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Having gambled on better media pot, Big East facing deal of its lifetime

by | CBSSports.com College Football Insider
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NBC, which televises Notre Dame games, could be attracted to the Big East for several reasons. (US Presswire)  
NBC, which televises Notre Dame games, could be attracted to the Big East for several reasons. (US Presswire)  

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- On Sept. 1, the Big East will enter perhaps the most important 60-day stretch in the conference's history.

On that day, it's allowed to begin renegotiations with ESPN for the league's media rights deal.

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Just last spring, the Big East turned down a nine-year deal from ESPN worth $1.17 billion, an average of $130 million annually, which would have earned full members $13.8 million a year and non-football members $2.43 million.

That deal at the time was comparable to the ACC's media rights deal ($155 million annually). But Big East presidents gambled they would get a better deal, and now a year later they're holding a pair of twos. That decision by the presidents was one of several questionable calls they made that have contributed to the league's recent instability and defection of four schools.

So how much revenue will the new deal earn the league? It depends on who you ask.

"In one sense it's very difficult to compare and contrast these sorts of things because every conference is a little bit different," Big East interim commissioner Joe Bailey said. "This is a very different conference from other conferences."

The Big East's footprint -- just picture a map of the United States -- includes 32 million households and 27 percent of the television markets. The next closest is the Pac-12 with 15 million households.

Obviously, there actually have to be people inside those households interested in watching the Big East, but it is an impressive number of potential eyeballs.

Neil Pilson, a media consultant and former president of CBS Sports, told the New York Times he believes the Big East could surpass the $130 million-per-year deal rejected last year.

But industry sources told CBSSports.com they expect the Big East to get much less -- maybe as low as $50 million annually -- because of the loss of West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and TCU. And then there's the possibility the Big East could lose two more of its biggest names -- most likely Louisville, Connecticut or Rutgers -- if the Big 12 expands and the ACC has to replace two schools.

"ESPN has mitigated any potential programming loss, the Big East has lost value and by the time they negotiate their deal, about $8 billion will have been spent on other college football deals [since last spring]," a source said. "It's not the most ideal scenario, especially when there is other college football programming available of similar quality."

If ESPN and the Big East don't make a deal in that 60-day window, then the league is expected to negotiate with NBC/Comcast and Fox. What could make things complicated is the Big East's basketball and football contracts expire at different times: basketball is through the 2012-13 academic year; the football deal is through 2013-14.

The Big East's current six-year media rights deal is worth $3.125 million annually for each of the eight full members and $1.5 million annually for each of the eight non-football members. The eight football members split $13 million, while the 16 basketball members split $24 million.

The new deal will be divvied up even more: the football portion between 10 full members and four football-only members and the basketball revenue by 18 members.

Based on a future 14-member football league (in 2015, the Big East adds Navy as a football-only member and has plans to add a 14th school, preferably Air Force or BYU) and an 18-member basketball league, the media rights deal would be worth the following amounts per school annually:

A $130 million deal per year (as speculated by Pilson) would be worth $8.66 million each for the 10 full members; $6.5 million each for the four football-only members (Boise State, San Diego State, Navy and TBA); and $2.16 million each for the eight non-football members.

A $60 million deal per year (as speculated by CBSSports.com's sources, slightly better than their low end) would be worth $4 million each for the 10 full members; $3 million each to the four football-only members; and $1 million each to the eight non-football members.

If the Big East's deal is the lower amount, it certainly would stun based on recent projections from Boise State, San Diego State and Memphis officials.

Boise State and San Diego State officials have previously projected the Big East's media rights between $6 million and $10 million for each school. Those numbers would dwarf the $1.5 million each school received in the Mountain West, but if the Broncos and Aztecs only earn $4 million, is that worth flying cross country for football games and moving their Olympic sports to other leagues?

Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson told a Memphis radio station his school could earn as much as $13 million annually from the media rights deal, when in reality it might only be half or a third of that amount.

The Big East has been optimistic it can cash in on the current flurry of gigantic media rights deals recently inked by the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12, but one industry source warns that "the bubble may have burst." In other words, the Big East might not necessarily hit the jackpot.

Another source also is not optimistic.

"All of the schools they added are coming from the Mountain West [$11.7 million annually] and Conference USA [$16 million annually], so how will they now suddenly be worth more in the Big East?" the source said. "Name me two or three Big East Conference games of national interest."

The Big East can deliver inventory, especially for a network desperate to add college sports programming. I won't say their name, but their initials are N-B-C. How would a Big East game of the week leading into or following Notre Dame's game sound?

NBC Sports Network is attracted to the Big East for several reasons. It's the network's last shot at college football and would increase their distribution and rights fees. NBC Sports Network currently receives 30 cents per month per subscriber compared to ESPN's $4.69.

By adding the Big East to its lineup, NBC Sports Network could increase how much it charges per subscriber.

But ESPN president John Skipper, who was not speaking specifically about the Big East's media rights deal, told reporters "we have more viewers in an average minute on ESPN mobile then they have on all of NBC Sports Network."

Will the Big East go for more money or more exposure if faced with that decision?

The Big East's best hopes are that ESPN and NBC/Comcast get in a bidding war to drive the price up. But industry sources said network executives wouldn't go beyond "the 60s [million dollars]."

Is it possible those executives are minimizing the Big East's value as part of a multimillion-dollar poker game or that's the actual worth of the league? The Big East is getting ready to find out.

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