What are Big East TV Rights worth?

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 with no sources 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, while in Part 3 we took a deep dive into TV ratings. But for the first time, it’s time to look ahead to try and project what a new TV contract might look like, once the current one runs out in 2025 and what that will mean for revenue going forward.  

Of course, despite having spelled it out right above this, I’ll make it clear once more that I have no sources inside the conference or within a network. I’m just grabbing as many pieces of data as I can to gauge what the possibilities might be. So please don’t use this as any sort of definitive marker. Similarly, I’d love to hear where you think I may have misread the tea leaves.

Recent Niche Sports Contracts

I lied though, I’m not ready to move forward just yet. We’ve been reading at length about the $8 Billion media deal the Big Ten has secured, which is a good proxy for what the most popular teams in college football are worth, but not necessarily indicative of what’s to come for a league like the Big East. 

College basketball outside of March is much less mainstream and fairly reliant on blue bloods with NBA talent for big ratings. And even these ratings pale in comparison to those of college football, where the Mom and Pop Clean Out Your Room Bowl featuring a fake high school would still beat the most watched regular season college basketball game of the year.

Instead, I wanted to dig around to recent media rights deals that dealt with more “niche” sports that had an intense following, though a small national TV footprint.

Enter soccer.

The “sport of the future” since the 90s, it has seen a bevy of TV deals get signed in the past 20 months, so makes for a perfect case study to compare against.

I added F1 there as well as it’s one of the fastest rising pieces of sports content, while still being incredibly niche. Also, while most headlines will reference the big “TOTAL” numbers in headlines, it makes much more sense to compare per year numbers rather than sum totals because there are pretty large differences in lengths of the contracts.

And from that column, we can see that the English Premier League is easily the most valuable “niche” sports product at around $450M a year for the next 5 seasons, almost twice as much as the next closest leagues, UEFA Champion’s League and MLS. And with good reason.

Having started going through the EPL ratings manually, I quickly discovered that even though a good chunk of their content is placed behind a paywall at Peacock and thus not measured, almost everything that does make it to linear TV draws ratings over 200K, the cutoff at which ShowBuzzDaily reports it. In just the final month of the season, the EPL had 31 broadcasts top 200K, which was almost as many as a full season of MLS and was 3 times as many as UCL, La Liga and Bundesliga combined.

All of this is to say, EPL is in its own stratosphere and would not make a good barometer. But for my interests, collecting this data wasn’t solely about setting benchmarks, as the aims of both the leagues and the channels here won’t necessarily align with the Big East’s or FOX’, but rather to set a reasonable expectation for growth. So I went and grabbed the prior contracts (where available) and that gave us a very interesting look at what kind of growth we could peg as a median in this market.

La Liga would have been a really nice comp to have, however BeIn, their previous rights holders, never let loose what the contract numbers were like. In any case, from here we can easily see that all of the known TV Rights deals for “niche” sports increased by at least 138% compared to their previous deals, with an average of 177%, excluding LaLiga. Keep that number handy.

Finally, when we talk about TV ratings, obviously bigger is better, but volume also matters. If we examine how many games are included for each league, you can get an even better sense of scale. Even though the MLS contract will pay the same as the new Champion’s League one, they are not remotely equal once you factor in MLS will have over twice as much content, so each individual game is worth much less on its own.   

But if we want to ballpark a new Big East deal just using the average growth of these niche leagues, we’d end up at around $71 million a year.

MLS Contract As A Baseline

For our purposes, the MLS deal is an absolute perfect foil for the Big East. They aren’t the most popular league in the sport they play. They don’t have an overwhelming national presence. Most importantly though, they both had games on overlapping networks, which makes it much easier to cross compare results.

Before that though, let’s set the table. MLS announced a landmark deal in June 2022 where Apple TV would be the sole owner of broadcast rights for the next 10 years for $2.5 Billion, or about $250 Million a year. There are some pretty major caveats, with MLS on the hook for production and significantly cutting into that $250M, but for our purposes, it’s a nice round number.

