Big 10 Spring Meetings Foretell more Doom for ESPN

As the annual Big 10 spring meetings wrapped up on Wednesday, there were no earth-shattering announcements of policy changes on student-athlete time demands or speculation on how the conference might potentially handle men’s basketball transfer requests in the future.

The most interesting comments were in regards to the expiring media rights deal with ESPN.

Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News spoke with several individuals, who in unison voiced the conference’s position that the media rights will go to the highest bidder. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips stated it plainly.

“The Big Ten Conference will ultimately do what’s best for the Big Ten Conference and ESPN has to take that same position. They’ve been wonderful partners. But we’re at a different place and they’re at a different place in 2016 than we were in the last round. That doesn’t mean we can’t get to the altar together and get married again. But, you know, we’re at the dating stage right now.”

The reality is that ESPN most likely won’t be that highest bidder. The network has been losing subscribers – and therefore revenue – at a rapid pace over the past few years, causing its parent company Disney to demand budget cuts. That’s part of the reason why a reported deal is in place with Fox for half of the media rights coming free in the spring of 2017, outbidding what was called a “low-ball” offer from ESPN by a large margin.

It’s difficult for some to imagine that the Big 10 could maintain its status at the top of the annual revenue mountain without being part of ESPN’s football College GameDay, but all the leverage really belongs to the Big 10. Without the top match-ups of contests to cover, there is no GameDay.

So who might replace ESPN as the holder of the other half of the Big 10’s media rights for the near future? Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany might have given us some hints.

“We’re interested in having great partners that have great platforms that are interested in marketing and promotion. The market will decide what happens. ESPN has been a great partner, as CBS has, as BTN has, as Fox has.”

With a constantly-declining subscriber base and the phenomenon of “cord cutting” growing, ESPN is currently ill-suited to be able to put the Big 10’s product in front of the maximum number of people. The window of opportunity has arisen for other networks to prove that they can provide the biggest exposure and revenue for the conference, and it’s a certainty that someone will pay the conference’s asking price.

While it might take an adjustment period, eventually the millions of fans who watch Big 10 football and men’s basketball teams will gravitate toward Fox and the winner of the other half of the Big 10’s media rights. As the Big 10 grows ever more lucrative with the new media rights deal, the real loser could be ESPN.