Analyzing the New TV Deal
By Will Stewart,, 3/23/00

On Tuesday, the Big East and ABC issued a press release stating that beginning with the 2001 season, Big East football will be leaving CBS and will be broadcast by ABC/ESPN. To say that this is a godsend in many ways to Hokie fans everywhere is stating it mildly, but there are also some drawbacks.

First of all, let's bring you up to speed. At the end of the 2000 football season, the Big East Football Conference's contract with CBS will expire, and the conference will join ABC/ESPN. Here are some articles that give some details of the deal:

Big East Football Joins ABC Roster -- The Roanoke Times
Big East Conference Announces Football Agreement --
ABC New Broadcast Home of Big East Football -- Yahoo! Sports

The Big East's Original Deal

Back in the relatively early days of the Big East, in 1995, the league inked a five-year deal with CBS to televise its football games. At the time, CBS had lost the National Football League broadcast rights for the NFC to upstart Fox, and CBS was looking to fill the void with college football broadcasts. Towards that end, the Big Eye network signed deals with the SEC and the Big East.

According to the Virginia Tech football media guide, the original deal between the Big East, CBS, and ESPN was a five year deal that was to run from the 1996 season through the 2000 season. It stated that CBS was to show "up to" 12 Big East games per year, and that ESPN and ESPN2 were to carry "at least" 12 games.

According to a Roanoke Times archive article by Jack Bogaczyk, the financial terms of the original CBS deal were for $56.1 million over the five-year course of the contract. That's equal to about $7 million per team, or $1.4 million per year per team.

But that's not the way the money is distributed. Distribution of the funds occurs by CBS paying the league, which then distributes the money to its teams by paying "appearance fees" whenever the team is on TV. During 1999, for example, the Big East Conference paid teams an appearance fee of $200,000 for games on CBS, $175,000 for ESPN games and $50,000 for ESPN2 games (source: The Dominion Post, Aug. 20, 1999).

Games that are played on a "special date," such as a Thursday night or Friday game, are subject to higher payouts. As an example, WVU received $200,000 for its 1999 game against Pitt on ESPN because that Nov. 27 game was on a "special date." (That was a Saturday, but I assume it was "special" because of the fact that it was Thanksgiving weekend.)

What Happened Next

After embarking on the original deal back in 1996, CBS quickly learned that Big East games simply didn't draw the ratings that the SEC games did. Much of the blame for this can be placed on CBS, which did a terrible to non-existent job of showing and promoting some of its best football teams, instead relying on market size and tradition to carry its broadcasts.

For example, CBS missed a huge chance to build a national name for Virginia Tech, who won three Big East titles from 1995 to 1999 and became a media darling last season. If CBS had simply gotten behind Tech and promoted the Hokies, perhaps their Big East ratings would have been better. Instead, CBS ignored the fast-rising Hokies and chose instead, for example, to show many Boston College games, despite the fact that the Eagles were floundering.

The network began trimming the Big East games over the years and expanding the number of SEC games. CBS turned their attention away from the "up to 12 games" clause of the Big East contract and started working from the "at least" clause of the contract, which specified the minimum number of Big East games the network had to show.

That information is not easy to find, but I believe that the minimum number of Big East games that CBS was contractually obligated to show was 9 games. The preseason CBS schedule from last year shows 8 league games being televised. During the year, the network added the November 6th Tech/WVU game, and I'm not sure if it added any others. So it's possible that the league only had 9 games on CBS last year.

And many times, the games were not true Big East clashes, but instead, were games involving Big East teams and highly-rated out-of-conference media darlings like Penn State and Notre Dame. Out of the nine games referenced above, only six were true in-conference games. The others were games involving Penn State, Michigan, and Notre Dame against Big East teams.

But worst of all, and this is THE MOST intolerable aspect of the CBS contract, viewers of CBS games have to sit through a constant stream of promos for "King of Queens" and "Nash Bridges."

Finally Joining ABC ... Is That Good or Bad?

For years, Hokie fans have watched with jealousy the ABC/ESPN juggernaut and the coverage it gives to the Big 10, PAC-10, Big 12, and ACC, wishing that Virginia Tech and the Big East could be part of that synergistic marketing machine. Well starting in the year 2001, it's going to happen.

But is the new contract better? That's a complicated question to answer, and you can attack it on many levels. Certainly, when it comes down to simply promoting and producing a game, the ABC/ESPN machine beats the CBS jalopy, hands down. CBS, the "Welcome Home" network, is not really committed to sports broadcasting. ABC, on the other hand, wants to take over the college football world with Borg-like efficiency.

I used to think that in order to be part of the "in" crowd of hyped teams on ESPN that your conference had to have a contract with ABC/ESPN. Last year's year-long Tech love-fest on ESPN, which included not one but two visits from ESPN GameDay, proved me wrong there. Regardless of that, there's no denying that being part of the ABC/ESPN conglomerate is good for the hype.