And that nice round number was pretty enormous when you consider MLS has fairly pedestrian ratings, averaging only 276K viewers a game on ABC and ESPN in the 2021 season and also keeping in mind the previous contract only had MLS making $90 million a year, split between Univision (Spanish), ESPN and FOX (plus $15M from Canada). To make matters more confusing, $25M of that actually went to USSF, which meant MLS TV rights were only really worth $65M a year in the US.

Hey, you know who currently has a contract in a similar range??? You’ll never guess. The Big East is about to enter Year 10 of a 12 year deal with FOX, valued at around $40M a year.

But wait there’s more, I dove through a full season’s worth of MLS ratings (over 200K) and saw some uncanny similarities as both MLS and the Big East had multiple games all featured on FOX, FS1, ABC and ESPN last season. And wouldn’t you know it, the Big East not only had more games draw over 200K, 70 vs 38 for MLS, but the average total viewership was a tad greater for the Big East on all 4 of those stations.  

In lump sum form, the Big East drew at least 33M eyeballs while MLS had 16M (not accounting for Univision matches which did not show up in the ratings, ESPN+ or local TV).

There are a few other really peculiar similarities. The highest rated games for both leagues both came on FOX and were a result of directly following an NFL game. The Big East retained 2.02M viewers while MLS only retained 1.85M. FS1 also was a primary host for playoffs for both leagues, where the Big East averaged 337K for the Big East Tournament compared to MLS’ 244K. Finally, the championship games for both were on broadcast networks with the Big East drawing 1.22M viewers on FOX compared to MLS’ 1.14M on ABC.

MLS does have an advantage in the 18-49 crowd compared to the Big East across most of these stats, but in general, I think it’s safe to say that the two leagues are very similarly placed in terms of the hierarchy of the media landscape.  

So this is where I proudly state that the Big East is worth a quarter billy and have Val draw up the papers right??? Not quite.

Although I can’t quite pinpoint the article, I’ve read a few times that streaming services like Apple and Amazon have to bid almost twice as much as linear broadcasters for the same TV rights packages due to lower viewership numbers. And seeing as the MLS deal is an Apple exclusive, and that FOX showed no desire to engage MLS in contract negotiations, halving that amount right off the bat is a decent starting point.

Take out some of the production costs that are propping that number up and we probably end up somewhere around $100M a year as the “true” value of MLS rights.

AAC v Big East

Still it feels a bit naïve to rely solely on comparisons across sports as a barometer, so looking at some recent college deals is important. Unfortunately, the Big East is fairly uniquely placed in not having football while still reaping over $20 million a year in TV rights. So even here our comps are a bit of a stretch.

For starters, we can look at the AAC, which signed a 12-year, $1 Billion contract bringing in about $83M a year for the conference (once again, minus production costs) starting in the 2020 season. Of course, most of this money is slated for the football side of things where the AAC established itself as the best non P-5 school, rather than basketball, where the conference sits around 7th depending on the year.

This also leaves unmentioned the fact that 3 of the best schools will be departing as Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida leave for the Big 12 after the 2023 season and that UConn already left in 2020. I mention that because it was no secret every school was (and is) trying to leave the conference so the contract had that instability in mind.

Using our back of the hand 80/20 heuristic, where 80% of the TV revenue is due to football, that would leave us with about $16 million a year devoted to basketball, compared to the Big East’s current $40 million a year average. Is the Big East basketball really currently worth twice as much as AAC basketball? Yeah, I’d say the ratings bore that out.

In the 2022 season, 70 Big East games topped the 200K viewer mark while only 28 games did so for the AAC. More worryingly, which teams brought in eyeballs is extremely top heavy, with most of that top tier booking it for the Big 12. 

So accounting for the instability, lack of interest in the mid or lower tiers and general excess of inventory ESPN has in the winter months, the current disparity makes complete sense. However, projecting a future contract off of these numbers becomes a true guessing game. It’s basically Memphis and 14 other mid majors getting $16M a year for basketball.

