Oklahoma president David Boren’s proclamation that “the boat had sailed” on a traditional Big 12 network at last week’s meetings in Texas shouldn’t contribute to the murkiness lingering over the conference.
There are plenty of other reasons the Big 12’s future faces doubt. Spurning conventional means in launching a conference network, however, could realistically becoming a saving grace.
With ESPN and the Southeastern Conference combining to make hundreds of millions on the SEC Network, and FOX attempting to repair its place in the market by paying astronomical sums to the Big Ten, the commonly held belief dictates both leagues will be in the high nine digits above their Power Five brethren.
While the Big Ten and SEC both stand to make considerably more money in the short-term, the long-term may not be as easily projected as some might have you believe.
College football’s offseason has an interesting way of turning the game’s pundits into financial wizards. Future projections tend to focus on the next deal, particularly in the case of the Big Ten-FOX partnership, which is a relatively short six years.
The prevailing attitude, as CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd writes, suggests FOX will have more revenue freed up to pay into a longer-term, more lucrative deal in 2022.
Such mindset takes root, at least in part, in the idea market value can only increase. This is also the mindset that fuels economically crippling bubble bursts in other sectors, like technology or housing.
TV deals between conferences won’t shake up the entire economic landscape, but they the bubble’s inevitable burst will greatly impact the entirety of college football. We’re already seeing some of the air escape.
Harry Minium of The Virginian-Pilot reported Tuesday Conference USA stands to lose more than $12 million in part due to new television contracts next season.
FOX — the network dumping a quarter-billion into the Big Ten — cut corners on expenses broadcasting C-USA football last year, opting to have broadcasters call games from studios in Los Angeles rather than on site. The viewer experience felt more akin to listening to a bad, local high school call on the radio than watching Div. I college football.
TV networks aren’t generating the kind of revenue they once did, and market trends suggest declining rights fees are imminent. Smaller leagues like C-USA will sadly bear a greater share of the burden, but the heavyweights won’t go unscathed. The astronomic contracts crafted under an old model simply aren’t sustainable.
The Big 12 has a unique opportunity to get out ahead of the changing marketplace with Big 12 Network.
While Boren and Co. put the kibosh on talk of a traditional platform, a non-traditional means of distribution should still be on the table. That means an in-house product, owned exclusively by the Big 12 and its partners, distributed directly to its fans.
WWE Network provides the template. So long as you pay a subscription and have a streaming device, consumers can access the network without the challenges posed by third-party distribution.
SEC Network faced little of these challenges as a result of its ESPN partnership. Disney Corp. responded to some providers not willing to take on a new challenge by simply converting the preexisting ESPN Classic channels into SEC Network.
The University of Texas wouldn’t accept a similar proposition with its ESPN-owned property. And, frankly, the Longhorn Network doesn’t reach nearly enough cable and satellite subscribers to warrant the move.
A directly distributed Big 12 Network appeases Texas, while giving the league as a whole a platform not beholden to the fluctuation of the cable TV market.
Expansion remains a central piece to the long-term health of the Big 12, despite no longer needing the regional footprint for TV distribution. Therein lies another benefit to a digital Big 12 Network.
Because TV market matters less, the Big 12 can focus on expanded with established, winning programs, and passionate fan bases who will pay for a monthly service.
Houston isn’t valuable under the current TV distribution model, because H-Town’s already in the Big 12 footprint. Add the Cougars purely for football purposes, however, and their exciting style of play and place in the game’s landscape entices more viewers to tune into big games.
Another set of Cougars, BYU, offers a passionate fan base virtually certain to pay for a streaming network.
Direct, digital distribution presents challenges. Immediate figures won’t compete with the eye-popping numbers the SEC and Big Ten report. There’s also start-up costs incurred. The Big 12 isn’t as ready to flip a broadcast operation as the Pac-12, which owns 100 percent of its network and has the equipment, staff and hardware to launch its own direct-distributed product immediately if necessary.
That’s exactly what the Pac-12 should do, but that’s a topic for another column.
In the big picture, a completely rethought Big 12 Network could be the conference’s salvation.