The Big 12 has its own network … well, sorta …
Conference officials said Wednesday that a new expanded media rights fees deal with ESPN gets the league as close to having its own network outlet as possible. The Big 12 is the only Power Five league without its own stand-alone network.
After Fox declined its option, ESPN took over the rights to three future Big 12 football championship games. It also acquired the rights to hundreds of contests across all sports, which will be moved to ESPN+, the cable network's growing pay streaming platform.
"It's going to be a huge addition for recruiting, a huge thing for anybody that wants more," commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
The deal is essentially a significant bridge deal that runs concurrent with the existing rights agreement, which ends after the 2024-25 academic year. The expanded deal means an average of additional $22 million per year for the Big 12 for the remaining six years of its current agreement, according to Sports Business Journal. Bowlsby said that number was not accurate but did not elaborate.
Big 12 schools currently each get $40.1 million annually in rights fees. Even a modest increase in those fees would further entrench the league in third place behind the Big Ten and SEC in that category.
When it was suggested the deal at least gives the Big 12 a "quasi" network, Bowlsby said, "It certainly does."
Whatever the case, a conference that was in turmoil a few years ago solidified itself once again. The deal centers around getting those championship games on ABC or ESPN in 2019, 2021 and 2023. Previously, Fox and ESPN had shared televising those games in alternating years.
Eight of the 10 schools are ceding their eights on a "rolling basis" over the next few years. Texas (Longhorn Network) and Oklahoma (Fox Sports Southwest) have existing long-term agreements for their third-tier rights. Those schools will be shown as road teams in the package.
ESPN gets the rights to eight of the 10 "member-retained" football games in the conference. Those are typically nonconference games controlled by the school. Last year, Oklahoma showed its Army game on a pay-per-view basis. Texas controls its rights to those games under the Longhorn Network.
The deal will include one football game on the streaming platform as well as "any" spring football games and all regular-season and exhibition men's basketball games not distributed on ESPN's linear cable channel. That could include up to 75 games per year.
Other minor sports will also be included.
Bowlsby said the attraction of expanding the ESPN deal is that "it is already up and running. There aren't any clearance issues. It's available, worldwide, 24/7, unlike what we encountered when the Big Ten Network rolled out."
He added: "We'll have original programming. We could do our own '30 for 30' type stuff, 'E:60' stuff. We could short features. We could do anything we want to, really."
Bowlsby added that ESPN will have the option of moving games between the big network and ESPN+ depending on their importance. He also stressed the importance of digital in the future.
"ESPN is the best bet for technology and management for the future," Bowlsby said. "I think digital is clearly the direction the world is going. Mobile consumption on the NCAA Tournament this year, it just gets bigger and bigger all the time."
"NCAA March Madness Live" -- the live streaming suite of products managed by Turner Sports in partnership with CBS and the NCAA -- was available on 17 platforms this year.
ESPN+ was launched in April 2018. In February, Disney CEO Bob Iger reported subscribers had passed the two million mark. Fans subscribe to ESPN+ for $4.99 a month or $44.99 per year. They can cancel at any time.
As for the future, Bowlsby would not speculate on which way his conference might go beyond 2025. But an enhanced ESPN partnership is not the worst thing in the world.
"It will be the perfect alignment going forward," Bowlsby said. "If you can tell me how much the world is going to change in 2024-25, I can answer that for you. Anybody who tells you with any certainty what technology will look like in the next three years I think it's delusional. I just don't think anyone can forecast it."