Today, as reported by the Associated Press , the University of Texas made a 20 year, $300 million deal with ESPN to show all manner of Longhorn sports on a network-to-be-named. It should be noted that what makes this deal so remarkable is that it is the network of a single school–this is not a Big 12 deal (soon to be a not-so-Big 10 after Colorado leaves for the expanded Pac-12 and Nebraska leaves for the 12-school Big 10). It is unclear what sort of issue this deal will present for the rest of its conference when their media deals come for revision.
In order to put this deal in the proper context, let us examine some of ESPN’s other recent deals with conferences to see just how the Texas deal stacks up. For example, in 2008 ESPN made a 15 year, $2 billion deal with the SEC, which comes out to a little over $150 million per school. CBS’s deal with the SEC was for the same amount, meaning each school in the SEC made a little over $300 million over fifteen years from the two deals . Texas’ numbers would appear to be in the same ballpark as the very favored SEC schools.
Likewise, earlier this year ESPN made a $1.86 billion deal for 12 years with the ACC for exclusive rights to their football and basketball games . Even though the ACC has better basketball than the SEC, and the same number of colleges (12) as the SEC, its football product is far inferior, and it would appear that football drives the numbers for finances far more than basketball. The result is that the entire Atlantic Coast Conference is getting about $155 million per school (over 12 years) for an exclusive contract, while Texas is getting $200 million (over 20 years) on its own, not including what it receives from its Big 12 contracts in addition to that. And this from a team that had a losing record last season.
Compared to these numbers, smaller conferences get much smaller returns. For example, in the expiring contract that the WAC had with ESPN, each school in that conference only made $5.4 mllion per school over 6 years , which is about half what Texas would make per year with their single-school ESPN contract. In fact, Texas is making more per year in its nonexclusive contract than the entire WAC conference did each year over the last 6 years in its exclusive ESPN contract. That puts matters into some perspective. It should be noted that the WAC expects a much better deal this time around, probably because it has good enough teams in football (even with the departure of Boise State) to draw a substantial profit for ESPN.
To put the Texas deal into a real apples-to-apples comparison, let us contrast the deal that Texas got ($15 million/year for 20 years) with the deal that BYU got for eight years with much more modest (and undisclosed) numbers after going independent in football and leaving the Mountain West Conference for the WCC (home of Gonzaga) in other sports . Other, smaller conferences, apparently do not release the financial status of their rather poor deals with ESPN either, like the MAC, which would be lucky to make in a year what Texas will make from their ESPN conference in a month .
What does a large single-school contract like Texas just signed mean for college sports? In the case of the BYU deal, its (almost certainly far smaller) deal was the reward of going independent, and allowed it to make a go of independence, similar to what Notre Dame has had for decades as a result of its rabid fan base, despite its lack of recent success in football. However, both Notre Dame and (now) BYU are independent powers. Texas, meanwhile, is a member of a struggling conference that was targeted this summer for destruction and only barely survived being ripped apart. The rest of its conference is either made up of schools without a great deal of pedigree or a national fanbase (Baylor, Texas Tech, Iowa State) or powers with very small local markets (Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma). Does this move mean that Texas is going solo in mindset even if not in conference affiliation?
It would appear that ESPN is no longer satisfied being the one-stop network for college football either in games, analysis, or bowls (many of which it owns) with conference affiliations, but that it wishes to “cut out the middle man” of conferences and deal with prestigious schools on a one-on-one basis. Who is next? Does USC cut out the rest of its conference and make a solo deal with ESPN? Does FSU or Virginia Tech or Miami do the same from the ACC? What about Florida or Alabama from the SEC? Is a school that is a recognized power going to throw its weaker sisters like Vanderbilt or Washington State or Wake Forest under the bus to grab at the big payday that it doesn’t have to share with anyone else? In this day and age, where loyalty appears obsolete to the power brokers in college sports and the amount of money being thrown around is substantial, anything is possible.
Let us not forget one other huge problem, that I have already noted elsewhere . The people responsible for all of this money and all of this entertainment even existing are unpaid college students who make their schools (and a lot of other experts and companies) very wealthy while receiving only the hero worship of their schools and classmates and the modest cost of a college scholarship and room and board, as long as they can keep their grades up. While the Longhorn football (and, to a lesser extent, basketball) team earns its university $15 million a year on its own single-school contract, its players have amateur status and receive no paychecks (at least officially) while everyone else profits from their labor. How long can that injustice prevail when the money picture grows so massive?