Higher cable bills? Irish on the move? End of the Pac-12? How Big Ten, SEC moves may change college football

Andrew Marchand is off this week, so New York Post media reporter Ryan Glasspiegel is pinch-hitting. Andrew will return to his regular spot in the Sports+ lineup next Monday.

It’s yet to be formally announced, but it’s now widely expected that the Big Ten will exit its 40-year partnership with ABC/ESPN and embark on a new rights deal with CBS and NBC, joining incumbent partner Fox and the Big Ten Network (half-owned by the conference, half by Fox).

It is just the latest upheaval in a summer that has seen some of the sport’s most storied football powerhouses find new conference homes. There are infinite possibilities as to where things go from here, so let’s take a look at some of the relevant next steps and further questions.

1. The cable bill is going up again.

Pat Crakes, former head of programming at Fox Sports and now a sports media industry consultant, explained to The Post that the economic benefits from the moves of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, and USC and UCLA to the Big Ten will create a greater demand that will be passed on from the conferences to the networks to the distributors — and then to the customers.

The Big Ten and SEC were already the two strongest college football conferences, and they got stronger with these moves. The four schools they added in this round of conference realignment will garner more attractive matchups in the aggregate. USC versus Ohio State or Michigan, for example, is a much bigger blockbuster across the country than USC versus anyone else remaining in the Pac-12. This remains true when comparing the middle and bottom tiers of the Big Ten versus the Pac-12. You can do this same exercise with Texas and Oklahoma matchups (Alabama! LSU! Georgia!) in the SEC compared to the Big 12.

USC (7) Stephen Carr (RB) runs the ball in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic between the USC Trojans and the Ohio State Buckeyes on December 29th, 2017 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX
A TV package that regularly features games between college football heavyweights such as Ohio State and USC may cost viewers more on their monthly cable bills.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Big Ten and SEC have already arranged rights increases from the networks, who will then go to distributors such as Comcast and DirecTV with products that are now even more essential to swaths of the population. Higher fees for the networks and distributors will undoubtedly result in higher fees for the customers using those networks and distributors.

The pay TV bundle has already been kept together in large part by live sports and news. This conference realignment only fortifies the need for big sports fans to have the bundle. The existence of these new games, on the margins, factors into people’s decisions as to whether to stay subscribed to cable or satellite (or an OTT channel bundle like YouTube TV or Sling).

There is also value unlocked for ad sales, because matchups with higher viewership will be created in these moves.

2. Big Ten Network should greatly increase its footprint.

The Los Angeles region is fertile ground for the Big Ten. This was already somewhat the case, with many thousands of Big Ten alumni living in the area, and that could be exponentially true with USC and UCLA now on board.

“You can make a reasonable case that Big Ten Network should be on basic cable or basic expanded in Southern California,” Crakes said.

There should also be some modest gains in Northern California, Arizona and Nevada.

This would’ve been a bigger deal a decade ago. The pay TV footprint in America has dropped about 25 percent, from around 100 million viewers to around 75 million today.

November 20: Kazmeir Allen #19 of the UCLA Bruins catches a pass and runs for s touchdown past Isaac Taylor-Stuart #6 of the USC Trojans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 20, 2021.
The Big Ten’s viewership on the West Coast is sure to increase when UCLA and USC join the conference in 2024.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

As of March, BTN reportedly had 50 million subscribers at 59 cents a month. This means in affiliate fees alone, BTN was generating $354 million per year — before USC and UCLA were added to the mix.

3. Notre Dame is the belle of the ball.

With regards to the Big 12 and Pac-12, any school that the Big Ten or SEC truly wanted, they’d have by now. Maybe those two conferences can justify further expansion in a couple years after their rate increases have been digested, but both likely would make an exception for Notre Dame.

“It’s good to be Notre Dame. Everybody wants them,” Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand said last month on the “Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast.”

“The Big Ten wants them. The ACC wants them. They could also decide to stay independent. There are a lot of questions right now. Under Notre Dame’s current contract, if they’re going to a conference in football, it has to be the ACC right now, because they’re under a grant of rights that goes through 2036. But, whatever happens, it’s gonna work out in Notre Dame’s favor. The Big Ten is still a possibility. They could [potentially] buy themselves out of the grant of rights.”

