Could ESPN and the Big Ten part ways?

Publish date:
09.29.12_MSU FOOTBALL VS OHIO STATE in East Lansing, MI on September 29, 2012.  Photo Credit: Matthew Mitchell/ MSU Athletic Communications

Credit: Matthew Mitchell/ MSU Athletic Communications

There's been an exodus of high-priced talent leaving ESPN for warmer climates and fatter checks lately. Bill Simmons. Jason Whitlock. Colin Cowherd. Mike Tirico. Skip Bayless.

The Big Ten?

Last week John Ourand and Michael Smith of the Sports Business Journal reported that the Big Ten is close to agreeing on a six-year contract with Fox Sports to televise half the conference's network/cable football and basketball rights, beginning in the fall of 2017, for the price of $250 million over six years.

ESPN presently owns the majority of the Big Ten's top-tier rights, save for a basketball package with CBS, and is expected to continue its longstanding relationship with the league.

But Ourand and Smith followed last week's piece with another today allowing for the possibility that ESPN and the Big Ten could part ways in the near future.

ESPN’s lowball bid is the most shocking part of these negotiations and could be the first sign that the network’s cost-cutting measures are starting to affect its rights deals. This isn’t like NASCAR or the Olympics — two properties that ESPN didn’t seek — which kept it from being aggressive in the bidding process. ESPN likes Big Ten programming for its reach and demographics, and its executives have not been shy about saying that they want to keep it. Though it hasn’t happened a lot, ESPN has been outbid before, like on the NCAA tournament, which went to CBS and Turner, and World Cup, which went to Fox.

The pair writes that ESPN's offer was "well below" Fox's for the first half of the Big Ten's rights, and that the Worldwide Leader could face competition for the second half. Fox Sports could get involved, giving the network total control of the Big Ten's media rights (the network owns 51 percent of BTN). But Ourand and Smith position a combined offer from CBS and TNT as ESPN's strongest threat moving forward:

- The SEC on CBS is already the highest-rated Saturday afternoon college football package. Nabbing the Big Ten could allow CBS to take Saturday nights away from ABC as well.

- TNT could show Big Ten football on Thursday nights throughout the fall, giving the network relevance beyond "Law & Order" re-runs before the NBA starts in November.

- TNT and CBS already partner to show the NCAA Tournament, so aligning with those two could put the Big Ten front and center throughout college basketball seasons.

That's not to say ESPN will disappear softly into the night. The network is cutting costs, sure, but it's not going out of business, and the Big Ten -- with its name-brand schools anchored in highly-populated Midwestern states and large fan bases spread across the country -- is still good business for ESPN. Namely, no one penetrates New York City, the White Whale of college football programming, like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State can.

ESPN offers significant value to the Big Ten as well. Tempting as it may seem to become CBS/Turner's official conference of college basketball, football still drives the bus in college sports and ESPN owns the sport's entire post-season. Ask the NHL how easy it is to get your highlights on SportsCenter when ESPN doesn't have a financial interest to support your product.

Beyond that, ESPN is well established as The Official Network of Sports. It's the default channel of every Buffalo Wild Wings and SportClips in America. It's the channel your mother-in-law flips to when she wants to watch the Super Bowl -- completely unaware ESPN has never broadcast the Super Bowl. Frustrating as the all-encompassing monolith can be, ESPN is where sports and non-sports fans go when they want to watch sports.

Ourand and Smith write:

Years ago, when the ACC flirted with leaving ESPN for Fox, some of the conference’s powerful basketball coaches were not shy about voicing their displeasure, believing that the lack of ESPN coverage would hurt their recruiting efforts. It’s too early to know how Big Ten coaches and athletic directors will react. But consider this: When school administrators asked at the recent league meetings if it’s possible for ESPN to get shut out, they were told, “Anything is possible.” One senior official at a Big Ten school said his peers “were scared to death” at the prospect of not having games on ESPN, which could eat into their recruiting.

Could the Big Ten leave ESPN entirely? Sure. Anything is possible. But is it likely? About as likely as the Big Ten passing on dueling nine-figure offers and dropping to Division III.