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Pandemic-induced college football postponements alter networks' game plans

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The college football world has been turned upside down by the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences postponing their seasons in the wake of health concerns posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

While the two Power 5 conferences left the door open for a potential return next spring, there are questions around scheduling, ratings and ad sales, possible NFL encroachment, and risks that could ultimately intercept the entire college football slate.

The initial fallout is what Lee Berke, president and CEO of consultancy LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, called "a major hit" to Fox Corp.'s FOX Sports, which lost the two conferences it is "really dependent on."

FOX (US) and FOX Sports 1 (US) garnered an estimated $166 million in ad revenue from Big Ten and Pac-12 action in 2019, according to Standard Media Index, a provider of advertising expenditure and pricing data. FOX Sports, which declined to comment, still has rights to Big 12 games, but the Mountain West Conference, with which Fox had signed a new pact, has opted out of fall sports.

ESPN Inc. also carries the Pac-12 and Big Ten but controls a broader college football rights portfolio, including the Big 12 and the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences, the other Power 5 circuits pushing to play.

The Walt Disney Company's sports programmer, though, has far more revenue at risk. Standard Media Index estimated that ESPN (US), ABC (US), ESPN2 (US) and ESPNU (US) collected over $792 million in ad revenue across 282 regular-season, bowl and College Football Playoff telecasts last season.

Scheduling scenarios

The remaining games should be more valuable from audience and sales perspectives, provided "they have inventory left to sell," Brad Adgate, a media consultant and former executive at agency Horizon Media, said. ESPN declined to comment.

The defections cast the legitimacy of the 2020 season into question, said Adam Gajo, a sports media analyst at Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence.

"There will be interest in the intra-conference rivalry games, but this season comes with an asterisk," he said. Fan engagement may be blunted as the NBA and NHL playoffs take place in September/October amid their disrupted campaigns, as well as MLB's postseason and NFL, he said.

Curt Pires, president of media management company and consultancy CAP Sports, anticipates that the Sunbelt and American Athletic conferences — Group of 5 members that, as of press time, plan to play football this fall — might see more games air on linear TV, perhaps in the early Saturday windows on the ESPN suite of networks.

ViacomCBS Inc.'s CBS (US) broadcasts Southeastern Conference games, and CBS Sports is the primary rights holder for Conference USA, the third Group of 5 circuits scheduled to play and whose football action airs primarily on CBS Sports Network (US).

Adgate also expects ESPN to adopt a "TV first" approach, grabbing some contests from ESPN+, which streamed more than 300 games last season. He noted that ESPN draws the highest license fee of any basic-cable network from distributors.

With a good portion of that inventory lost and the need for content for the ACC Network (US) and SEC Network (US) it operates, ESPN could dip into the high school football ranks to plug some gaps for the streaming service, Pires said.

NFL knocking

The absence of Big Ten and Pac-12 may give the NFL, which usually schedules a handful of late-season games on the day, a greater presence on Saturdays.

Berke said the NFL would likely tread cautiously in expanding its position on Saturday so as not to upset the college football establishment that serves as the circuit's de facto minor league and could provide the conferences with compensation.

Pires said the networks would pay a premium to add Saturday games. Negotiations to add Saturday games could serve as a catalyst for the next round of media rights renewals that had been expected this year, he said.

Spring fling

Like those pointing to the health risks amid the pandemic, Pires also questions the physical toll on players potentially competing in 10 football games in the spring and then gearing up for summer training and another slate of games in fall 2021.

Pandemic permitting, the spring games would enter a TV dial crowded by NBA, NHL, MLB and the March Madness college basketball tournament, noted Berke, who does not envision a return to the traditional sports calendar for at least another 18 months.

For now, the plan calls for some college football to unfold, but that is subject to change as campus returns could trigger further outbreaks.

Although Gajo is not sure about the feasibility of putting college football conferences in a "bubble," the venue isolation and testing protocol solutions that have allowed the NBA and NHL to resume play could work against college football.

"The kids and other parties may want them to play, but seeing the success the NHL and NBA have had with their bubble approaches, the conferences and schools run the risk of litigation, if there is an outbreak," he said. "One major incident and this could all go away."