPN televises every season — and the billion-plus-per-year that ESPN will pay for the TV rights to college football through the rest of this decade and much of the next?

ESPN might control college football today, but that control comes at the cost of its journalistic efforts. Disney and its shareholders aren’t about to let ESPN risk losing billions in subscriber fees and advertising money by reporting on the modern gridiron game’s inherent health risks. ESPN’s reliance on college football for TV programming practically prevents it from publicizing this story — which suits the NFL just fine, thanks.

In the meantime, remember this: 97,985,000 homes pay for ESPN, but only 17,216,000 of them watched the BCS National Championship Game last January. It was the second most-watched program in cable television history, and more than 80.7 million people paid for it without bothering to watch it. Yes, it would be incorrect to assume that those 80.7 million who didn’t watch the game aren’t football fans. Still, perhaps it’s time for people to take a closer look at what it is they’re paying for.

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