The Big Ten Conference has reached the richest television deal ever for a college athletic league, selling the rights to the tournaments for at least $1 billion a year.
The seven-year arrangement will end the Big Ten as one of the nation’s most prestigious college sports leagues, but it promises to fuel a growing debate over how universities should handle unpaid athletes.
The deal reflects the television networks’ desire to capitalize on America’s huge appetite for sports, at a time of unusual upheaval in college athletics. The college sports industry has faced setbacks in statehouses and the courts, including a Supreme Court case in 2021, making it more vulnerable to antitrust challenges. And the decline in the political influence of college sports has allowed athletes to defy longstanding rules, such as those that until last year kept their fame from monetizing.
In turn, managers and coaches become dismayed when they look at their numbers and the economic dynamics begin to change.
Now the Big Ten, borrowing from a strategy believed to be North America’s richest sports league, splits football games among multiple broadcast networks, with Fox, CBS and NBC each armed with coveted time slots.
In addition to turning the Big Ten into a football powerhouse, the high value of the contract will provide stability for the league and its members for years to come. The conference’s expiring deal is worth about $2.6 billion over six years. The new arrangement will be implemented next July.
The Big Ten deal calls for Fox, the majority shareholder in the Big Ten Network, to carry several signature football games in the 14-university league, including eyeball draws like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Add Southern California and UCLA in 2024. Fox broadcasts games on the Big Ten Network and FS1.
But unlike the Southeastern Conference, which includes Disney and its platform networks ABC and ESPN, the Big Ten chose to reach deals with broadcasters beyond Fox.
Nearing the end of its long relationship with the SEC, CBS will finally fill its Saturday afternoon time slot with games from the South’s football parks at Nebraska and Wisconsin.
NBC selects Big Ten tournaments, often in prime time, and airs its college sports offerings beyond Notre Dame home games live through a separate agreement with the university. The Peacock, NBC’s broadcast platform, also shows Big Ten games.
“The Big Ten will be on network television most Saturday afternoons until 11 p.m.,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. Even before the planned additions of UCLA and USC as a “true national conference”.
Although the Big Ten did not disclose specific financial terms, four people familiar with the negotiations spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks.
In addition to football, the agreement includes men’s and women’s basketball and all other conference-sponsored sports, including baseball, softball and volleyball.
Football, however, led the negotiations. While Fox is clearly positioned to remain the Big Ten’s central broadcast partner, the joke is on how other media companies will divide up the conference’s portfolio.
“When you have multiple partners, it’s like having multiple siblings: There’s a certain amount of healthy competition,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in an interview about the merger talks between Amazon, Apple, ESPN and WarnerMedia. Discovery this year.
No platform’s absence from the deal is more notable than ESPN: The broadcaster has been associated with the Big Ten since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and has an impact on popular perception of American sports. But Disney, which owns ESPN, has agreed to the Big Ten’s proposed terms, instead showing other top leagues like the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference.
While universities receive income from sports in many ways, their main source of athletics revenue is broadcast rights. Conferences generally handle the negotiations — the National Collegiate Athletic Association is in charge of national postseason basketball — and distribute money to their member schools.
Twenty years ago, when adjusted for inflation, Big Ten schools distributed less than $200 million in media rights money each year, according to a database run by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and Syracuse University.
The increase in revenue in college sports has sparked more open discussions about whether players should take a cut. Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh said last month that the Big Ten should consider sharing television money with athletes. The league has made no moves in that direction, and like other college sports organizers, has resisted calls to classify athletes as employees.
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The conference also seems unfazed by the possibility that the new wind could put new pressure on it.
Although they entered the negotiations with the desire to strike a Big Ten record deal, Hopes were bolstered this summer when UCLA and USC, who were successful in 2024, were knocked out of the Pac-12. (To New Jersey, it could add more schools, and the new contracts include mechanisms to increase prices if the conference’s rankings rise.)
The conference will continue to support a high-profile football game at noon on Saturday, with the slot encouraged by how quickly it draws fans into the conference orbit.
“To be ready to make the midday game — what food you’re putting in the crock pot, what tailgate you’re doing, where the kids are going, what you’re driving, whether you’re going to the game — you have to start making those decisions on Friday,” he said after the Big Ten canceled its 2020 football season due to the pandemic. said Warren, who has long been one of the most reviled men in college sports.
“The earlier I can create an environment where we start getting into your mind, the better,” added Warren, who has spent decades working for NFL franchises.
Although the Big Ten’s media rights are far less than the NFL’s, whose media rights are estimated at more than $10 billion a year, the conference deal marks the first time a college league has secured a deal worth at least $1 billion a year.
A decade later, the NCAA’s contract for the Division 1 men’s basketball tournament, the centerpiece of the March Madness spectacle, will be worth $1.1 billion annually.
More immediately, the Big Ten arrangement extends its ties to the SEC for business and sports dominance. The Big Ten appears to have the financial edge for now.
SEC in 2010 It announced a deal with Disney for the league’s top-shelf football games in 2020, moving them from CBS after the 2023 season and adding to a relationship already worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Before the SEC decided to add Oklahoma and Texas starting in 2025, the new, if narrow, deal was worth about $300 million a year.
In an interview this summer, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey had no regrets about the league’s contract timing for major league games. In July, amid rumors that CBS had reached an agreement to become something less than a major Big Ten partner, Sankey said the network “made a decision not to meet our expectations.”
“I think it’s a little inexplicable, but that was their decision,” Sankey added.
McManus, the CBS Sports chairman, said this week that he believes his network and the Sankey Conference have a mutually beneficial relationship and thinks “part of their success and growth is directly related to the CBS broadcast window.” He said he expects the Big Ten arrangement to “pay us more profit than the SEC deal would.”
“We’ve looked at the value and national scope that the Big Ten brings us, and this deal makes a lot of sense to us,” McManus said. “The deal we were negotiating with the SEC didn’t make a lot of sense to us.”
On the field, however, another football season will take place before the new Big Ten contract begins. Alabama, an SEC stalwart, is ranked No. 1 in preseason polls. Ohio State, the pride of the Big Ten, is No. 2.