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Big 12 Conference Makes Tactical Gamble with ESPN+

Just a few years ago college sports was all about the college sports network. The Big Ten Network. The Pac-12 Networks. The SEC Network. The ACC Network debuts this month.

But the Big 12 resisted. The conference did so, in part, because their TV agreement allowed their 10 members to own their “third-tier” rights, which are basically each school’s Olympic sports, plus baseball, softball and some basketball games thrown in. The other reason, the conference noted, was that it wasn’t sure what the “next thing” was in sports broadcasting. At the time, streaming was a thing for TV shows, but few had figured out how to stream sports. 

Well, EVERYONE has now. I cut the cord just after last football season and moved to DirectTV’s streaming service. I get everything I need, including sports. 

Nielsen has plenty of data to back it up. One of Nielsen’s most recent total audience reports, taken from the third quarter of 2018, noted that internet-connected devices in U.S. households had gone up five percent (from 63 percent to 68 percent) year over year. During the same time frame, the U.S. saw a six percent increase in the number of households with at least one subscription streaming service. 

 

Meanwhile, cable continued to take a hit, as it lost four percent of its users during same year-over-year time frame. 

Those cable losses are impacting ESPN. According to Disney’s annual report for 2018 (Disney owns ESPN), the network lost two million subscribers in a 12-month period. One story noted that ESPN had lost nearly 12 million viewers from 2013-18

That makes the marriage between the Big 12 and ESPN+ interesting. The Big 12 has avoided the cable route purposefully, looking for “the next big thing.” ESPN+ — the network’s streaming service — may be it. ESPN reported in February that the fledgling streaming service — which requires a $4.99 per month fee — had passed two million subscribers in less than a year.

Fine, I’ll do the math for you. Two million subscribers times $4.99 per month equals nearly $10 million per month. 

The Big 12 sensed the changing landscape and took the plunge earlier this year, partnering with ESPN+ to provide Big 12 programming through that it will call Big 12 Now.

This move coincided with the Big 12 Championship game’s move from Fox Sports to ESPN/ABC, starting this December. It was a natural choice for the conference. ESPN already had primary broadcasting agreements with ESPN for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. The move to ESPN+ only expands the arrangement. 

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby talked about the landscape of sports television changing so rapidly that no one could really predict what’s next.

“What I can tell you is we are not going to see an environment where cable television is going to see more subscribers,” Bowlsby said at Big 12 media days. “I don’t think it’s going away. It continues to be the manner in which most Americans received their sports viewing. But the migration is extraordinary and the past year our conference has been very much involved with our partners at ESPN to dramatically move forward in the area of how we deliver our product to our fans.”

But what exactly does this mean for Big 12 fans?

Well, first off, the team-centric networks that were created with the third-tier rights will likely be de-emphasized as a revenue generator for each school over time. For instance, this year Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State move into the ESPN+ arrangement. Every Big 12 school has its own production arm to handle broadcasts for its own streaming networks and to provide content to regional outlets, whether it’s branded that way or not. ESPN won’t devote massive resources to broadcasting these sports. It’s more likely each school will provide 50 games for ESPN+ to broadcast and the school’s on-site television arms will handle the productions. This would be no different than what the schools are doing it now — they’re just providing it to a new brand. So whatever ESPN doesn’t want will likely remain with the respective schools for their in-house networks. 

 

For the 2020-21 school year Iowa State, TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia will join Big 12 Now. While Big 12 Now won’t be a “network” in the traditional sense, there will be a landing page for Big 12 Now within ESPN+ that might as well make it a network. With the agreement Big 12 Now gets:

  • An exclusive football game from each team, along with broadcast rights to spring games;
  • Up to 75 men’s basketball games per season that aren’t broadcast as part of ESPN’s traditional services;
  • Women’s basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, wrestling and volleyball, among others (sports that typically don’t get play on ESPN until they reach the postseason).
  • And select Big 12 championship games. 

This is part of the reason Bowlsby trumpeted that Big 12 Now would have 800 live events during the school year. When you consider each school will fork over 50 games or events per year, it adds up to 800. 

But, wait, doesn’t the Big 12 have 10 teams? Why, yes, it does. As always, Texas and Oklahoma get special treatment. Texas still has its Longhorn Network agreement, while Oklahoma has agreements with local broadcasters as well. So for now they’ll appear in games where they’re the road team. 

The production values for these in-house networks will be ESPN-level. This isn’t public access TV. If you’ve ever seen the studios for Oklahoma, which are situated in Memorial Stadium, then you know. Two years ago TCU broadcast one of its basketball games using its production facilities through Facebook Live. I reviewed that game for this site. The production values were high-quality for streaming (and basically a test to see what these in-house production arms could do on a streaming service). What ESPN and the partner schools will have to work through are things like replays. That night Facebook Live used TCU’s in-house feed and replays overlapped with game action. Those things can be ironed out. But it should be a quality experience for viewers across the board. 

It will also open up a wide range of sports for Big 12 viewers. Before this agreement you would have needed a subscription to every Big 12 program’s broadcasting network. Now, you can fire up ESPN+ and watch just about every regular-season game of note, whether you’re in Morgantown or Austin. The fee isn’t obtrusive, either. It’s less than Netflix at $4.99 per month. Plus, original content is coming. SEC Storied is one of the best documentary series you’re likely to find on ESPN. One of the first “original” shows on the new Big 12 Now will be an 18-part documentary series on Les Miles’ first season at Kansas. If nothing else, that will be entertaining. 

But will it bring in Big 12 viewers? That’s the real question. But, at least for now, the move reflects the league’s desire years ago to be nimble when it came to their broadcast rights. And in that respect the Big 12 succeeded.

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