ESPN’s BCS Deal Moves College Football Championship to Cable

By Carolyn Braff
College football’s championship game has officially left the broadcast building.
To complement ABC’s existing rights to the Rose Bowl, ESPN has completed Disney’s sweep of headline bowl games with the purchase of four-year rights to the Bowl Championship Series. The deal covers exclusive rights to the Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar Bowls each season from 2011 through 2014 and the BCS National Championship Game from 2011 through 2013.
“We think this partnership is a natural fit,” says John Swofford, BCS coordinator and ACC commissioner. “ESPN has created a great culture around college football, promoting the college platform across all of its platforms. We think the multiplatform that ESPN is able to bring to the table is unlike anything else in sports.”
Cross-Platform Coverage
Although Fox Sports, which owns broadcast rights to the games through 2010, has digital rights bundled into the current agreement, the network has not exercised them to the degree that ESPN plans to. No formal streaming arrangements have been made, but simulcasts of the games on ESPN360.com are a possibility, along with simulcasts on ESPN Mobile TV.
“This agreement goes well beyond a three-hour-window TV agreement,” says George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. “It’s a multimedia agreement and an international agreement. This is a tremendous opportunity to enhance the growth of college football.”
ESPN.com will also operate the official BCS Website, bcsfootball.org, and the language of the deal is such that future multimedia rights have been wrapped in as well.
“Our negotiating team does a great job of setting these contracts up so that we have rights to fuel not only the businesses we’re in today — broadband, ESPN.com, mobile — but also technologies that aren’t even contemplated today,” Bodenheimer says. “We have plenty of rights to grow our digital media that are in existence today and that will be in existence down the road.”
No ‘ESPN on ABC’ Here
Although ESPN routinely brands regular-season college football games as “ESPN on ABC” presentations, Bodenheimer has no intention of moving any of the BCS properties to that format.
“We have a 365-day-a-year commitment to the sport,” he says. “Bringing an event of this stature to ESPN really complements our year-round and extensive college programming.”
No surcharges will be passed on to any distributors of the BCS product, and Bodenheimer is confident that bringing the BCS properties to a cable network will allow them to enjoy the resources, time, and media that they deserve.
“We expect that the relatively small differential that exists today between broadcast and cable is going to continue to dissipate, not only after the digital transition in 2009 but with the continued growth of multichannel television in the United States,” Bodenheimer explains.
“The number of people who distinguish between broadcast and cable will decrease as well,” Swofford says.
As Cable Becomes Broadcast…
Listing a growing number of sporting events that are making the transition to cable — MLB playoffs, NBA Finals,
Monday Night Football — Swofford is confident that true college-football fans will still be able to access the BCS games, even if they are available only on cable.
“People who truly follow college football are extremely well tuned into ESPN,” Swofford says. “They see ESPN, in essence, as the television home for college football because of the number of games that are on for college conferences across the country.”
Indeed, according to Bodenheimer, 95% of those who viewed the national championship game in 2008 were connected to either a cable or satellite hookup.
The Rose Bowl, the rights for which are independent of the other four Bowl Championship Series games, remains in contract with ABC through 2010, but it is unclear where it will end up in 2011 and beyond.
The agreement also gives ESPN the marketing rights to the games, including title sponsorships. BCS-branded programming, including the standings announcements, will be presented on ESPN year-round, and ESPNU and ESPN Classic will get rights to re-air current and past BCS games.
Although ESPN has not confirmed the financials of the deal, the Wall Street Journal reports that ESPN bid $500 million for the full media rights to the BCS. Fox Sports bid $400 million for the package, and a Fox spokesman said that going beyond that figure for a four-year contract for the games did not make economic sense.