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CBS withdraws from SEC football package renewal talks

CBS Sports has punted on continued carriage of the Southeastern Conference football package.

Climbing rights fees led CBS executives to decide not to extend CBS (US)'s deal to televise the conference when the current pact expires. That means SEC games will no longer air on the broadcast network following the 2023 season, thus ending a 27-year TV partnership.

Sources indicate that CBS offered more than five times its current annual rights fee of $55 million but was unable to reach a deal.

ESPN (US)-ABC (US) is reportedly nearing a deal for the rights package, anchored by a 3:30 p.m. ET window on Saturdays, a pair of prime-time offerings and the conference championship game. ESPN operates the SEC Network (US), which is dedicated to the conference's full athletic offerings.

"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," ViacomCBS said in a statement.

The decision is the latest significant move by ViacomCBS Inc. since finalized of the two formerly independent companies' merger Dec. 4. The merged company on Dec. 20 agreed to purchase a 49% stake in global film and television studio Miramax LLC from beIN Media Group LLC. It also has reportedly renewed its golf rights deal with the PGA Tour.

Before the reunion, CBS Corp. netted a deal with UEFA, Europe's governing soccer body, for the continent's top club competitions Champions League and Europa League, and the newly created UEFA European Conference League. The contract, financial terms of which were not disclosed, begins with the 2021-22 campaign. During CBS Corp.'s Nov. 12 earnings call, executives said all 400 matches per season will stream on subscription video-on-demand service CBS All Access with select games airing on the broadcast network.

By backing off on the SEC renewal, ViacomCBS is presumably holding some of its funds in reserve for an extension with the NFL.

Rights negotiations for the U.S.'s most popular sport, which is enjoying a strong ratings performance during its centennial season, are expected to begin after the league scores a new collective bargaining agreement with its players' association.

The NFL's deal with ESPN ends after the 2021 season, while pacts with CBS, FOX (US), NBC (US) and DIRECTV's out-of-market Sunday Ticket offering expire following the 2022 campaign. CBS currently pays $1 billion per season for its primary American Football Conference package, which includes playoff games and being part of the Super Bowls rotation with FOX and NBC.

ViacomCBS President and CEO Bob Bakish has indicated the merged company wants to retain its place in the NFL's lineup. With the most-watched programming in linear TV, the pro football league is key for CBS and the other broadcasters in terms of national and station advertising sales, and as a property that builds retransmission-consent revenues and serves as a promotional platform for their entertainment rosters. CBS also includes NFL action as part of its CBS All Access.

The SEC Network features football games throughout the day on Saturdays, with ESPN or other channels airing games in prime time. The Walt Disney Co. has been looking to bolster ABC's sports positioning, with a number of analysts predicting the broadcaster could return to pro football, perhaps regaining the rights to "Monday Night Football."

The SEC has been the highest-rated college football package for the past 11 seasons. During the 2019 season, CBS averaged a 4.2 rating and 7.10 million viewers, up 24% from 2018 and the network’s biggest audience for the sport since 1990.

The two highest-rated and most-watched college games of the season to date aired on the "SEC on CBS": LSU-Alabama drew a 9.7 rating and 16.7 million viewers on Nov. 9, while the conference championship game in which the Tigers routed Georgia garnered a 7.9 rating and averaged 13.7 million viewers Dec. 9.