A Notre Dame Fighting Irish cheerleader runs onto the field with a Notre Dame Fighting Irish flag after a touchdown play during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN.
Though Notre Dame is contractually tied to the ACC until 2036, that likely wouldn’t stop the Big Ten or SEC from doing whatever they could to welcome them into their conferences.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One could envision the SEC coveting Notre Dame, too.

How long Notre Dame will take to decide its future — Big Ten, SEC, ACC or remaining independent — is anyone’s guess, but they’re far and away the biggest domino right now.

4. What happens with the Big 12 and Pac-12 now?

The Pac-12’s deal with Fox and ESPN is up after the 2023 season and the Big 12’s contract with the two networks runs through 2024.

Crakes thinks their best course of action would be to merge.

“They’re stronger together than they are apart,” he said. “Together, maybe they’re not as strong as the Big Ten and the ACC, but they’re as strong as the ACC.”

On the sports media podcast earlier this week, The Post’s Andrew Marchand said the impending defections left Arizona and Arizona State as the key drivers in what happens with what is left of the two conferences.

“I look to Arizona and Arizona State as the kingpins right now,” Marchand said. “Do they go to the Big 12 or do they stay in the Pac-12? I think that will shift things, because one thing that we’ve talked about is the idea that we’re gonna create the NFL of two leagues — like the Big Ten is the NFC and the SEC is the AFC — it doesn’t really work.

A general view of the PAC-12 logo at midfield before the PAC-12 Football Championship football game between the Oregon Ducks and the Utah Utes at Allegiant Stadium on December 03, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The end of the Pac-12’s deal with Fox and ESPN at the end of the 2023 season may well force the conference to add more teams, or perhaps even merge with another conference.
Getty Images

“We have Oregon, for example, does the Big Ten really want them? It’s not like these networks are gonna pay more money for Oregon, so you’re just splitting the pie more. Maybe you can get an escalator, but they don’t bring in the full share of more money. The one team that does that is Notre Dame.”

5. What does the ACC look like going forward?

There has been much more chatter about the futures of the Big 12 and Pac-12 because the ACC has the aforementioned grant of rights. Outkick founder Clay Travis, however, posited that this is on shakier ground than is generally realized.

“Yes, the ACC is protected by a grant of rights agreement that extends into the 2030s — a grant of rights agreement theoretically restricts a school from selling television rights to its sporting events to others and thereby undercuts the primary financial rationale for changing conferences, TV money — but if a majority of the ACC schools vote to end the grant of rights, then, in theory, the ACC’s grant of rights disappears. So all those rumored tens of millions of dollars keeping the ACC from splitting up? It’s dangling over a precarious foundation, as soon as seven or eight schools have better options the ACC as we know it vanishes,” Travis wrote in July.

There are innumerable permutations of which schools the Big Ten and SEC would go after, and whether ESPN would abide by the SEC ravaging the ACC when it holds all the rights to both conferences — and their conference networks. (To that end, while speculation has swirled that the SEC on CBS could leave for ESPN a year earlier than when its current deal is set to expire after the 2023 season, it sounds at least for the time being like the SEC will stay with CBS until the end of its deal.)

Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas (3) and Albert Huggins sack Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Clemson defeated Florida State 59-10.
The ACC’s grant of rights will keep the likes of Clemson and Florida State in the ACC for years, unless the schools in the conference vote to do away with the agreement or buy their way out of it.
AP

Still, there are plenty of schools that would be in play to jump to the Big Ten or SEC — Virginia, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and Miami — in this scenario.

At this point, the disbandment of the ACC remains a hypothetical, but if it were to happen, it would be much more seismic than anything that could develop with the Big 12 and Pac-12.

6. Fewer Cinderellas in the NCAA Tournament?

We’ve been largely discussing football here. However, one other noteworthy thing Crakes floated was the possibility of the SEC pushing to eliminate automatic conference bids from the NCAA Tournament.

This does not mean that no Cinderellas like Saint Peter’s would be allowed into the dance — but there’d be a lot less of them.

“We love the Cinderellas, but there’s so much value for the biggest conferences to extract by eliminating automatic bids,” he said.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has already spoken

about eliminating automatic conference bids in the expected-to-expand College Football Playoff, so it would hardly be astonishing if he feels on a similar wavelength in basketball.

