Larry Scott

Recent changes at ESPN have caused a bit of a ripple effect around the sports world, including college football’s power conferences. The moment ESPN cut loose a good number of staff from the payroll in a money-saving move, questions about what would happen with the planned ACC Network had to be answered and concerns put to ease. Those plans are still reportedly on track from ESPN, but as conferences near the end of their existing media rights packages, the focus is shifting to securing the most lucrative deal possible in a market that continues to evolve. And that may involve non-traditional tech players bidding for games.

Viewers are moving away from traditional cable and satellite packages and moving toward live streaming through a variety of devices. Fans are watching more content on their mobile devices every day, which means more bidders are getting in on the fun. Games are streaming on Twitter, and Yahoo, and other digital outlets. More are likely to become a reality, with Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and others exploring the world of live streaming packages. For an innovative power conference looking to take some risks with the intent of finding a gold mine, the next round of media rights negotiations could be the most interesting and competitive yet.

“I really see a time when there are going to be a lot of players in the marketplace and there are going to be a lot of distribution methods,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated. “The unknown is how much is it all worth? I don’t think there’s anyone who legitimately knows what it’s going to be worth.”

Nobody does, because it is impossible to predict. The value of media rights deals have gone up over the years, but the idea of a bursting bubble leaves some commissioners cautious, especially after seeing the cost-saving moves from ESPN recently.

“I don’t think anyone knows exactly what the landscape will look like or what health ESPN or Fox will have in 2023 when we’re negotiating or how significant a player a Twitter or a Facebook will be,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott (seen above) said to Staples. “My sense is that there will be more competition. There will be more and different types of players. And there will still be very limited and highly valuable sports properties.”

Scott’s perspective is a unique one, as he was brought in as the commissioner of the Pac-10 (later renamed the Pac-12 under his watch) to oversee the launch of the Pac-12 Networks. The conference hoped its Pac-12 Network would rival those of the Big Ten and SEC, but it continues to be a work in progress for the Pac-12.

“There’s anxiety in our conference, but I think it’s more about the future,” Scott said. “We’re reading about the success of the SEC Network and the Big Ten’s new TV deal. There’s fear of might we fall behind in the future. But sitting here today, we’re in great shape.”

Even though the Big Ten and SEC sit in the most comfortable luxury chairs in the media rights game, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is not naive to the fact the times are changing.“There’s no doubt we’re in a disruptive environment,” Delany said. “There definitely is money and interest on the sideline. It really hasn’t emerged very much yet, but I’m sure that there is—whether it’s Apple or Google or Hulu or any number of companies.”

Companies such as Hulu and Amazon could be real players for some media rights exclusivity, as both benefit by having exclusive content to provide streaming customers. If Hulu is the only place to watch the Pac-12 Network, for example, then Hulu would expect to pick up a significant customer base on the west coast. And Amazon’s already dove into streaming the NFL, as have the likes of Twitter, Yahoo and Verizon. The competition is no longer just between ESPN, CBS, FOX and NBC. The rivalries are brewing between online outlets like Twitter and Facebook, Amazon and Hulu and Netflix. And that is just the tipping point.

Things are about to heat up in the media rights negotiation cycle. And even if these players don’t wind up coming up with winning bids, their interest may still push traditional networks to bid higher themselves. In the end, the power conferences will likely still be insanely rich regardless of the path they choose.

[Sports Illustrated]

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.

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