As I had lunch at a local eatery on Sunday afternoon, the television behind the bar showed a final Frisbee match on ESPN 2.
No diners paid any attention to the disc, but with over four decades of brand familiarity, the ESPN family remains the default choice for sports programming.
For 40 years, ESPN coverage has covered the Big Ten. The network offered visibility and prosperity to the conference and helped consolidate B1G into a great deal.
While ESPN and fellow Disney-owned properties will become exclusive homes for the SEC in 2024, the Big Ten’s relationship with the “worldwide leader” is sunset.
Broadcast partners of The Big Ten, which will begin in 2023-24, will include Fox, CBS and NBC, the Sports Business Journal reported Tuesday in a megadeal, which will cut TV deals from other conventions — even Would dwarf even the mighty SEC. By purchasing its product across the three networks, the Big Ten is expected to generate upwards of $1 billion annually in media rights.
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But the television wealth of the Big Ten will come at a price that cannot be measured exclusively in dollars and cents. How much will leaving ESPN detract from the Big Ten conversation?
ESPN plays no small role in shaping the American sports agenda through its television and streaming programming and through ESPN.com and its apps.
Check out ESPN’s website, and you’ll find coverage of the day’s top sports headlines. Pull up foxsports.com and you’ll find, well, not much.
Many fans believe that ESPN carried out a deep-state operation to promote SEC football and ACC basketball. It’s probably less frightening than that. Simply, they enjoy the convention headlines that accompany the media rights deal with ESPN. The network treated Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement tour like Beatlemania.
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Think ESPN and its popular Saturday morning “college gameday” don’t affect the Heisman Trophy race? Tennessee, would like a word about Peyton Manning’s runner-up finish to Charles Woodson.
Many sports channels have tried to compete with ESPN. Fox Sports 1 experienced the most success, while the NBC Sports network has come and gone, but ESPN remains the standard-bearer. In March, ESPN posted its best first quarter rating in five years.
Even as eyes shifted from traditional TV to streaming, ESPN got a jumpstart on the competition thanks to the ESPN-Plus streaming service it launched in 2018.
ESPN Getting oxygen is a boost, and a lack of it can prove troublesome.
ESPN left the NHL after the 2004 playoffs, and NBC and its affiliates became the center of hockey in the US; ESPN treated the game as the Tidleywinks. Unless you were a dedicated puck head, hockey probably fell off your radar. The NHL returned to ESPN last season and saw a rise in ratings.
But college football is not hockey, and the Big Ten is the second-best football conference and a consistent force in basketball. Giving it the NHL cold shoulder would leave a notable void in ESPN’s coverage. Consider, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, college football’s biggest media figure, is an Ohio State graduate. Nonetheless, expect ESPN’s hype meter to move toward the SEC.
Even after the launch of the Big Ten Network in 2007 (with Fox as the majority stakeholder), ESPN and ABC remained a home to many marquee Big Ten conflicts. In 2021, ABC or ESPN televised eight games featuring top Big Ten brands Michigan or Ohio State.
But some traditions are now sacred in college sports, and television partnerships are only as strong as the dollar behind them.
As the Big Ten prepares to leave ABC/ESPN, the SEC draws closer to parting ways with CBS.
A TV partner with the SEC since 1996, “SEC on CBS” will end in 2023. The decisive deal between the SEC and CBS proved to be a financial deal for the network, but the SEC enjoyed a rise to prominence by airing on CBS.
The production quality of CBS’s 3:30 p.m. ET broadcast was powerful. It felt like watching “Monday Night Football” on a Saturday afternoon.
Now, the Big Ten is positioned for a day of NFL-like coverage, jumping in the dial from NBC to CBS to Fox, with the Fox-backed Big Ten Network providing support.
The SEC chose to go full-on ESPN, and you can expect ESPN to be fully committed to pumping up the convention. The network became a valuable participant in the rollout of the SEC Network’s conference in 2014.
The SEC’s deal with ESPN provides value beyond a single figure on a ledger. But even as ESPN helps ensure that the SEC keeps a hold of the spotlight, the convention can be the envy of the Big Ten’s media rights war chest.
Blake Topmyer is an SEC columnist for the USA Today Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer, If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription Which will allow you to access all of this.