A new storyline emerges for WWE

Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon and Triple H attend the UFC 276 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
After Vince McMahon’s retirement, Stephanie McMahon and her husband, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, have assumed control of the business and creative decisions for WWE.
Zuffa LLC

WWE TV rights are coming up relatively soon, so it’s an interesting time to look at the lay of the land.

Vince McMahon remains the majority shareholder, even after stepping down as CEO and chairman of the company that he micromanaged for 40 years. The move, of course, came after it was revealed he paid about $12 million in hush money to several women who worked at WWE and with whom he had sexual relations, including one former wrestler.

McMahon’s daughter Stephanie became co-CEO alongside Nick Khan, who joined the company as president in 2020 after being an agent for many of the industry’s top sports media talents and negotiating live rights (including WWE’s) at CAA.

Paul “Triple H” Levesque — the WWE Hall of Famer who is married to Stephanie — took over the creative, and has gotten high marks from Post wrestling columnist Joseph Staszewski.

Despite the new look atop the corporate org chart, it would be astonishing to longtime industry observers if Vince McMahon stepped entirely out of the picture. Nevertheless, WWE has undergone a massive sea change in who is the day-to-day point person on all the tentacles of the company, from the storytelling to the business, and this is seismic in and of itself.

The new leadership group will be tested quickly as it negotiates TV rights that are up in the fall of 2024. Currently, WWE Raw airs on NBCUniversal’s USA Network, and Smackdown airs on Fox. The last deal for the two weekly programs was for a total of $468 million, according to the Wall Street Journal, an increase from $130 million per year in the previous contract.

In 2022, Raw is averaging 1.78 million viewers, often performing as the No. 1 scripted show on cable, while Smackdown averages 2.13 million viewers this year. Both have a solid .5 rating in the 18-49 demographic, and it is not uncommon for Smackdown to finish top in the demo in its time slot.

Natalya in action with Lacey Evans
WWE Raw is the No. 1-rated scripted show on cable and generally gets more viewers for its weekday broadcasts than the NBA.
REUTERS

For comparison, the NBA on ESPN, ABC and TNT averaged 1.6 million viewers for its regular season in 2021-22. The NBA does markedly better in the postseason, but most people might not reflexively know that WWE generally outperforms the regular season week in and week out.

On the company’s most recent earnings call, in May, Khan expressed a belief that WWE will have more bidders in this rights cycle — citing Netflix, Apple and Amazon by name as potentially involved players.

“The recent Netflix business shifts … signaled to us a number of things,” Khan said on the call. “First, Netflix is willing to make adjustments and reverse positions when it identifies an issue. A few years ago, Netflix put out on social that it was OK with password sharing amongst users. Obviously, that has changed. As recently as 2021, Netflix’s most senior executives said there would not be an ad product on Netflix. … Sports tends to be live and packed with advertising. So, there’s not a lot of synergies in that way. [But] … it’s just a matter of time before Netflix goes with live. Nothing commands a higher CPM than live and nothing offers the leverage to command broader buys.”

With Amazon, Khan mentioned their investment in the NFL as a sign that they are serious about getting into the premium live rights business. With Apple, he brought up their MLB live rights as well as the reports that they are considered the frontrunners to land the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package that has for decades been part of DirecTV. He also talked about Disney’s investments in live sports streaming on Disney+ and ESPN+. Earlier this year, WWE did its first ever rights deal with Disney, to stream its content in Indonesia.

In America, WWE has proven successful at converting its viewers into streaming customers. As we mentioned in a previous newsletter, WWE PPVs have been a major driver to NBC’s Peacock.

Roman Reigns celebrates after defeating Bill Goldberg during the 2022 WWE Elimination Chamber at the Jeddah Super Dome in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on February 19, 2022.
Long a staple of cable TV networks, the WWE believes it will receive interest from multiple streaming services for its next rights deal.
AFP via Getty Images

One other interesting element of WWE’s rights is that the promotion has also wound up comprising a significant amount of A&E programming. Here, WWE has leveraged its library featuring its own content as well as archival footage from WCW, ECW and other promotions, to produce documentaries in the “Legends” and “Rivals” series.

