The Updated Sun Belt Media Rights Deal Is Very Likely to End Poorly, And Should Have Been Avoided to Begin With

“The continuation of our agreement with ESPN marks one of the most historic announcements since the Sun Belt’s founding in 1976,” said Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson. “This is truly an ‘all in’ collaboration with ESPN, the Sun Belt, and our member institutions and the volume and accessibility of our games will have a profound impact on the future of the Sun Belt. We have enjoyed a long relationship with ESPN since its founding in 1979 and we look forward to being featured on its newest platform, ESPN+, which promises to revolutionize how audiences view content.”

On March 1, the Sun Belt Conference announced that it would re-up its TV deal with ESPN until 2028. SBC Commissioner Karl Benson clearly believes that this is a historic moment in the history of the Sun Belt.

Sticking with ESPN provides stability and predictability for a conference still trying to earn respect at the FBS level. Additionally, there still is a certain amount of prestige that comes with being on the ESPN family of networks. The Sun Belt needs all the “prestige” it can get.

As a purveyor of college football message boards, it’s amazing to see how excited fans of Sun Belt schools get when their team plays on the “The Deuce” instead of ESPNU. If for whatever reason they wind up playing a game on the mothership or, God-forbid, ABC, you’d never hear the end of it, bodybag game or not.

Even today in the era of cord-cutting, there is still something special about playing on ABC or ESPN if you are a G5 school. The rich, old, Southern boosters that effectively run these programs like to kick back on a Saturday afternoon, or a Wednesday/Thursday night, and watch football on a real TV channel, rather than fiddling with apps and fire sticks or whatever these dadgum millennials do these days.

But at the same time, there are a lot of questions regarding this deal. The future is not quite as rosy as Karl Benson would like you to believe it is. The times are changing.

A decade ago, the first iPhone was released; fast-forward ten years later and they have taken over the world. I have seen elementary-aged kids with smartphones. There is no telling what TV will look like ten years from now at the end of this Sun Belt TV deal. It could be Futurama a decade from now.

My parents just downgraded their DirecTV package to DirecTV Now. It’s sort of a methadone for the cable-addicted. DirecTV is desperate to slow-down the exodus and DirecTV Now provides an alternative to full-on cord-cutting. But if my Baby-Boomer parents are in the process of cord-cutting, then you know it is the beginning of the end. The writing is on the wall.

Furthermore, ESPN has been slow to adapt to this new world of a-la-carte TV options. They have been hemorrhaging subscribers for years now. ESPN had to cut veteran talent such as Marc Stein, John Clayton, and Chad Ford, among others, to stem the bleeding. You’d have to be living under a North Korean rock not to know this by now. However, as much blame as ESPN gets for that, most of it isn’t their fault.

Just five years ago, ESPN was Disney’s most valuable asset. One of the most lucrative media enterprises in the world. But in a market that changes every 3-4 years, at minimum, life hits you fast. A large, methodical Death Star-sized corporation like ESPN is not built to move on the fly.

Sometimes trends appear out of nowhere and established industries disappear overnight. Newspapers, case and point.

However, there is still high-demand for live sports content. Live sports is one of the few mono-culture activities that we have left in the age of internet subcultures and niches. Just look at Twitter’s reaction to Tiger Woods’ run at the Valspar Championship this past weekend. Not even Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead move the needle quite like Tiger wearing red on a Sunday afternoon. People love live sports and ESPN is the principle merchant in that realm.

But ESPN has a plan to join this brave, new world: ESPN+. ESPN+ is Bob Iger’s plan to rescue the flailing network. It is the new online streaming service which is at the crux of this new Sun Belt TV deal. The success of this TV deal is riding on whether or not Disney can make ESPN+ work. Here is a summary of the what the deal entails:

  • The confirmation that the inaugural Sun Belt Football Championship Game will be played on Saturday, December 1, 2018, on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, with future championship games also televised on one of these networks.
  • The guarantee that all Sun Belt home football games will be available on an ESPN platform for the seventh consecutive year in 2018 and for the duration of the long-term contract with ESPN.
  • A continued increase of men’s and women’s basketball games on ESPN platforms.  The number of men’s basketball contests available will jump to a minimum of 100 games in 2018-19 and 150 games in the 2019-20 season.

