Big East Financials: How Have TV Ratings Performed?

Editor’s Note: I’m not a TV Ratings expert, but as some Sports Information Directors will gladly point out, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once. So just wanted to put this right up front, take all of this “analysis” with as much salt as necessary to remind yourself that I’m just a schlub reading publicly available data.

But, and it’s an important but, those ShowBuzzDaily ratings dumps are the only filters of light we see into the black boxes known as TV viewership. And I think I’m in the 0.1% of nerds who have actually gone digging, so as inadequate as my credentials and expertise are, it beats a lot of what you might read on Twitter.

In Parts 1 and 2, we explored the Big East conference revenue and how that revenue gets distributed to the individual schools. One thing that kept coming up in both segments is what a crucial role FOX Sports’ media rights deal played in the conference’s bottom line, making up around 60% of all revenue since 2014. 

With that contract set to expire after the 2025 season, I felt it was time to evaluate the return FOX Sports was getting from the Big East content, as measured by viewers, to then get in position of gaming out what the conference’s media rights might be worth in 2026 and beyond.

2022 FS1 Performance

We won’t get the exact amount the Big East brought in this past season for a few years, but extrapolating 3.7% increases from 2018 to 2020 into 2022 we’d get to around $41 million (with that number potentially being significantly more due to the addition of UConn) in media revenue. 

To identify what kind of return the conference was providing off that investment I pulled all of the publicly available ratings and built a dashboard for them in a Data Studio to make it easy for everyone to play around with the data. I highly recommend checking it out because it makes a good companion for the rest of the post.

With the data all in one place, I then pulled up the 2014 numbers for a Big East vs Big East look over time, as well as the Big Ten 2022 numbers, as they play a pretty large role in FOX’s plans going forward.

First the bad news. Of the 125 Big East games broadcast on FS1 in the 2021-’22 season, only 33 of them topped 200K viewers. That may seem an arbitrary cutoff, but that’s what ShowBuzzDaily reports on, so we don’t have details on those that didn’t cross the Mendoza line. If we add in FOX broadcast to the equation that gets us to 55 of 149 telecasts above 200K, or 37% of the total.

This isn’t great, but not necessarily a huge surprise. In 2014, only 10 of 126 FOX or FS1 broadcasts topped 200K. Of course FS1 had just launched and there were only a handful of Pac12 and CUSA games to supplement a huge Big East slate. Still, going from 8% up to 37% is a significant increase.

Looking at just FS1 once more, and focusing on the games that topped 200K, this is a really striking visual of the growth the Big East has seen in terms of viewers.

Yes, the 2014 baseline is a REALLY low bar to clear. A small conference on a new channel without any national title contenders should do much worse than and established conference with an ingrained conference bolstered by a litany of top-25 teams as well as national powerhouses in Villanova and UConn. But it still wasn’t a given, so it’s good to both see and acknowledge.

And in case you were wondering, the lift didn’t come primarily from better nonconference slates, but from Big East play. In 2014, only 3 regular season conference games topped the 200K viewer mark. In 2022, that number went up to 16.

The top-rated league game in 2014 was 395K (Georgetown v St. John’s) while Villanova v UConn topped 415K this year.

Whether it’s quantity or quality, the Big East growth is impossible to dismiss.

FOX’s Emergence

One thing I hadn’t really internalized until I was going through the data was how much content was actually moving to the FOX broadcast channel.

Whereas in 2014 there were only 2 games including Big East teams on big FOX, that number shot up to 22 in 2022 and include an increase in viewers as well, from an average of 673K viewers to 734K viewers a game.

When you put all that together, the total, rather than average viewer, numbers explode by over 1110%.

So now even though we are missing 75 games from 2022, we see that total viewers this season on FOX and FS1 surpassed 25M, up 81% from 2014. And once more, that’s with us not having receipts for 3/4ths of the 2022 games shown on FS1.

From the league’s perspective, I’d imagine having more FOX games each year is a huge win. You get a bigger, more national, less die hard audience and get to boast that your teams regularly get a huge spotlight. From FOX’s perspective, you may be taking some of the most lucrative games off of FS1 that would have done well, but are tripling the size of the audience on average, meaning you can charge higher ad rates. It’s a win-win.

Enter the Big Ten

That was way too much optimism for my usual Eeyore self. Time to sprinkle in some perspective.

