It’s the “dead season” in college football, when evergreen topics and thinkpieces — and, of course, more recruiting updates — emerge about the sport.
But there’s one story — from Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples — that’s worth your read and a little time to ponder the implications. It specifically could affect Nebraska and the Big Ten.
Staples this week wrote about the potential of Internet/technology giants like Amazon, Netflix and Google eventually bidding on television rights packages for college football games — like the Big Ten’s package of games — in a little more than a half-decade.
The story is worth a good chew. Staples talks to conference commissioners, including the Big Ten’s Jim Delany, about the eventuality of selling broadcast rights beyond cable — so be sure to read the whole thing. But I’ll isolate this particular paragraph for consumption:
If Amazon were to buy the Big Ten’s Tier 1 rights — meaning you’d need a Prime membership to watch Michigan-Ohio State or Nebraska-Wisconsin — that could mean millions of additional members who might eventually spend thousands more a year. Fox’s new six-year deal with the Big Ten will pay the league an average of $440 million a year for those rights. If Amazon paid $500 million a year for the same thing and it netted two million new Prime members who then spent an average of $1,500 more per year on Amazon than when they were non-members, Amazon would do an additional $3 billion in sales.
That’s one heck of a point. Of course, Staples’ numbers are hypothetical, but probably not too hypothetical. After all, the Big Ten signed six-year deals with Fox and ABC/ESPN to split the Tier 1 and Tier 2 rights. Six years is not a long time in the TV rights world — ABC/ESPN locked up the ACC until 2036.
Delany wouldn’t have signed such short deals if he didn’t think he could do better — soon.
From the SI story:
“If you go shorter, you take out a little more risk,” Delany said. “But you also have a little more upside.”
Since the Big Ten is nothing if not strategic when it comes to making money, Delany’s words should hold weight.
Would fans flock to sign up for Amazon Prime memberships if the Big Ten sold its rights to Amazon?
I think Nebraska fans would. They might initially balk at the membership fee — it’s $99 per year now but it’d probably increase a bit if Amazon purchased football rights — but, yes, over time, they’d jump at it. It’s a lot cheaper than cable, for one thing, and since fans can’t isolate ESPN from the rest of the bundle, cable/satellite bills are far more expensive than $99 per year.
But there’s always the conversation about whether Amazon or some other company, like Google, would want to create the structure to put on a good football broadcast — buying the cameras, hiring announcers, staging pregame and postgame shows.
ESPN had the gall to put most of its best college football products on cable — the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl, and so on — in part because Fox’s presentation of the BCS, from 2006 through 2009, was so panned by regular viewers. Remember all the catcalls for the constant shots of the marching bands? Fox now has a big chunk of the college football broadcast rights — top Big 12, Pac 12 and Big Ten games are on the network — but there remains a sense that ESPN just does college football a little better. I think it’s kept some leagues as more loyal customers than they should have been; some of the early Big Ten games on ESPNWhatever are average-to-poor productions. But ESPN’s name attached to college football is still a factor.
Another factor is whether the streaming experience could consistently, universally compete with the dependable cable experience. I’m not technologically savvy enough to say “absolutely” it could all the time, with the same volume of viewers that now watch Ohio State-Michigan on cable. I get the sense, right now, it wouldn’t. Glitches and momentary freezes are annoying with TV shows, but manageable. They’d be a nightmare in live sports if they happened often. Sports fans watch sporting events alongside reading their Twitter feed on the phone. That’s how it rolls. Fans have been ticked at me for explaining a play live — in the stadium — in the second before they see it on TV. That’s how slim the margin is. A game-winning kick isn’t the same 17 seconds after it happens.
But Delany and the Big Ten might be on the right side of the market here. Already, the extra TV dollars enjoyed by the Big Ten — though not, until this year, by Nebraska — have leveled the playing field in recruiting. Iowa has a new football facility. Northwestern will soon. Wisconsin upgraded its facility (the football stadium remains a dump.) Minnesota’s in the midst of building one. So is Purdue. The Big Ten TV money is starting to flex its muscles. This new deal — of which Nebraska will receive a full share — could be north of $50 million per year by the end of the contract.
I’m not sure what NU will do with that money, but it’s done quite a bit already — new basketball practice facility, major Devaney Center facelift, the East Stadium project, the tennis courts and new soccer stadium — without the benefit of it.
Does Nebraska get recruits because of some of those improvements? Oh, you betcha.
So these TV deals matter. A lot.
And if the Big Ten can get Google or Amazon or some Internet giant to bite for big bucks — it will.