Between July 1 and August 7, WWE accounted for 14 percent of A&E’s total content hours; “Legends” was their top ranked show in the 18-49 demo and “Rivals” ranked third.

As far as the Raw and Smackdown rights, it may be too soon to declare a favorite for where they land, but early indications are that NBC and Fox will have to fork over significant increases to retain them.

The other question being pondered in industry circles is whether it makes sense for a content-starved programmer — i.e. all the entities we’ve already named — to buy WWE outright rather than pay for a slice of their rights pie along with its competitors.

At Friday’s market closing time, WWE had a market cap (total value) of $5.4 billion. While a company would have to pay a premium to this price to induce McMahon, Khan and the shareholders to sell, it’s a scenario worth considering.

NASCAR back in gear

Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Sirius XM Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 07, 2022 in Brooklyn, Michigan.
NASCAR has seen a TV audience of 3.4 million per race on average this season.
Getty Images

There’s been a lot of buzz about the growth of Formula One on the heels of the Netflix “Drive to Survive” series. Perhaps a little more under the radar, NASCAR is also having a nice viewership season.

Since the campaign began with the ​​Busch Light Clash in February, NASCAR on FOX, NBC and USA Network, NASCAR has averaged 3.41 million viewers per race, up 8 percent from last year.

As we discussed in a previous newsletter, a lot of sports that were on NBCSN, which shuttered at the end of last year, migrated to USA Network. NASCAR is one of those, and those specific races are averaging 2.46 million viewers, up 7 percent from last year.

“We have really special partnerships with both FOX & NBC and we’re proud of our collective efforts to innovate in recent years to grow fan interest in NASCAR,” NASCAR Senior Vice President, Media and Productions Brian Herbst told The Post in an email. “The positive viewership results that we’re seeing are a result of this collaboration with FOX & NBC, as well as the bold changes we’ve made to the schedule and the debut of the Next Gen car. There is palpable excitement and buzz around the sport as we get ready to kick off our Playoffs next month — the positive trends that we’re seeing on both the viewership and attendance side provide more evidence that overall interest in NASCAR continues to rise.”

In June Fox Sports EVP Michael Mulvihill tweeted the following metrics about the pie chart of motorsports viewership consumption this year:

• NASCAR — 80%
• F1 — 10%
• Indy Car — 7%
• NHRA — 4%

NASCAR recently announced that it is investing in a new $28.5 million production facility in North Carolina.

Like WWE, NASCAR has its rights coming up relatively soon. They are currently in the eighth year of a 10-year pact with Fox and NBC that reportedly averages a total of $820 million a year.

A Q&A with ESPN MLB insider Jeff Passan

Jeff Passan has re-signed with ESPN for a substantial raise.
Jeff Passan has been with ESPN since leaving Yahoo a little more than three years ago.
Courtesy of ESPN

What is the CliffsNotes version of how you got from aspiring sportswriter out of college to ESPN MLB Insider?

Jeff Passan: First job out of college was in Fresno, Calif. in 2002. I’d just graduated from Syracuse, where I had interned at the Washington Post and was looking for a job.

The Fresno Bee has been a launching pad for a lot of incredible jobs in sportswriting. Adrian Wojnarowski. John Canzano. John Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize, was a columnist when I was there. I originally came in as a general assignment reporter, ended up going out to the Fresno State basketball beat. I did that for two years, and then got hired by the Kansas City Star as the national baseball writer.

At 23 years old, I’d covered five baseball games before. But I knew the game, I loved the game, and I was young, cheap and single — which is a great combination for a newspaper that has done an amazing job at developing talent.

The staff that I was on at the Star — we talk a lot about the Boston Globe back in its heyday being just so top-to-bottom full of talent — our columnists were Joe Posnansnki and Jason Whitlock. Our takeout writer was Wright Thompson. Sam Mellinger, who later became a columnist, was a high school reporter, as was Kevin Kaduk who later ran Yahoo’s sports blogs and now runs CHGO Sports. Jason King was covering the University of Kansas. Adam Teicher was on the Chiefs beat. Elizabeth Merrill covered the Chiefs. Bob Dutton, a fantastic beat reporter, was on the Royals. Blair Kerkhoff. Front to bottom, absolutely splendid.

I learned as much as I have anywhere there.

