|Jim Delany could steer how future BCS champions will earn their trophies. (Getty Images)|
CHICAGO -- Jim Delany says it wasn't an ultimatum.
Ultimatums don't usually work in the gentlemanly climate of college athletics. But this one was as close as it comes. Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, was seeking an increase in rights fees from ESPN for his conference.
The conflict: The deal still had three years to run in 2004 and ESPN executive Mark Shapiro wasn't about to budge.
"In the case of Mark, we have fun going back and forth, I'm sure we would laugh about it today -- if we were together," Delany said.
You may have noticed they aren't. Laughing or together. ESPN and the Big Ten are still partners but that's not the news these days. Shapiro has moved on to become CEO of Dick Clark Productions. If anything, Delany and his conference are at the height of their powers heading into this week's annual BCS meetings in Hollywood, Fla.
The Big Ten Network that grew out of those "negotiations" is the industry standard.
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The BTN -- as it now prefers to be called -- will turn 5 in August. Only a toddler -- with all the muscle in the world. The BTN was the first cable start-up to have 30 million subscribers within its first 30 days. It was the first conference-centric network. Its programs have been nominated for Sports Emmys. Profitable within two years, the success of the BTN is what everyone else is chasing.
That helps make the Big Ten and Delany among the biggest of dogs in the room when the 11 FBS commissioners meet this week.
The idea is for those commissioners to come out of a meeting room sometime in the next couple of months hand-in-hand announcing a new postseason model beginning in 2014. The reality is that there are many turf wars to be fought before a consensus is reached.
The most lucrative turf belongs to the SEC and Big Ten. The two most significant pieces of news in the current reshaping of the BCS have Big Ten-SEC overtones. In February, the Big Ten sources said it was "kicking around" the idea of a four-team playoff with semifinals played on campus sites. Earlier this month, BCS executive director Bill Hancock's memo detailed a three-semifinal model that basically protected the Rose Bowl's interests.
In a rare display of candor regarding the postseason talks, SEC commissioner Mike Slive said, "It's not one of my favorites."
Meanwhile, after expanding to Texas A&M and Missouri, the SEC has reopened its contracts with ESPN and CBS. The idea is to monetize those additions, perhaps with a network of its own.
Delany is proud to say that at the end of its current BTN agreement with partner Fox, the Big Ten could get $4 billion to $5 billion in rights fees and profits in 15 years. That's an average of $15 million per school per year through 2027 in network money alone.
In 2011, the SEC distributed about $18.3 million per school. The Big Ten number is slightly higher. The Pac-12's new deal will pay schools an average of $20.8 million annually. That's where the haggling begins. The SEC believes it is worth more.
The Big Ten will be worth more a lot in 2016 when its primary deal with ESPN expires. That 10-year, $1 billion deal accounted for about 40 football and 60 basketball games. The difference was another 35 or so football games and another 100 basketball games went to the BTN.
Would that have happened had Shapiro negotiated a new deal?
"Probably not," Delany said from the BTN offices. "We're a pretty conservative organization. ... What we try to do is take advantage of opportunities. We've been progressive in certain areas. Our nature is to be conservative because we're so old, historic."
In essence, the SEC deal is in danger of being lapped only three years after its latest deal was finalized. Bundling third-tier rights as the foundation for an SEC network -- basically one nonconference game from each SEC school -- could be worth $130 million to $140 million to the conference. However, two industry sources told CBSSports.com that exclusivity language in the ESPN deal would prevent the launching of an altogether separate network by BTN.
"It's simply not correct to assume they [SEC] can do it," one of those sources said. "Unless they convince ESPN, they can't."
Another source within the SEC disputed that and said a separate network was still possible.
It's all about inventory. There are more SEC games now available to televise. If not, why expand? It's also about competition. It's a big reason why the Big Ten took in Nebraska. It's why Conference USA and the Mountain West are deciding whether to merge. It's why the ACC invited Syracuse and Pittsburgh to join beginning as early as 2013.
That's some lucrative SEC inventory, y'all, if it ever got on the open market. Twelve teams recently grew to 14, with the addition of the Tigers and the Aggies. By reopening the contract talks, the SEC is basically asking, "What are we worth to you, now?"
Turns out, a lot -- in the SEC's opinion.
SEC schools control one of those "third-tier" nonconference games per season. Depending on individual agreements, that game may be televised on a pay-per-view basis in-state or by a regional network such as the Sunshine Network in Florida.
Population in the Sun Belt is booming. There are a few million folks in Florida who will likely pay a few cents extra per month to watch the Gators play Bowling Green. The addition of Missouri means 2.5 million more cable homes. Let's say a potential SEC Network gets 20 cents per subscriber per month (a very conservative estimate). That's an extra $6 million per year, from the nation's 18th largest state alone.
Now consider that the state of Texas holds 8 million cable homes.
"We feel adding Texas A&M and Missouri has strengthened us in lots of ways," Slive said, "but it certainly strengthened us in television."
ESPN and CBS will argue, logically, that their networks are already seen in Texas and Missouri. The option, if the numbers cannot be agreed upon, is arbitration. That has never happened at this level. There's so much money at stake that long-time partners always seem to figure it out rather than screw it up.
ESPN could agree to house the SEC "network" itself. (It's already branded that way on ESPN.) Maybe shuffle games between its multiple platforms and rebrand the SEC package.
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With all those games and money flying around how, then, do the Sun Belt, Conference USA, MAC, etc., exist on even terms inside that room this week in Hollywood? Whatever the SEC and Big Ten desire affects everyone.
The SEC probably doesn't favor the campus-site semifinals because at some point, their teams would have to travel north in December. The Big Ten favors doing anything to protect its traditional Pac-12-Big Ten matchup in the Rose Bowl. But does the Rose Bowl want to ever be a national semifinal?
The SEC and Big Ten are followed by the most rabid fan bases. They have the most tradition and history. While the SEC has one on the field (six consecutive BCS titles), the Big Ten's earning power has increased to record levels.
If you believe those postseason talks about equal voices, you're nuts. The Sun Belt has ties to three bowls. Delany is proud to relate a story about the reach and power of the Big Ten. A friend recently sent him a picture of the Ohio State-Michigan game being shown on a giant outdoor screen. In Hong Kong.
"We thought we had contributed significantly to the growth of ESPN2 and we expected to be paid," Delany said of 2004. "We weren't. Our choice was either to accept the offer or to explore. [Shapiro] said, 'Take it. It might not be there next year.' I said that might not be a good place for us to be."
If there is no BTN, there is perhaps no reason to expand (to Nebraska). No expansion and perhaps conference realignment is put on hold nationally.
We'll never know. Delany eventually went to his presidents of his conservative league, and got approval for something revolutionary. This revolution has been televised to more and more viewers while other pretenders have struggled.
The Mtn -- the Mountain West's stand-alone network -- recently folded. The much-discussed Longhorn Network is having problems finding cable companies that will carry it. The Pac-12 Network will launch this fall with lots of optimism, but no significant numbers yet to digest.
The successful launch of a similar network might never occur again on such a scale.
Now it's basically up to the SEC to decide. After expanding, it is in a similar position as the Big Ten in 2004.
The two biggest conferences with the most clout in the best markets are going to decide a piece of the modern college football television war. The trickle-down is how that postseason looks in 2014.
"It was a very painful birth," Delany said of the BTN. "Our ADs, presidents and our fans stayed together. The reality was -- to break out from where we were, it was necessary to do this."