But what about the money, and what about actually getting to SEE the games? What's going to happen there?

At first glance, the money appears to be better. As noted above, the old CBS contract paid the league $11.2 million per year. The new ABC/ESPN deal runs for seven years, from 2001-2007, and pays, according to The USA Today, $15 million per year. This seems to beat the old contract, but the figure quoted above for the old contract was only the CBS portion of it. The conference also inked a separate deal with ESPN/ESPN2 that added more money.

How much more? Well, according to an article in The Miami Herald, the new contract will pay the conference $200,000 per year less than the old one, so the ESPN/ESPN2 component of the old contract was worth about $4 million per year, for a total of $15.2 million per year. At a time when other conferences are signing longer, more lucrative deals, the fact that the Big East's deal is smaller is not a good thing, to say the least.

According to the Wednesday Roanoke Times, CBS did bid on the new contract, and the numbers were similar to what ABC/ESPN were offering (I doubt that), but the Big East athletic directors chose ABC. CBS Sports President Sean McManus was quoted in the USA Today article as saying, "With our commitment to the SEC for national games, we can't accommodate enough Big East games to justify a deal that makes sense." So I doubt that CBS was putting up anything more than a symbolic bid.

Tech athletic director Jim Weaver cited the improved scheduling that will result as a result of bringing the Big East broadcasts all under the same ABC/ESPN roof, where they can be coordinated, instead of CBS picking over the games and leaving the remnants to ABC/ESPN.

The Shrinking Number of Slots

Speaking of scheduling, this is where I get to invoke my old favorite saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."

The new contract specifies that ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 each will air at least five games annually. At a bare minimum, 15 Big East football games will be on TV: 5 on ABC, 5 on ESPN, and 5 on ESPN2. Doesn't sound like much, does it?

And you know the drill: media favorites like Miami, Syracuse, Boston College, and Tech (I still have a hard time believing what a darling Tech has become, at least for as long as Michael Vick is here) will get the lion's share of the coverage, and Pitt, Rutgers, Temple, and to some extent WVU won't show up on TV very much. The rich in the Big East will get richer when the league starts writing those appearance checks.

But the real problems will come when Big East games go head-to-head with Big 10 or ACC games for air time on ABC stations in the Mid-Atlantic region. It will start, for example, when an ABC affiliate in Washington DC bumps the Tech/WVU game in favor of Penn State/Northwestern, or the Lynchburg station decides to carry UVa/Clemson instead of Tech/Boston College. The phone calls will fly and the bloodletting will begin.

Yes, there are pay-per-view alternatives, but if you're like me, you don't have one of those set-top cable TV boxes, and you don't want one (my cable reception is already terrible enough without me sticking another opportunity for signal loss into my system). But maybe (gulp) I should have faith that ABC will somehow juggle the conflicts, but that's getting increasingly difficult with the addition of yet another conference to their already jam-packed lineup.

So sure, the new ABC contract has its plusses -- production quality and the Disney marketing machine -- but it has its downsides, too -- less money and possibly less exposure. I'm not really worried about Virginia Tech's exposure, but the "lesser" teams in the Big East are in danger of disappearing off the TV map. Only time will tell as to how that's going to play itself out.

And there's no doubt that in contract terms, the Big East is now solidly behind the five other major conferences, and is ahead of only Conference USA, the MAC, etc. On a macro level, that will probably help keep the Big East from being perceived as being a good football conference on par with the other major conferences. Money is one of the drivers here, as always, and the Big East isn't getting as much as other conferences are.

Resistance is Futile ... ABC Will Assimilate You

One more aspect of the new ABC/ESPN contract that isn't being discussed on the HokieCentral message board is that the "acquisition" of the Big East by ABC brings them one step closer to being completely in control of college football broadcasting.

ABC now owns the broadcast rights to all four of the BCS bowls and five of the six major conferences, with the SEC being the only exception. The SEC was recently signed to a huge multi-year contract by CBS, so they're not likely to transfer to ABC any time soon.

What's the implication? The implication is that the current BCS system is likely to stay in place, and a football playoff is less and less likely as the years go by. The Sugar Bowl, as noted earlier this year in News and Notes, grabbed huge ratings, and everyone seems to be happy with the current BCS setup, believing that it did indeed match the top two teams from last year.

There are trouble signs. Overall bowl attendance and TV ratings are down, and maybe those problems will serve to undermine the bowl system and one day replace it with a playoff system. But for now, the BCS system is going strong, and ABC's strategy at the moment seems to be towards creating a BCS championship game that is on par with the Super Bowl as a sporting event, and they're succeeding.

By acquiring broadcast rights to all but one of the major football conferences, ABC now almost completely controls the entire marketing and broadcast machinery of college football. It is both scary and exhilarating to watch them work.

For Tech football fans, it has been a long, torturous ride under the Big East's contract with CBS. But hang in there, folks. After next season, it's over. But a whole new set of problems could replace it.

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC, and he contributes a column when time permits.


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