When comparing what the Big East is to what the AAC will be, I’d say anywhere between 3 or 4 times as much would make sense for ESPN, and between 4 and 6 times as much ($64M to $96M) for FOX, with much less inventory.  

Big Ten Equivalent

We’re well into OT here but bear with me. We’ve talked plenty about the ratings juggernaut that is the Big Ten on FOX (and everywhere else) in previous portions so we don’t have to rehash that, but with the new TV contract, valued at around $8 Billion for 7 years, we can put a dollar sign to that dominance.

FOX will retain 45 Big Ten games going forward, more than the current inventory but not necessarily a huge jump. We also know FOX will have first pick for football and basketball games each week, so we can assume they paid more than the $350M CBS and NBC paid for their Big Ten packages. We don’t have a definite number but some rough math gets us to somewhere around $450M a year.

If we take our 80/20 heuristic and bump it down 85/15 to emphasize B10 football importance, that puts us at around $67.5 million a year just for 45 games of Big Ten basketball, not including the Big Ten Tournament. That might be a tad light, but well within striking distance of acceptable. And remember, this is just a little chunk of the full B10 basketball schedule, not me saying B10 basketball is worth only $67M. Add in the other 80% of the schedule left and Big Ten basketball, if it is worth 15% of the total TV deals, would be over $200 million a year.

Going back to our TV numbers, the B10 drew in 79.9 million viewers for 100 non-Big Ten Channel games last season, averaging 807K per game. If you just take conference games to nullify external opponent impacts and focus on just the FS1 numbers that average was 526K (and 1.2M on big FOX).

Adding the Big East conference ratings back in, the rated games drew in about 49% of Big Ten averages on FS1, and about 59% on big FOX. A reasonable inference here would be that Big East rights are about half as valuable as Big Ten basketball rights.

There are a million caveats so I’m not saying you must believe that. For starters, there were way more Big East games meaning more duds and lower ratings but also additional value via volume. But for rough sketch purposes, 50% to 55% is a good starting point when comparing value.

Using the Big Ten as a guide, Big East rights would be worth somewhere around $100 million a year.   

Putting It All Together

We’re 2300 words in and you’re probably ready to kill me. I apologize for the headaches, but I think it’s valuable to see the landscape and try to pin the Big East within it, rather than make blind assumptions. This is going to be the defining moment for the league as the NCAA teeters at the whims of the Big Ten and SEC.

Using just the data I’ve presented, there’s a range of plausible possibility from about $70M a year to around $100M.

Obviously, length and network will have a lot to say about the final details. The Big East might have more monetary value to FOX which has much less inventory than ESPN, which owns way more winter programming. And taking a 6-year deal will yield different outcomes than replenishing for 12 more, with differing risks. The ACC isn’t even halfway through its 20-year contract and it’s already looking like an albatross for the conference with no end in sight until 2036.

Finally, this all assumes a linear foundation for broadcasts. I haven’t entertained the possibility of an MLS-like full jump into streaming, with Apple or Amazon, but that could also mean a much larger payday at the expense of broad national attention. (Personally, I don’t think the full Big East would appeal to a streaming service, but I’m the same guy who has argued FOX way overpaid for the Big East only to say the value has doubled, so what do I know.)

Similarly, outside of the monetary compensation, reupping early with FOX could yield a lower payday than taking the rights to market, but this is where Val and Co’s preferences will show up. Do they want to secure the bottom line at all costs, or is full-league visibility more important? For me personally, taking a few million off each season is worth it to maintain the abundance of content not just on national TV, but on network broadcasts.

At the end of the day, I do think the Big East stays with FOX and ends up at the lower end of the projections above, something like $75M to $80M a year for 7 years. This would still close to double TV rights revenue on a yearly basis and bring a bit of stability to the individual school’s bottom lines.     

We won’t know for a year or two how accurate this is, but feel free to bookmark it and shove it in my face one day.     

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Categories: Analysis

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