The Big 12’s spring meetings were so uneventful earlier this month that they were barely acknowledged and hardly covered. This, of course, is good news for the league, its solidarity and perhaps even its (immediate?) future. The only things I can remember reading — and I was out of pocket — had to do with the way the NFL Draft treated the Big 12.
I think you know how I feel about that, and if you wanted to know how West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons interpreted the general reaction to the draft, there’s this: “And the media wanted to write about the number of draft choices we had and what our schools did compared to Western Kentucky or what have you, and that became a story. Why did that become a story? ‘Well, there goes the Big 12 again, not producing.’ ”
But before the meetings and before the draft, ESPN parted ways with about 100 employees, and many of them are familiar names. I have many thoughts and opinions about this, but that ought not be anyone’s concern. The concern instead could go toward the future of television contracts. ESPN and Fox are the Big 12’s broadcast partners. Both companies were represented at the Big 12 meetings, and there were questions and there were affirmations of faith in the model … but nothing is guaranteed anymore.
If the Worldwide Leader in Sports is making maneuvers to cut costs and manage expenses, you have to look at those costs and expenses. Big sums are being paid to broadcast the NFL, NBA and MLB but also major college conferences. One of those things is not like the other, and if you think one of them can’t or won’t just go away, tell me about your favorite NHL story you saw or read on an ESPN platform lately.
The cuts last month pretty much wiped the NHL off the desk in Bristol, Connecticut. Is that bad or savvy? That’s not my point or my concern. The point and the concern is it — business — can happen. No longer does ESPN, or anyone, for that matter, have to cover or carry something because that’s the way it’s been. The fact something exists doesn’t mean it has to be on a network.
The trouble is college conferences need to be on networks. Actually, must be on networks. Television revenue is immense.
But let’s check the horizon. SEC Network. Longhorn Network. A forthcoming ACC network. All ESPN properties. You see where I’m going?
The SEC Network isn’t going anywhere. The Longhorn Network commenced on a 20-year contract in 2010. The ACC network … well, it’s supposed to debut in 2019, but it was announced last year and even then it didn’t seem like a shrewd idea. Yet it’s hard to see ESPN taking a knee on this one. These things all tie in with the Big 12 and its future television prospects. What if ESPN doesn’t want the Longhorn Network? How does Texas react? What if ESPN is committed to the ACC network? From where do operating expenses come?
This is not to say or predict the Big 12 will be without a television deal. That’s not going to happen. But are we absolutely positive the Big 12, which is not the same on the field or in the ratings as the SEC or Big Ten, is going to get another deal from the same people that lasts as long or pays a much? I can’t believe that.
But that also doesn’t mean the years, the money and the provider are not out there, even if they’re under a different sofa cushion.
(There’s also a large and perhaps boring conversation to be had, as well, about a fragmented market, copious amounts of channels and viewing options and an imperfect model for promotion, advertising and thus revenue and how — whoa, your eyes just rolled backward so hard.)
There are a lot of questions, and we’re right to suspect that if it’s not at the heart of future contract negotiations and/or conference alignment then it will be very close to there. The Big 12 is tracking this. Has been for a while now. But here’s something spooky from a story I wrote in 2015, which isn’t that long ago but may qualify as a decade ago when it comes to this topic.
“There are probably two schools of thought,” Allen said. “Are they going to be conservative in order to keep their costs down, or are they going to be aggressive to keep the programming they need to hold on to the subscribers that they have? A lot of people believe it’s probably going to be the latter.”
So, at the minimum, there’s a shift, and we can assume the Big 12’s braintrust has followed suit. The league’s executives were able to ask the television reps questions and air their concerns, and the television people were, as you could expect, confident. And for the time being, Lyons believes the feeling is the same on the other side of the table.
“They’re not pumping the brakes and having the alarms and red flags pop up,” Lyons said. “It’s just like anything else we do in the world. It’s changing. Viewership is changing. It’s a matter of how do you keep up with the viewership and how they want to watch events?”
A better question is whether the Big 12 or anyone else should be readying to rely exclusively on ESPN, Fox or any network in the future. It seems unreasonably risky, and it seems impossible to ignore the surge in the popularity of the streaming services, to say nothing of the quantity and quality and the possibilities they present.
The companies are giants with deep pockets, and they can throw big rocks to make a big splash. Amazon has pledged a reported $50 million for 10 Thursday-night NFL games. A year ago, Twitter paid $10 million.
College conferences have to track this, obsess over this and figure out how to get in early on this. The traditional over-the-air broadcast isn’t going away, but neither are streaming services. They accommodate fans, who long ago embraced the fact they don’t need to go to the game to watch it and have since enjoyed the freedom of knowing they don’t even have to watch it live or from a sofa.
That’s not changing, and conferences would be wise to figure out a way onto your devices.
“Nobody has the answer, but I do think there are new things and new ideas to explore,” Lyons said. “It may not all happen in one fell swoop, but does someone say, ‘Hey, let’s make a partnership deal with this company?’ Is the cable company that’s providing the network going to sit there and say, ‘We’re going to partner with these kind of companies now?’ Does Amazon or Hulu or Google go out on their own?’
“I think things are in the works, and we continue to go down that path with sports people, but I just don’t see people turning away from sports. They want it. How they’re going to receive it might change.”