Beginning with the 2020-21 academic year:

  • A minimum of 500 events a year will appear on an ESPN platform.
  • Every Sun Belt football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball game will be on an ESPN platform.
  • Linear network football games at Sun Belt home venues will expand to 10 games a year on a combination of ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.
  • Sun Belt Championship events will be on an ESPN platform each academic year that will give exposure to all conference sports.
  • Digital productions will expand to include regular season competition in Sun Belt sports that have received only limited coverage previously.

Sounds like a good deal on the surface, right?

Championship game on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2. The first time the Sun Belt will join the big boys on conference championship weekend. More basketball games on ESPN platforms. More Olympic sports coverage. A minimum of 500 events per year on ESPN platforms.

But dig a little bit beneath the surface and you start to realize that “there is no there, there” in the famous words of Gertrude Stein.

This deal would have been great five years ago. Today, it might be a death sentence.

The Mountain West has already looked into an internet TV deal to replace their current one. Conference USA took a huge revenue hit in their latest deal. What’s stopping these conferences from going cord-cutting themselves besides some octagenarian boosters?

Controlling start times of games and reaching a wider audience is tempting to consider. When the next round of realigment comes, it could be used as bait to lure Sun Belt teams up the ladder.

ESPN and CBS Sports wanted to renegotiate their TV deal with the Mountain West three full years ahead of its expiration. ESPN renegotiated their deal with the Sun Belt, two years ahead of the current deal’s terminus. The four-letter network used the conference championship game as an impetus to slide in before the lock.

In other words, G5 conferences have more leverage than they realize, even the little ole’ Sun Belt. The Sun Belt had leverage that even the Lenape Indians that sold Manhattan could understand.

Live sports content is the oxygen these networks need in order to survive this tumultuous era. They are desperate to retain their current deals and are scraping the bottom of the sports barrel for new ones.

Ultimate frisbee, “E-Sports” (not a sport, sorry nerds), squash, and 2-on-1 tennis (yes, 2-on-1) are shown on ESPN3 these days. A G5 TV deal might as well be the NFL today in terms of value for the old standard-bearers of TV.

YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have a wider global reach than ESPN does. Furthermore, they are free, ESPN is not. 22.2 million Americans have already abandoned cable or satellite and that number grows by the hour. YouTube TV has already struck deals with MLS and MLB, other leagues are sure to follow their lead.

Rumors are that you will need a cable subscription to access this new ESPN+ platform. ESPN+ will be $5 a month. That is an extra $60 a year on top of whatever a cable subscription costs these days.

It is not clear whether ESPN+ will replace the ESPN3 platform or merely supplement it. How much are you willing to pay to watch Sun Belt softball or golf?

In general, it’s rarely a good decision to extend a deal by eight years, two years before it ends, in a market that changes constantly.

The unknowns make it trickier. Is ESPN+ replacing ESPN3? if so, that means dramatically increasing ESPN’s rights to content but shoving almost all of it behind a paywall.

If it isn’t, how much is going to ESPN+? Right now, it sounds like we are going from two to ten CFB games on linear networks. That is an increase in MBB/WBB games, with no increase in linear network presence, and a major increase in everything else.

Not terrible, but that’s asking Sun Belt fans to pay $5 a month to watch non-revenue sports they were already watching for free. Georgia Southern has TrueBlueTV for that purpose. Is putting non-revenue sports behind a paywall really that good of an idea?

The Sun Belt appears to have locked itself into a deal that gives it stability, but barely increases money or exposure. Are Sun Belt fans willing to pay that extra price? That will determine if this deal is successful or not.

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