That, of course, is the sound of the Southeastern Conference's cash register opening today after hauling in a modest... $3.075 billion dollars. [Raises pinky to mouth; camera zooms in]
That exuberant amount of cash is being paid for programming rights to the SEC for the next 15 years of football (and to a lesser extent, basketball). It's divided between two networks. CBS - who pays $55 million a year to get its pick of the SEC game of the week, every week. Then, our good friends at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN, lay down roughly two-thirds of that $3 bil for the rights to every other game. Yikes.
And you thought college football just was about student athletes, sunshine and rainbows.
What does this mean for the Pac-10 and money-starved Washington State?
Well, let's start with a simple question: why on Earth are CBS and ESPN willing to shell out that kind of money for programming rights for only one league, and mostly for one sport? It's all about squashing the competition before they even start. By paying for TV rights now, ESPN ensures that the SEC cannot form its own cable network in the next fifteen years. Silly as it may sound, a SEC network would actually be a formidable foe for ESPN, considering the intense popularity of college football and basketball in the South. The Big Ten network, while only seen on a certain number of cable/satellite providers, is already turning some heads as the future of BCS-conference programming. After all, how great would it be to see most or all of the Pac-10 games right on one easy to find network?
As long as Tom Hansen is around, which thankfully isn't for much longer, the Pac-10 Network is more dream than reality. But what the SEC did today was show other conferences that they can be successful by sticking with the traditional platforms. And that is good news for our conference, because thanks to the current regime, the likelihood for a drastic TV change is slim. But the Pac-10 isn't even succeeding in the traditional way. By making weak national deals with ABC/ESPN and CBS, and weak regional deals with FSN, the Pac-10 is robbing its members of both money and exposure.
How? Think about how ESPN operates. Whenever ESPN picks up a sport, like Nascar, all of a sudden there is a shift in programming to increase coverage of that sport. You may see "Nascar now" every once in a while, but how often have you seen NHL coverage on ESPN recently? Exactly. The NHL is now on the Versus network where it toils in relative obscurity. ESPN deals not only bring money to the sports they carry, but also add the incredibly important exposure factor. That factor could do wonders for the Cougs, who desperately need some national attention. For now, ESPN's financial and programming focus shifts to the SEC. And that's bad news for us.
Of course this wouldn't be an issue if ESPN had a decent competitor. And for all intents and purposes, FSN should have been just that. What sports fan wouldn't love a national sports network divided into regional networks to provide more coverage of their local teams? It is great in theory, but failed in practice because there are already national and regional sports competitors not linked to FSN. When baseball teams like the Yankees and Red Sox ditched the regional networks and formed their own, FSN and its colleagues took an even bigger hit. And when ESPN is picking up key games here and there from your local teams, FSN loses the exclusivity that could have made it a valuable network.
And yet the Pac-10 remains so fervently loyal to FSN. I don't have anything personal against the network, although Angie Mentink's comments about the difficulties moving equipment to Pullman doesn't help. The semi-biased announcing doesn't help either (*cough*Brian Davis*cough*).
No, my real problems with FSN lie in lack of national exposure and lack of the impeccable presentation value that ESPN puts into its coverage. The FSN "studio" at the Pac-10 basketball tournament in L.A. was a set fit for a hobo. ESPN's Bristol studios are the sports equivalent of the Vatican. ESPN draws in viewers who may not care about your team but just watch for the sake of watching sports. FSN has to target its coverage regionally - which, while one of its strengths, doesn't help bring Cougar Football to Orlando or Michigan.
It isn't fair, of course. There should be an anti-ESPN, a L.A.-based juggernaut with impressive graphics and an exclusive TV contract with the Pac-10. But there isn't. Instead, the Pac-10 goes all over the place. A USC game here and there on ABC, several other games on FSN, a game here and there on Versus, TBS, etc. But by breaking the coverage up to several networks they lose any bargaining power they have to force one or two networks to pick up all of the games. Their counter-argument must be that no one is interested in that particular deal. But when you're making a profit regardless, how can you refuse to take a slight cut in pay so that you can get the conference more exposure?
And this is what I'm most upset about: I cannot understand why every single Cougar football game isn't televised. There are only ten teams. Five games per week in the conference season. Every single one should be on some network in some capacity. Part of the problem for WSU is Jim Sterk's reluctance to move game times for TV. One of the few things I disagree with the Athletic Director on. But the other problem is that the conference hasn't demanded that teams other than USC football and UCLA basketball be seen every week. I don't care if it is a student-run broadcast picked up by the local stations in Seattle and Spokane. Every game should be on TV.
My dream would be this: one national game given to ABC every week (which 90% of the time will involve USC), another given to the ESPN family of networks, and the other three or more placed on a Pac-10 Network. But the current regime is too old school and stubborn to go for something as progressive as a conference network (even though it would do wonders for basketball). So why not just give ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox one game, and the ESPN networks all the others? Even if you take a pay cut, the added exposure will make up for the difference. Financially, and in terms of marketing. The conference could actually support its schools by demanding each game is on TV. If you have to play a Thursday or Friday night game here and there, big deal. Did we really miss out by playing Idaho a couple years ago on a Thursday? Of course not.
I do understand the issues with traveling to Pullman on weeknights or evenings. I know, it's tough. But it's essential for the future of Cougar athletics in terms of money and exposure. And if you set the game times well in advance, fans can prepare in advance. It will also give an extra boost to the local economy in the Palouse if people have to stay an extra night or two. Is that such a bad thing?
Fans, recruits and players demand TV exposure. Why not give it to them? The Pac-10 can never contend for the kind of deal the SEC just made. And I understand the inherent risks with selling the conference's soul to the sports behemoth that is ESPN. And now, with the SEC guaranteed ESPN's strongest efforts, the window of opportunity for the Pac-10 may be closing.
Still, ESPN is a necessary evil. If they can make a deal with the MAC, they can make a deal with the Pac. It's time the conference opened up their minds, talked to ESPN, or made a deal with FSN or another carrier to get every football game and the vast majority of basketball games on TV. Our conference is more than USC football and UCLA basketball. It can be done.