SEC has better football, but Big Ten will have a lot more TV money

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

By now, we are used to the idea that college sports conferences are not bound by geography. It’s no longer so weird to see Maryland and Rutgers in the Big Ten, Missouri in the SEC or West Virginia as part of the Big 12. The next round of expansions will see Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC, and USC and UCLA going to the Big Ten. Some people don’t like it, but everyone accepts it.

That should make it easier to understand why the Big Ten, a lesser football conference than the SEC, is about to sign a much richer media-rights contract. SEC country has better football. Big Ten country has more eyeballs, with many more to come once the Los Angeles teams join in 2024.

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Sports Business Journal first reported that the Big Ten soon will sign a media-rights deal worth nearly $1.5 billion annually. Starting in 2024, the league’s Saturday football games would be televised by Fox (noon), CBS (afternoon) and NBC (primetime). That’s the same year that the new-look SEC will begin its ABC/ESPN deal that totals about $700 million per year.

The Big Ten is set to make more money from TV than the SEC. That means more cash for the people stealing value from the athletes: coaches, administrators, and league executives. More revenue doesn’t mean the Big Ten ever will surpass the SEC as a football league. Players make programs, and the best recruits still are concentrated in the South and California (it’s been a long time USC leveraged that advantage to become a national title contender and even longer for UCLA).

There’s also a risk that that, by leaving ESPN, Big Ten football will fall behind the SEC. The Big Ten’s games will be among several entertainment options on Fox, CBS and NBC. At ESPN, college football is the entertainment. There’s plenty of NFL talk, and partner ABC still has “Monday Night Football,” but college football is the main offering of ESPN’s substantial reach.

Whether you love or hate ESPN as a college sports fan, you must have an opinion because ESPN leaves you little choice. The brand is everywhere you look. It’s not just that ESPN runs its own football bowl games and conference basketball tournaments. It’s not only ESPN’s stake in the SEC and ACC networks, or its media-rights deals with the six College Football Playoff bowls and the national championship game.

ESPN has become omnipresent because of all the hype and promotion surrounding its properties. It’s a multimedia, multi-personality, multi-platform blitz. ESPN’s financial incentives to promote its own content means that you can bet the Big Ten won’t be boosted as much once its games leave ESPN’s airwaves.

That’s the advantage the SEC will have by being partnered with ESPN. But I think the league also will lose something when it leaves CBS after the 2023 season. The SEC’s Saturday afternoon games are the closest thing there is to appointment TV in college sports.

The number of channels has exploded, there are games nearly every night and streaming options seem endless. But you know you’ll see a premier SEC football game if you tune it to CBS at 3:30 p.m. on fall Saturdays. The CBS production always feels like a big game even when the matchups aren’t the best. You’re probably hearing that catchy theme song and Brad Nessler’s voice in your head now.

I’m sure the SEC’s number crunchers determined that, financially, whatever is lost from leaving CBS is surpassed by the gains of aligning exclusively with ESPN. The Big Ten’s money people made the same conclusion with their decision to leave ESPN out of the next media-rights deal. The Big Ten already is the best basketball league. Maybe the league can boost its football brand when it takes over that CBS afternoon slot.

Once their new media-rights deals kick in, both leagues will widen their revenue advantage over the rest of college football. Formally, the programs in those conferences still will be part of the Power Five. In practice, it will be the SEC and Big Ten on one level, the rest of the Power Five on a second tier and the Group of Five schools left behind. That’s already the case, but the new TV money will widen the gap between levels.

It’s the latest signal that a college football super conference is inevitable. The winds have been shifting that direction for years, with media-rights money as the main driver.

The NCAA used to negotiate TV deals for all member schools. In the 1970s, the football programs from most of the major conferences and prominent independents formed an alliance to negotiate their own TV contracts. The two parties went to court and the NCAA eventually lost, freeing schools and conferences to make their own TV deals (unfortunately, that’s also the case in which the Supreme Court affirmed the NCAA’s right to exploit athletes in the name of “amateurism”).

That’s when the TV money spigot opened. Eventually, it became a waterfall. The major football programs are drenched in money while the rest lap up the puddles formed below. The Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff eras accelerated that trend. And now the SEC and Big Ten are taking things to another level with their new media deals.

The Big Ten has a financial advantage over the SEC because of its much larger media markets and alumni bases. That was the logic behind the league adding Rutgers and Maryland in 2014. Rutgers and Maryland are not good football programs. They are good for the Big Ten’s business.

The league strengthened its TV negotiation position with the country’s Nos. 1 (New York) and 9 (Washington, D.C.) media markets, per Nielsen. The Big Ten also includes Chicago (No. 3), Detroit (No. 15) and Cleveland (No. 19). Soon it will add Los Angeles (No. 2). A fraction of the population in those cities may watch Big Ten games on TV, but those small percentages include a lot of people.

That’s why the Big Ten is about to sign media-rights contracts that are worth about twice as much as the SEC’s deals. It means more in the SEC. It pays more to be part of the Big Ten.