Although there is absolutely no way you can argue the Big East hasn’t delivered a much better return in Year 9 of the partnership compared to Year 1, the question at hand is whether the “better” in question is actually good. And I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to do that, so instead let’s just go over what we do know with certainty.

In 2017, FOX nabbed Tier-A rights of the Big Ten media package, meaning they purchased the best football content each week as well as the cream of the basketball crop for $240 Million a year (basically the equivalent of 6 years of the Big East). That went so well that FOX purchased 10% of the Big Ten Network, extended it’s initial Tier-A contract rights and is debating exactly how much of the remaining content to ingest.

And looking at just the basketball numbers, it’s not hard to see why.

Of the 30 Big Ten games broadcast on FS1 this season, 29 crossed the 200K viewer threshold we talked about on top. And they didn’t just cross it, they crushed it. Those 29 games accumulated 14.4M viewers, 58% more eyeballs than the Big East drew in 3 fewer games.

And this would be a good time to mention that the five Gavitt Game matchups between the Big Ten and Big East were all in the top-10 of the most watched regular season games for the Big East. The top rated Gavitt Game matchup (Indiana vs St. John’s, 395K) ranked 19th on the Big Ten’s most-watched FS1 games. 

Here’s a list of the top-10 FS1 games (not just Big Ten) this season. Notice a trend?

If you want to add FOX into the equation, the Big East sees a bit more representation in the top-10, but the Big Ten still makes up five of the top-7 slots.

If you take FOX and FS1 out of the picture and just tally up viewers on the ESPN’s and CBS’s of the world, the Big East had 16 games averaging 489K viewers. The Big Ten had 57 averaging 945K.   

Of course, it doesn’t take a statistical deep dive to tell you the Big Ten draws more viewers. Duh, that’s why they are swimming in Scrooge McDuck money and adding another in their new yacht. What matters is the scale, and what it means going forward.

What does this mean for the Big East?

Here’s where the analysis delves from hard numbers to mere conjecture, treat it skeptically.

FOX currently pays the Big Ten about $240 million a year for its package through 2023. Obviously most of that is football related, with OSU v Michigan alone being worth about $50 million a year. But if we take the 20% or so Notre Dame gets as a payout from the ACC as a rough estimate of how much of the media rights are attributed to basketball, that gets us to about $48 Million a year for the B10 basketball portion, or around $7 million more than what the Big East is getting. Sounds plausible enough.

That means FOX is paying the Big Ten around $1.2 Million per game, or 326% more than the Big East. This could be overshooting it a bit, but I don’t think it sounds too farfetched.  

Ok, now if we take the reports that the Big Ten is looking to get $1 to $1.5 Billion a year for it’s entire package, that would mean FOX’ basketball portion would be between $100 and $150 Million and if the number of games doesn’t change, about $2.5 Million a game. My big question is, does FOX take a larger chunk of inventory (either from BTN or from the remaining packages) or does it stand still?

Because if it does stand still, there will still be a 120+ game hole for it to fill with content that delivers fairly well, but won’t necessarily break the bank. Something like the Big East?

Conclusion

The Big East has seen tremendous growth in both average and total viewers since its debut on FS1 in the 2014 season. That growth is buoyed by an increasing role of big FOX, particularly for premier games. Even though there has been consistent growth, the results are still middling when compared to the Big Ten, FOX’ other important basketball package.

Is an extension the best path forward for both parties? As always, it comes down to dollar signs.

When you take all that and factor in the exploding costs of live sports rights, as well as the relative paucity of league rights available, the Big East fetching a decent increase that fills large winter content gaps for FS1 at a relatively low price isn’t as far fetched as I once thought.

The ACC and SEC are ESPN’s and aren’t going anywhere. The Pac-12 lost it’s two most valuable properties and had pitiful numbers on FS1 back in the day for basketball, below the Big East’s. The only question is whether FOX believes in the Big 12 enough to pay up, but the rate will be significantly higher. Will FOX gamble on filling holes with mid majors?

We’ll save some hard numbers for next time, but for now, it’s enough to understand the landscape and that is one where the Big East and FOX Sports partnership makes a ton of sense for both sides.

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  1. Huge East Financials: How Have TV Rankings Carried out? - Paint Touches - Financials News - August 8, 2022

    […] 5, 2022 | Andrei Greska | 0 Feedback Editor’s Observe: I’m not a TV Rankings knowledgeable, however as some Sports activities Data […]

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