With news breaking this morning that Pac-10 / soon-to-be Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is putting the finishing touches on a media rights deal expected to be worth about $3 billion over 12 years, our attention shifts from "wow that's a lot of money for our university!" to "what, exactly, does this partnership with ESPN and Fox mean for me, the television viewer?"
On the one hand, we're ecstatic that this deal ushers in the era of every football and men's basketball game being made available on some broadcast partner. And the fact that ESPN is a partner in this deal is huge -- even though the four-letter network isn't the primary partner, it still ensures that a sizeable number of games will appear on that network. It's sort of the holy grail of television rights, as ESPN is a frequent landing destination for the casual sports fan.
Beyond that, nobody shamelessly promotes its own product like ESPN, whether through in-game promotions or through increased coverage on SportsCenter and other news-based programming across its various channels. So that's awesome.
But many of us, including myself, were openly rooting for NBC/Comcast to win the rights because we're frankly sick and tired of the substandard production quality on the FSN regional networks, where the bulk of the conference's games have ended up under the pitiful contract negotiated by Scott's predecessor, Tom Hansen. This is to say nothing of how hard it has been to find games on those channels.
A fresh start with a network conglomerate eager to make its mark in the industry seemed to us to be the way to announce the conference as a major player nationally and maximize exposure. The Pac-12 would have been the flagship college partner of NBC/Comcast, and you can virtually guarantee that all the conference's premium contests would have been on at premium times and promoted to the hilt.
Under the ESPN/Fox partnership, one has to wonder how much that's going to happen, given that the inventory is going to be scattered across ABC, Fox, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, FX and FSN.
However, it would be silly to let these question marks hover like a cloud over today's news, because beyond the massive amount of money being thrown around, there's absolutely no denying this is a huge positive step for Pac-12 fans in terms of being able to find the conference's games on channels most people actually have. No, none of us particularly like games being broadcast on the jumble of FSN/Root regional networks, but common sense dictates that those channels will likely be at the bottom of the pecking order for distribution.
First-tier rights are obviously going to go to ABC, Fox and ESPN, three channels which are virtually indistinguishable in terms of exposure to sports fans. (If you think a game being on ESPN is a step down from being on ABC or Fox, look at Monday Night Football. It's not.) But those second-tier rights that previously went to FSN? I just don't see that being the case anymore.
Fox wasn't going to pony up this kind of money unless it planned on putting a substantial amount of content on FX. That's a great thing for viewers, because FX has roughly the same distribution as ESPN nationally. There might not be as much long-term potential for exposure and growth as being the flagship conference on a new NBC sports network (currently referred to as "rebranded Versus") designed to challenge ESPN would have had, but it's still huge, and I'm betting that the bulk of the second-tier games end up either on FX or on ESPN2. These are channels that are easy for viewers to find that are in virtually every home with a basic digital cable or satellite package across the entire country.
In other words, most of the Pac-12's television broadcasts will be available nationwide -- something that's not currently the case. Huge, huge victory.
The leftover third-tier games then likely fall to ESPNU and FSN. Yes, those channels are harder to find, and no, they're not in as many homes. But they'll be broadcasting games that previously weren't on TV at all, and if I've got the choice between watching a game on FSN with Barry Tompkins and Petros Papadakis and not watching it at all? Well, I'll choose watching the game ... with the volume off. That's OK by me.
Looking for more positives? Anything on any of the ESPN channels will be available on the ESPN3.com platform, which is accessible by those with computers or Xbox 360 consoles and participating internet service providers. Not all ISPs currently participate, but as ESPN adds to its inventory, pressure will build for more ISPs to subscribe. Comcast -- the primary cable provider along most of the west coast -- already participates. I don't believe Time Warner in Los Angeles does, however, so that will be something to keep an eye on over the next 12 months.
Of course, this doesn't even take into account the Pac-12 network, which is coming, and the proposed digital media platform that will reportedly be similar to ESPN3. These things, again, will make Pac-12 sports easier to find -- especially if you're a non-revenue sports fan. Honestly, there's a lot of good stuff out there in baseball and Olympic sports that never gets seen. I'd watch it if it were available, and the prospect of that is exciting.
In short, while the money is obviously the most important thing -- helping every team in our conference be more competitive with schools from other conferences -- it's a pretty abstract concept that won't have a direct effect on most fans' experiences. But this network lineup guarantees that this deal will enhance your day-to-day fandom in a concrete way.
That's simply awesome for us Pac-10 fans who have been treated as second-class sports citizens for far too long.