I went to Yahoo after that in spring of 2006, and spent 13 years there as a baseball columnist. I started figuring out and prioritizing news there, because I’d always seen myself as more of a feature writer. I’ve been at ESPN for three-and-a-half years.

I wrote a story on the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport this week, and he talked about how his wife has given him a lot of guidance throughout his career. Has that been the case in your relationship?

JP: I think I owe the entirety of where I am now to my wife.

We’ve been married for 15 years, and I look back at a seminal moment about 10 years ago where I was not looking forward to the winter meetings.

Jeff Passan on ESPN
Passan credits his wife for encouraging him to become more involved in breaking news coverage.
Jeff Passan/Instagram

When you’ve been married for five years, your spouse can tell something is wrong. She asked, “What’s wrong?”

I said, “These are the 10 days a year where I feel terrible at my job.”

“Why’s that?” she asked.

I said, “Because I don’t really break news.”

“Why is that?” she said.

I didn’t have a great answer. I think the thing I said was, “It’s really hard.”

Her response was, “Well, then stop being a pussy and go do it.”

Boy, that sort of emasculation hits hard! I listened to her. I focused on it. I prioritized it. I’m really glad I did, not just because it helped me land at ESPN, but I truly believe that being in the daily news grind the way you are required to be if you are in this job, opens up so many stories you wouldn’t have gotten by just not talking to the people it forces you to talk with.

Some of the stories I’m most proud of comes because I’m just trying to talk to people and earn their trust, and when something important happens they feel compelled to tell me.

You literally wrote the book on the pitching arm, “The Arm.” How can MLB get back to a battle of starting pitchers that used to be one of the most compelling parts of the game? Now, pitchers hardly go seven innings, let alone longer. You don’t get to see them work out of jams late in games and it makes the game less interesting.

JP: It’s a two-fold process:

1) If you limit the amount of pitchers allowed on a team, then the starters are, by necessity, going to have to throw more innings. Get contact earlier in counts. Not go for as many strikeouts. I’ve been told by enough people in MLB front offices that Pandora’s Box is open and you can’t close it, that maybe my read there is wrong, but I think if you have that limit on pitchers — there are 13 now, move it to 12 with goal of getting it down to 11 eventually — that places such an emphasis on going deeper into games that pitchers are going to naturally adapt.

2) Once something like that happens, it needs to filter down to the developmental level. Right now, youth baseball is broken in any number of ways. You see that when you look at the output of star-level players from the United States compared to Latin America. The best baseball players in the world right now, almost all of them are from Latin America. Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez. The majority of the young superstars come from a system that, though corrupt and problematic in many ways, seems to have figured out player development at a younger age, in a better way.

If the priority for pitchers changes at the big league level, then the priority at the youth level will change with it. This can’t be the tail wagging the dog. It has to be a top-down mandate.

The question is, do the people inside MLB have the … fortitude to see something like that through, when the executives who are running front offices right now decided we don’t want it?

The Nintendo in your own office we often see on TV appearances is that a console you’ve owned since you were a young kid, or did you buy it lately? What’s your favorite game?

I have owned it since 1986. It still works and it’s one of my prized possessions.

My favorite game is RBI Baseball. I have a picture with myself and my son, who is now 14, when he was 2-3 years old standing there in front of the TV playing RBI Baseball, or so he thought.

Here’s the problem: I’m competitive enough where I actually would’ve tried to beat a two-year-old, and I unplugged his controller — but he was still convinced he was playing. And he’s still angry about that. How do you lie to a two-year-old? What kind of monster are you?

You talk all the time about your prodigious Diet Mountain Dew consumption. What is your personal record for Diet Mountain Dew drank in one day?

On a normal news day, the most I’ve had was six 20-ounce bottles.

But when I was grinding on the end of “The Arm” — I had about 50,000 words to go, and 10 days to do it.

I adore my family. They’re my entire world. But I needed to get away to finish this book.

So, I flew to Phoenix. I was staying at my parents’ house. One day, I drank two-and-a-half two-liter bottles of Diet Mountain Dew. Each bottle is 67 ounces, so that’s a total of 167.5 ounces, which is 8.4 20-oz bottles — or about 14 cans.

I wrote for 18-19 hours and got 9,000 words done that day.

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