Fox Sports, ESPN Presidents Address Pac-12, Conference-Realignment Skeptics

Pac-12 Enterprises is lining itself up to change the way college athletics defines the distribution and monetization of video rights when it launches next summer.

The entity would not, however, be as it is currently shaped without the critical first step of selling its first-tier rights in a surprising joint bid with ESPN and Fox.

The 12-year contract, which was announced last May and will begin with the 2012-13 academic season, is worth more than $225 million per year, or $2.7 billion over the entirety of the deal.

How the partnership came together, according to Fox Sports President Randy Freer and soon-to-be ESPN President John Skipper was not all that spectacular — short of the dollars involved.

John Skipper

“It’s not very complicated or all that sexy,” said Skipper at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum presented by Sports Business Journal/Daily on Wednesday. “We were each in fairly protracted negotiations as incumbents with the Pac-10, which is what they were at the time, to renew our rights. During the course of that discussion, a consultant who worked for the Pac-10 asked me if we would be interested in a joint bid. I had dinner with [Pac-12 Commissioner] Larry Scott and told him that we would indeed be interested in a joint bid as long as he would confirm with me that was [okay] with him. He did so, and Randy and I got together and had a discussion about that.”

While the pairing of two rival networks is unique, it is certainly not unprecedented in the industry: CBS and Turner Sports’ joint venture into the NCAA Tournament comes to mind. Under the Pac-12 deal, Fox and ESPN will divide the rights to football games, with ESPN airing its games on cable and on ABC and Fox showing its games on its broadcast network, FX, and Fox Sports Net regional networks.

“The one thing that’s interesting in this is that we have a 15-year relationship with the Pac-12,” said Freer. “We went through a long, long conversation with Larry and his staff, and they did a really good job of defining what they wanted to accomplish and having the intestinal fortitude to play it out and take it as far as they could go.”

Much speculation around the industry suggested that the Fox-ESPN partnership was born in order to block NBC Sports from gaining a significant stake in the college marketplace. Both Freer and Skipper were quick to dispel that idea.

“We were working on a deal before there was any announcement about NBC [giving an offer],” said Skipper, who will be elevated to president/co-chair of Disney Media Networks on Jan. 1. “Now, if NBC Sports, as a secondary effect of this, doesn’t get any Pac-12 [games], well, that’s fine with me. But it’s not the reason we did the deal.”

Freer and Skipper were also blunt about their displeasure with the frantic conference realignment currently dominating the college-sports headlines.

“I can’t say there’s anything that’s happened over the past two years in the college-conference world to sit here today and say that this is great,” said Freer, whose network just last week enjoyed ratings success with the inaugural Pac-12 and Big Ten Championship Games. “I think there’s a lot of moving things around, and, in the end, after a lot of angst and a lot of chaos, for the most part, the industry in total is in the same place.”

Randy Freer

The topic was especially sensitive for Skipper, whose network has been accused of being a catalyst behind much of the conference chaos.

“We have never been an advocate of super-conferences,” he said. “We have never made one step towards urging anybody to create a super-conference. The conference’s decisions to expand or contract have been their decisions, and the decisions of schools to move have been their decisions.”

Skipper also added that ESPN doesn’t necessarily support realignment, adding, “We have deals with every conference that has realigned, and, in those deals, we have agreed to pay under the current composition at certain rates. As schools move around, it disrupts our schedule, and it costs us money.

“That should not be confused with the fact,” he continued, “that, as people get ready to do things, we’re in business with them and they have a requirement at some point to discuss with us the composition and the number of schools. And we do have discussions. But any suggestion that we are the impetus of this is incorrect. If these conferences that we have deals with make changes, we are going to discuss that value, but it is inappropriate for us to tell them what to do, and any suggestion that we do is inaccurate.”