Canzano: Pac-12 gut punch comes with a cost
Ex-Fox Sports Network executive weighs in; could Oregon-Washington be next for Big Ten?
In the hours after USC and UCLA defected to the Big Ten Conference, most of us wondered what would happen to what was left of the Pac-12 Conference.
Not Bob Thompson.
The former president of Fox Sports Networks found himself thinking about the Pac-12’s media rights negotiations. It’s a world he worked in for 25 years. Thompson, a University of Oregon graduate, started penciling out what losing the Los Angeles designated-market area (DMA) did to the Pac-12’s media value.
“They just lost their largest TV market in LA and ostensibly lost San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Palm Springs DMA’s as well,” Thompson said.
Prior to the desertion, Thompson anticipated the Pac-12 would land a deal in the neighborhood of $500 million per-year average over the course of the contract. That assumed an offering of games similar to what the Pac-12 sold Fox and ESPN in their current agreement.
“I guess you could take a run at adding San Diego State, UNLV, Air Force, Boise State, San Jose State or Fresno State to the Pac-12,” he said, “but none of those markets really move the meter from a television standpoint.”
The new estimated valuation: ~$300 million per year.
Essentially, a fiscal gut punch.
Thompson spent nine years as the president of Fox Sports Networks. He negotiated multiple rights agreements with the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC. He believes Fox is now “an unlikely bidder” on the Pac-12’s rights. Thompson expects Fox to go all-in on the Big Ten, perhaps offloading some games to CBS in football and basketball but not to the extent that it shared the current package with ESPN.
“Fox was probably pretty ticked when Texas and Oklahoma announced the move to the SEC and I imagine they believe ESPN was behind it,” Thompson said. “I think the days of Fox and ESPN partnering on things like the Big 12 and Pac-12 are probably over for now.”
The Pac-12’s media rights agreements expire in 2024, the same year that USC and UCLA bolt to the Big Ten. So what are the media rights options for the Pac-12?
Assuming the conference holds together in the coming weeks, Thompson views NBC as a non-player. He said CBS might be interested in the Pac-12, but would probably prefer picking up some Big Ten games. Turner has been kicking the tires on college football. It could be a potential partner for the Pac-12 — but only if Turner doesn’t first win a piece of the Big Ten.
That would likely leave ESPN/ABC to carry the bulk of the Pac-12 inventory.
“But they are certainly not going to overpay,” Thompson said.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told me a couple of weeks ago that he expected the majority of the conference’s college football games would be carried on traditional television. He studied the exclusive streaming deal MLS cut with Apple, but said he expected the conference’s Tier 1 rights — the core games — would again end up with a network or a major cable provider.
Kliavkoff said the rest of the content, currently carried on the Pac-12 Networks, might be a candidate to end up with a streaming partner.
Said Thompson: “I would surmise that the Pac-12 Networks are pretty much going to be a shadow of their former selves. Think one feed instead of seven. A good portion of the programming on a streamer such as ESPN+ or something like it.”
Big Ten math led to USC and UCLA defection
The Big Ten will expand to 16 teams when the addition of USC and UCLA becomes official in 2024. The conference’s $1 billion-a year television deal will presumably be shared equally among the members.
Thompson said the Big Ten’s decision to add two Los Angeles-based universities was rooted in a simple math equation. The 14 existing conference members know they’ll receive approximately $71.4 million per university under the new Fox deal. Adding two more partners only made sense if they could generate a minimum of $143 million in additional distributable revenue.
“To get there you could assume that the bulk of the 5.2 million pay TV homes in LA, San Diego, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara become inner-market Big Ten Network subscribers,” he said. “That will add significant affiliate revenue for the network.”
Adding Southern California to the portfolio increases the Big Ten’s core TV households by 25 percent. The result is additional advertising revenue for the Big Ten Network, Fox Broadcast Network and FS1 as well.
Said Thompson: “That should all be enough to convince Fox that the additional rights fees are worthwhile.”
Oregon and Washington leave questions for Big Ten
The Big Ten appears focused on trying to lure Notre Dame into the fold right now. After that, Oregon and Washington may be of interest to the Big Ten. However, Thompson estimated that those two Pac-12 universities, along with the Oregon and Washington television markets, would only generate an additional $60 million in combined additional revenues.
It’s good money, but well shy of the $143 million breakeven for the Big Ten.
It doesn’t kill the possibility of Oregon and Washington following USC and UCLA into the conference. It just means that the Big Ten members have two options if they’re going to do it: A) Be OK with about $6 million less annually to have UO and UW in the house; or B) Welcome Oregon and Washington, but inform the newcomers that they won’t get full distributions for a while.
Perhaps this is where Nike founder and long-time Oregon mega-booster Phil Knight might factor. He has ties to ESPN. I wonder if Knight might convince that network to make an investment in the Pac-12 and position the conference to raid the Big 12. Under that scenario the Pac-12 would survive and become the country’s No. 3 conference. Or maybe Knight would simply subsidize the Oregon-Washington entry into the Big Ten.
The events of the last few days left the Pac-12’s future in doubt. I can’t help but wonder about the conference’s woeful decision under former commissioner Larry Scott in late 2018 to reject ESPN’s offer to extend their current media rights deal and take over management and distribution of the Pac-12 Networks. That deal would have extended into the 2030s and locked USC and UCLA into the conference.
At the time Scott said he thought it was best to wait to the end of the current deal. He didn’t want the conference to miss out on what might be a much larger windfall in the next round of media rights negotiations. Now, the Pac-12 finds itself in a scramble.
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