Blockbuster TV Rights Deal Shows Big Ten Prominence Is Here to Stay

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterJune 22, 2016

Jul 28, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany addresses the media during the Big Ten football media day at Hilton Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

It started five years ago with the hiring of Urban Meyer, continued with Ohio State ending the conference's 12-year national title drought in 2014 and was only furthered when Jim Harbaugh returned to his alma mater to become college football's most-talked-about head coach.

But if there was ever a sign that the Big Ten has staying power in its recent resurgence, it came earlier this week with the revelation that ESPN had purchased the second half of the league's media rights package, completing a massive offseason of negotiations for the conference.

Earlier this year, Fox Sports had purchased the first half, signing on for an average of $240 million per year over the course of six years, per SportsBusiness Daily's John Ourand. With ESPN now on board for $190 per year and CBS Sports laying claim to a $10 million annual basketball deal, the total of the Big Ten's offseason media rights haul finds itself at an astonishing $2.64 billion.

When its new deals kick in next fall, the conference's annual media rights payout will have tripled.

Ourand hailed the Big Ten's negotiations as a "clear win" for the league, and the numbers speak for themselves. If you divide the $444 million the conference will pull in annually across its 14 schools, each will receive a yearly $31.7 million—and that's before adding in additional revenue from the Big Ten Network, bowl games or appearances in the College Football Playoff.

Tony Ding/Associated Press

To put that in perspective, each of the 14 schools in the Southeastern Conference received $32.7 million in total revenue from their league in 2015, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com. The Big Ten, meanwhile, paid out $32.4 million to its 11 longstanding members—relative newcomers Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers were on different payout plans—a figure that will only increase with the league's new rights deals.

In essence, the SEC's status as college football's wealthiest conference could soon be in question. With its new deals lasting six years, the Big Ten won't just be the last, but also the next of the Power Five conferences in college football to renegotiate its media rights, which could mean that another financial boost isn't too far off in the future.

Per Ourand:

"Not only did the conference pick up a significant increase in a down market, but the relatively short length of the deal means the Big Ten will be the first major college conference to renegotiate a new deal in what it hopes will be a more robust marketplace."

With Ohio State and Michigan serving as two of the sport's most prominent programs, particularly on the recruiting trail, Michigan State enjoying a steady stream of success—including two of the past three conference titles—and schools like Nebraska, Illinois, Maryland and Penn State hoping to make strides under relatively new head coaches, it's not crazy to think the Big Ten's latest deal could ultimately pale in comparison to its next one, due in 2022.

Plus, with a new influx of revenue, no school in the conference will have an excuse for not investing in its program, although it's not like the league has been lacking financially in recent years either.

The importance of ESPN's addition to the Big Ten's media rights package isn't completely financially based either. While Fox Sports contributing $240 million annually over six years provides an obvious monetary boost for the conference, it's no secret there's a big benefit for the Big Ten to keep its product on ESPN, which is currently in more homes than any other sports cable network.

According to WhatYouPayForSports.com, ESPN is present in 89,465,000 homes while its sister station ESPN2 lays claim to 89,326,000 homes, each of which is more than the 83,209,000 and 51,537,000 homes Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 claim, respectively. Add in ESPNU's 70,776,000 homes and its clear which entity possesses the most viewing opportunities, which matters from an exposure and in turn, recruiting standpoint.

"We're interested in having great partners that have great platforms who are interested in marketing and promotion," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany at the Big Ten spring meetings, per Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free-Press. "The market will decide what happens. It's a new day, and we've approached it that way."

Per SportsBusiness Journal, the conference coaches agreed. When the Big Ten's struck its initial deal with Fox in April, Ourand reported that, "some of the conference’s powerful basketball coaches were not shy about voicing their displeasure, believing that the lack of ESPN coverage would hurt their recruiting efforts."

Given the aggressive recruiting approaches of coaches like Meyer and Harbaugh, it's not hard to imagine the football coaches agreed.

Paul Beaty/Associated Press

Only in the end, the Big Ten wound up with the best of both worlds. Not only will the league see its schedule spread across the most-watched platforms in sports, but a newfound surplus of money will keep the conference more than healthy financially, with an opportunity to renegotiate in six short years.

On the field, the Big Ten is thriving, with appearances in the College Football Playoff from two teams in the past two years, with a sleeping giant in Ann Arbor appearing to just be waking. Off the field, it's not doing too shabby either, as the financial pieces fall into place for the conference to continue to sustain its newfound success for the next six years and most likely, beyond.

In either case, this much is clear: the Big Ten is rich.

And at this point, the rich only appear to be getting richer in college football.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports' composite.


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