August 11, 2009

Big Ten far from conceding TV wars with SEC

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McDonald's stares down Burger King.

Miller battles Bud.

In college football, it's the Big Ten vs. the SEC.

This is all about demographics, media markets, alumni bases and interest, making those the premier conferences in college football.

No doubt the SEC is better than the Big Ten when it comes to on-field performance in recent years. The SEC has won the past three national championships, four of the past six and five of the 11 that have been contested during the BCS era.

The Big Ten? It seemingly has been served a mega-dose of humiliation topped with a dollop of embarrassment since Ohio State shocked the world by beating Miami for the 2002 national championship.

Now, many would have you believe the SEC again has whipped the Big Ten in TV contracts. The SEC has 15-year deals with CBS and ESPN that reportedly will bring the conference more than $200 million per year ($150 million from ESPN and $55 million from CBS).

Maybe as important as all that loot is that the SEC now will have secondary games that consistently penetrate outside its geographic footprint, thanks to the deal with ESPN Regional Television. It's all about exposure, which leads to better recruiting, which leads to better teams and more dominance by the SEC.

There is no denying the scope of reach the SEC will get from its deal with ESPN. The self-proclaimed "World-Wide Leader in Sports" has tentacles that stretch from the Internet to print to radio in addition to its multi-layered TV networks.

"With ESPN's multimedia platforms, we anticipate SEC sports will touch an unprecedented base of college fans nation wide," said ESPN Regional Television senior vice president and general manager Pete Derzis at the time of the deal.

And don't discount the promotional buzz the SEC will get from being with a network that possesses ESPN's cache. No, ESPN likely won't ignore big stories from the Big Ten if they are warranted, but the network has been wont over the years to pimp the products that it has agreements with. So, count on plenty of SEC coverage this fall.

Not bad. But the SEC's deals still don't match the TV empire the Big Ten has built.

Like the SEC, the Big Ten has mega-million-dollar agreements with its broadcast partners. The SEC works with CBS, while the Big Ten partners with ABC. And each league has an agreement with ABC/ESPN. Let's call those aspects of each conference's TV deals even.

What tips the "TV war" in favor of the Big Ten is the Big Ten Network. Bottom line: It's much better than the SEC ESPN regional package many are lauding.

"The balance between licensing games and owning a network is a pretty nice balance because you are able to achieve some rights fees, asset value and also the branding component," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany says.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive could not be reached to comment.

Some media reports out of SEC Media Days last month would have you believe SEC teams now will control recruiting in Big Ten country because of these TV deals.

Delany scoffs at that.

"I don't think putting third- or fourth-line games in our backyard is going to make much of a difference," he says.

First, know this: The SEC's ESPN regional TV deal - the one that will beam, say, Kentucky-Mississippi State into Minnesota - basically is the ESPN Plus network that syndicated Big Ten games before the advent of the Big Ten Network for the 2007 season.

Back then, Big Ten games were being beamed into, among other states, Florida, Georgia and Alabama on ESPN Plus. Funny - no one was hooting and hollering over the Big Ten invading SEC TV markets. But now that the SEC is doing it, the league is being lauded as genius.

Even today, the Big Ten has more games shown in markets outside its base than the SEC. One-hundred-fifty of the 200 markets the Big Ten Network serves are outside its "home" region. Conversely, 23 of the 73 markets that the SEC's ESPN Regional deal serves are outside the league's "home" region. In 2008, ESPN averaged a 2.0 rating for all of its games, according to Nielsen. The Big Ten Network scored a 1.7 rating in 2008, which was up from 0.8

Sports Business Journal media reporter John Ourand said it's difficult to compare the Big Ten Network to the SEC's deal with ESPN. But he acknowleged some key differences.

"What the SEC has that the Big Ten doesn't have is distribution on ESPN U, distribution on ESPN 360 and across the other ESPN platforms," he said. "The SEC doesn't have to go through the carriage battles that the Big Ten does because ESPN effectively has taken care of it.

"[But] ESPN will promote the Big Ten, too. Remember, ESPN has paid the Big Ten a ton of money and they have a lot of games on. It isn't like the Big Ten is gonna be a weak sister on ESPN."

Still Delany and others would argue that the Big Ten Network is better than the SEC ESPN regional TV deal for the folowing reasons:

The Big Ten Network is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year operation, and it reaches 73 million homes. SEC Regional will feature a 20-minute pregame show and one game per week, and it will reach 54 million homes.

The Big Ten Network had 39 nationally distributed games last season; SEC Regional will have one game a week for 13 weeks. Seven games in the first three weeks of 2009 on SEC Regional will be available only on pay-per-view or locally. The Big Ten Network never does that.

The Big Ten Network is in 19 of the top 20 markets. SEC Regional is in 10 of the top 20.

If that isn't enough, the Big Ten also has a profit-sharing agreement with the Big Ten Network. Kagan, a leading cable research and finance company, predicts over the next two years that the Big Ten Network will make $100 million in profit.

The Big Ten also is an equity partner with the Big Ten Network, owning 51 percent of the company. Kagan values the BTN at $1 billion. And Kagan says the value of BTN in three years could be $2 billion.

No one will go on the record to say it, but the SEC was able to leverage its deal with ESPN because the Big Ten started its own network. ESPN couldn't afford to lose the SEC's product, so it essentially overpaid to keep it. Why? Because ESPN wants to use SEC football to bolster ESPNU and its regional arm, making them more valuable commodities.

Lastly, the Big Ten Network is a platform for all sports in the conference. The SEC's TV deals don't match that scope or range of coverage.

"A network is not right for all conferences," Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman says. "Not all conferences have the content and the appeal and the brand to launch their own network. But the Big Ten does. Our success to date is a result of how powerful the Big Ten brand and content is nationally.

"The SEC got presented a very attractive financial deal and they decided to go that route as opposed to a network, and that's the best thing for them. The Big Ten would much rather have the agreements it has now than what any other league has."

And those agreements are as good - if not better - than the SEC's.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for He can be reached at

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