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Why TV Networks, Not Unions, Will Determine The Future Of College Sports

ESPN College Football LogoDoes anyone really believe that the the unionization efforts of Northwestern football players will somehow destroy college sports?

Sure, the NCAA wants you to believe that, but the truth is that college football and basketball are not truly threatened by college athletes standing up for their rights — only the “shamateurism” (to borrow a term from rugby union) promoted by the NCAA and its archaic rule book.

Why will college sports survive? Because ESPN is not about to let college sports die.

Any discussion about the future of college football and basketball needs to start including the 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room. ESPN has largely built its empire on college sports. Its first TV deal in 1979 was with the NCAA, and today, the network pours more than $1.3 billion into college sports programming every year.

All of this money, of course, comes from directly from your cable TV bill. If you get ESPN, roughly $1.14 comes directly out of your cable bill every month to pay for ESPN’s college sports programming. Here’s where all that money goes:

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

We don’t really know how ESPN feels about reform in college sports — the fact that the network is not stifling Jay Bilas might provide a hint — but we do know this: ESPN dedicates tens of thousands of hours of television programming to college sports. This includes discussion of the games as well as the games themselves. It also includes an entire channel, ESPNU, dedicated to college sports, and a forthcoming channel dedicated solely to one conference. SEC Network has the potential to be a $600 million-per-year enterprise. (To say nothing of Longhorn Network, which is dedicated to one school.)

Do you really think this $40 billion multimedia Goliath is about to let the stubbornness of NCAA president Mark Emmert interfere with its TV schedule? Really?

Everybody knows television stirs this pot. Conference realignment was largely directed by ESPN and other TV networks. A large part of the reason college athletes are calling for reform revolves around the fact that the NCAA and major conferences collect billions in television money while young athletes are prohibited from profiting in any way from their efforts and sometimes lack money to eat dinner on Sunday nights. When those protests against the NCAA’s shamateurism start to interfere with the games themselves, it won’t be the athletes that ESPN pursues to get its TV schedule back on track; it’ll be the athletic directors and conference commissioners who have been cashing the checks.

Perhaps the only question at this point is how much more influence ESPN will have over the future of college sports. Reform is necessary, but the scope of the reform remains in question. This is where reform collides with the politics of television.

CBS teamed up with another cable giant, Turner Broadcasting, to secure the rights to the NCAA Tournament for $10.8 billion over 14 years. That contract runs through 2024. ESPN, meanwhile, currently partners with Turner Sports on the $930 million-per-year NBA TV deal, which lasts through the 2015-16 season.

If ESPN and Turner plan to remain partners on the next NBA TV deal, ESPN might do well to keep good relations with Turner. That means keeping the NCAA Tournament intact and encouraging incremental reforms within college sports that address the growing schism between major and mid-major schools. After all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing the George Masons and Mercers and Stephen F. Austins of the world put one over on the big boys?

But… what if Fox Sports outbids Turner on the next NBA TV contract?

Fox does have a history of outbidding other networks for major TV deals, starting with its seminal 1993 deal with the NFL that took the NFC away from CBS and quickly improved the stature of the Fox broadcast network. Fox Sports also has lots of working partnerships with ESPN; they currently share the Big 12 and Pac-12 TV deals and plan to share the next Major League Soccer TV deal. Some have even suggested that ESPN helped Fox bring Fox Sports 1 into existence as a hedge against Comcast-owned NBC.

(Let’s not kid ourselves into believing ESPN and Fox Sports 1 are competitors, either. They aren’t. Any cable subscriber who gets Fox Sports 1 very likely gets between 2 and 4 ESPN channels, too, and all of those channels collect subscriber fees, no matter which one you watch. In what other industry can you still get 24 times as much money from a customer who chooses your competitor’s product over your own?)

So if Fox manages to take the NBA away from Turner, all bets are off. ESPN would no longer have to preserve the NCAA Tournament for the sake of good relations with its NBA partner. It could instead go directly to the major conferences and convince them to ditch the NCAA and its shamateurism and create a new organization that still makes big money from televised games, but allows athletes share some of the wealth. We wouldn’t ridicule Syracuse for selling Tyler Ennis jerseys anymore, because Tyler Ennis would be allowed to get a piece of that action.

The games go on, the fans keep watching (because that’s what fans do), and everybody comes out ahead — except, of course, for Mark Emmert.

Incidentally, Kentucky head basketball coach Jim Calipari, suggested in his new book that this future is coming.

Calipari—a frequent critic of the NCAA who has had previous wins vacated for player-eligibility violations—outlines a 13-point plan for improving the experience of big-time college athletes in a chapter called “At War? Common Sense Versus the NCAA.” Calipari accuses the NCAA of selectively enforcing its own rules and hints at a future when college sports are governed by “super-conferences” instead of the NCAA. “I believe the tide is turning,” he writes. “The NCAA will soon have to reform itself or it will not remain the dominant force in college athletics.”

Even Calipari must know, though, that the NCAA is not the most dominant force in college athletics anymore — ESPN is. The NCAA’s continuing desire to fight reform is on a collision course with ESPN’s need for television programming. When that collision finally happens, it won’t be the NCAA that survives it.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the next NBA TV deal. It could have a much bigger impact on the future of college sports than most people realize.

6 Responses to Why TV Networks, Not Unions, Will Determine The Future Of College Sports

    • ESPN is pouring far more money into the conferences than the NCAA. If the NCAA collapses, ESPN will simply get the major conference presidents together, create a new organization — likely with far fewer of the NCAA’s amateurism rules — and the games will continue. For a year or two, college football and basketball might look like American Division II soccer did in 2010, but it’ll all get sorted out soon enough.

      “The end of college sports” is not the same as “the end of college sports AS WE KNOW IT.” College football isn’t going away any time soon. There’s too much financial and emotional investment in these games for them to just disappear.


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