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Canzano: ESPN and FOX have to love the Big 12 vs. Pac-12 drama
Big 12 opens "discussions" with media partners.
Pac-12 Conference Commissioner George Kliavkoff got another wake-up call on Wednesday morning.
Maybe he’s getting used to them.
The Big 12 Conference is accelerating media-rights discussions with ESPN and FOX. The conference said in a release that it would “be entering into discussions with its multimedia partners to explore an accelerated extension of its current agreements.”
Not an early-negotiating window.
It means the only deal the Big 12 can do is a renewal with the same two partners they have now. Anything else would have to wait for the window to open.
Still, the Big 12 will explore the market earlier than expected. Not sure what took the conference so long. The Pac-12 voted to open its 30-day negotiating window early after the announced defections of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. Now, the Big 12 is crowding the market, presumably because it doesn’t want to be left behind.
A few thoughts:
• The Big 12 is not technically entering an exclusive negotiating window. At this point, it’s just talking with ESPN and FOX. I think that’s an important distinction. “Definitely some spin going on there,” said one Pac-12 insider.
• ESPN is still a winner here. So is FOX. The networks have to love the Pac-12 vs. Big 12 drama. They get to simultaneously talk with both conferences, leveraging them against each other.
• Bob Thompson, the former Fox Sports Networks president, saw the news. He told me: “Big win for all of the networks. They can get this round of deals done and have cost certainty going forward.”
• The move potentially allows the Big 12 to get some numbers in front of potential expansion candidates. Also, it serves as a defensive play, designed to keep the Pac-12 from dancing too closely with antsy Big 12 members.
• It also means the Big 12 won’t eat a distant last in this round of media-rights negotiations. The conference wasn’t set to negotiate for another year and a half.
• It sets the stage for FOX and ESPN to possibly join forces again and share both the Big 12 and Pac-12 rights.
What’s the play by George Kliavkoff today?
Pedal to the metal. Get a deal done with ESPN and others. Maintain the advantage you have over the Big 12. Keep your constituents unified and happy.
I don’t blame Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark for wanting to open discussions and try to get to market early. It’s exactly what I’d have done. No doubt, his consultants were telling him there was no point in waiting to have discussions. The Big Ten landed a windfall. The Pac-12 accelerated its timeline. College football was moving on and 18 months is too long to wait for anything these days.
Will this slow down the Pac-12’s negotiations?
Maybe. It may give the Big 12 some time to put some numbers in front of potential expansion candidates. If the candidates know those numbers are coming, they could slow-play the approval of the Pac-12’s deal before committing. San Diego State would likely be interested in seeing both offers before deciding what it wants to do, for example. Boise State has hired consultants to help position them for expansion into the Big 12 and Pac-12, I’m told. It may want to slow play the negotiations to see both offers.
What about Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah?
One of the Pac-12’s “Four Corners” athletic directors I spoke with on Wednesday morning said that the Big 12 opening discussions on the media rights front is a “non-factor” for his university. He maintained there has been no contact with the Big 12 and that his university is committed to the Pac-12.
I asked if the Big 12 tipped him off that it was opening discussions.
He said: “Not true.”
Are early discussions all the Big 12 needs?
No. Remember, the Pac-12 triggered its early-negotiating window. Here we are, nearly 60 days later, and the Pac-12 still doesn’t have a deal done. The Big 12 didn’t want to wait, stand on the sidelines and get left behind. I get it. It has opened talks.
Is a merger of the Big 12 and Pac-12 dead?
I don’t think the Pac-12 was ever serious about a merger. I think the conference was listening as a courtesy and when nothing concrete materialized, it was surprised by the public posturing by the Big 12. Grenades have now been tossed by both sides. Given all the bad blood, I think a partnership between the two conferences is highly doubtful, but ESPN and FOX may feel differently. Their vote counts more than mine.
What’s best for the college football ecosystem?
The Big Ten and SEC want to monopolize the soon-to-be-expanded College Football Playoff. Those playoff berths could be worth $60 million to $100 million a pop. As a product, the super conferences are positioning themselves as an “NFL-lite” product and want to keep the playoffs for themselves.
Meanwhile, the ACC members are restless. They feel left out. The Pac-12 and Big 12 have been pitted against each other because of the uncertainty and angst. And independent Notre Dame is sitting on the sideline, eating popcorn.
I keep coming back to ESPN. It’s still easily the most dominant player in the college sports scene. It needs the industry to remain stable and healthy. Going to a two-conference format doesn’t help the worldwide leader. It needs content. The best outcome for the ecosystem would be for ESPN to partner with both the Big 12 and Pac-12 to ensure it has prime inventory in both conference footprints.
ESPN could, in fact, have exclusivity in the Pacific Time Zone if it desired that. Take Mountain West Conference programs such as San Diego State, UNLV, Boise State and Fresno State and add them to the Pac-12 and you’ve pretty much got the primetime windows in the time zone to yourself. But we’ll soon see how much that matters to ESPN.
The Pac-12 and Big 12 fan bases are bickering. The message-board trolls have turned their focus from where it should be — the hostile takeover of college football — and are busy back-biting. The consultants are working overtime behind the scenes. But the best possible outcome for the sport is for both the Pac-12 and Big 12 to get stabilized, fortified with revenue, and positioned in a way that gives members access to the playoff.
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