If there’s one thing we know about the current state of college athletics, it’s that money talks. Which means CBS walks.
CBS will walk away from the SEC when its contract ends after the 2023 football season, and all indications are that the package will move to ESPN/ABC. CBS decided to exit the negotiations for college football’s most-watched TV package after making an aggressive bid in the neighborhood of $300 million per season — a massive increase from the $55 million it currently pays annually. CBS Sports execs decided that it made more sense to invest the money they would have paid the SEC into other sports. When contacted this afternoon by SBJ, CBS Sports PR emailed the following statement: “We made a strong and responsible bid. While we‘ve had success with the SEC on CBS, we are instead choosing to aggressively focus on other important strategic priorities moving forward.”
Multiple sources said ESPN/ABC is in the final stages of negotiating a deal that is expected to pay more than six times the $55 million per year fee that CBS currently pays, sources said. Fox Sports execs still are planning to make an official bid presentation at SEC HQ in Birmingham next month. But sources say ESPN’s negotiations are in the final stages. ESPN and Fox Sports would not comment.
CBS plans to carry SEC football for the four seasons it has left on its contract, unless the conference or winning network is able to buy it out. CBS has carried SEC football since 1996 and network execs were interested in extending. When bidding went well over $300 million per season for 15-17 football games, including the conference championship game, CBS opted to bow out.
The math is not insignificant. The contract works out to more than an additional $20 million a year per school, a big deal if you’re an SEC president engaged in a dick measuring contest with your Big Ten peers.
I get it. The current deal with CBS is certainly undervalued in today’s market and it’s not realistic for Sankey to subsidize that ad infinitum. Still, there’s some non-monetary value in the deal, which means jumping to Mickey carries a sort of risk.
The decision to move away from CBS carries some risk for the SEC, especially considering that it has been college football’s most-viewed package for more than 10 years running. The conference will go from a network where it is the only college football conference to one where it will be one of many conferences. Insiders credit some of the SEC’s success on Saturday afternoons with being the sole focus of CBS’ Emmy-winning coverage.
Not only that, it’s benefited from being carried nationally on a non-cable network. All that goes out of the room. Instead,
ESPN won the conference over with its argument that it can be more creative with scheduling when it controls all of the rights. With ESPN owning all of the SEC’s football rights, it’s possible that more than one game will be produced for broadcast TV; more top-tier games can be moved to primetime; and the conference can schedule more late afternoon games without having to worry about running into CBS’ exclusive window.
C’mon, man. All ESPN had to say was $300 million to win the conference over. Scheduling creativity is a benefit for the network more than it is for the SEC and it’s a major reason it’s willing to throw that kind of jack Sankey’s way.
All in all, this is a perfect metaphor for the biggest underlying story of college football, its steady transition from a sport rooted in regional loyalty and passion to a more bloodless appeal to a national audience. That’s where the money is.
The sad thing to watch as this unfolds is the way the people running the conference will continue to try to fake attention to that regional appeal as it slowly fades away. But that’s Sankey’s choice. More power to him.