The New Sun Belt Deal Is Great, But What's the Bottom Line?

The new Sun Belt media rights deal will give the league continued ESPN exposure in football, and greater coverage in basketball, plus the Sun Belt Title Game in 2018 will be broadcast on a Saturday. 

Here are the major bullet points from the Sun Belt's release:

Enhancements to the current contract between ESPN and the Sun Belt include:

  • The confirmation that the inaugural Sun Belt Football Championship Game will be played on Saturday, December 1, 2018, on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, with future championship games also televised on one of these networks.
  • The guarantee that all Sun Belt home football games will be available on an ESPN platform for the seventh consecutive year in 2018 and for the duration of the long-term contract with ESPN.
  • A continued increase of men’s and women’s basketball games on ESPN platforms.  The number of men’s basketball contests available will jump to a minimum of 100 games in 2018-19 and 150 games in the 2019-20 season.

Beginning with the 2020-21 academic year:

  • A minimum of 500 events a year will appear on an ESPN platform.
  • Every Sun Belt football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball game will be on an ESPN platform.
  • Linear network football games at Sun Belt home venues will expand to a minimum of 10 games a year on a combination of ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU.
  • Sun Belt Championship events will be on an ESPN platform each academic year that will give exposure to all conference sports.
  • Digital productions will expand to include regular season competition in Sun Belt sports that have received only limited coverage previously.

The $40 Millon Deficit 

Before we get too far, let's get some context: The Sun Belt gives the big four letter a lot of content, almost all digital, and ESPN gives the Sun Belt exposure and money. How much money we don't know yet, but a lot of anonymous sources claimed that conference members would make more money on the deal, the current payout is about $100,000 per school. Compare that to the SEC which paid out north of $40 million per school. If you ever wondered about the haves and have-nots in college football, that sums it up. LSU just joined Ohio State, and Clemson is paying their assistant coaches over $6 million collectively. 

It's the Content Stupid

The argument from the Sun Belt is that exposure is the key, which is fine, but exposure must turn into revenue at some point. The interesting aspect of yesterdays announcement is that ESPN and the Sun Belt made cord cutters the center piece of the push. The new ESPN+ app at $4.99 a month, is the newest endeavor by ESPN to stop hemorrhaging subscribers. To justify that five bucks a month they're spreading coverage over a number of areas, college football, the MLS, ESPN films, MLB, all going into 90,000 hours of planned digital content. ESPN is even reaching out to the NHL, a league it's shunned since the early 2000s. 

Conference USA has put together a hodgepodge of traditional and non-traditional providers along with its own CUSA.tv provider. For all the promise of Stadium or Facebook Live, ESPN is the name brand and is readily identifiable to casual fans. You know where to find it. There's value in for the Sun Belt.

Do the Dollars Make Sense?

Following a Netflix model, ESPN is hoping to make its cord-cutting service a cash cow, but that's not a guarantee. All this trickles down to the Sun Belt who, for all the excitement of the "major announcement," aren't able to or won't disclose the increase in revenue for the league. Commissioner Karl Benson said that the deal signals that "ESPN values the Sun Belt." Maybe, but we'll see how much. The Sun Belt can't allow ESPN to do to it, what ESPN did to the MAC, relegating games to weekdays, destroying attendance, and marginalizing the product. 

ESPN reportedly pays the MAC between $830,000 and $850,000 per school, on a thirteen-year deal. Details of the financial incentives were equally murky when the MAC signed up in 2015. In 2012, the MAC paid out a similar $100,000 per school. If the Sun Belt sees a similar bump to the MAC, its significant to the Sun Belt, but in reality, any increase brings the league in line with the rest of the G5.

What About the Future?

We're entering dark territory when it comes to how people consume media. In a generation, how many viewers will watch programming on television as opposed to a smartphone or tablet? The quickness of the transition surprised the major media groups. It also surprised conferences and school administrators who remain tied to antiquated media market ideas. The idea of expansion has been if you add an attractive set of media markets, conferences can force providers to the bargaining table. Those days look to be over. 

The SEC and Big 10 jumped in on a network at perhaps the last viable instance. Other conferences that tried to follow suit either found that networks didn't gain traction (Big 12) or couldn't generate the anticipated revenue (Pac 12). Those struggles erupted just as ESPN and Cable Providers started to feel the effects of cord cutting. Now the choice is whether to continue chasing deals similar to what the SEC and Big 10 pioneered or explore ways to monetize and rely on new technology.

Our belief has always been that the G5 will always take the table scraps of the what the Power 5 leaves behind, so rather than chase outdated revenue streams, they must cater to their fan base and make the game day experience as inviting as possible. Get butts into seats through scheduling, tailgating areas, and in-stadium experiences.

But for fans that can't or won't physically drive to the stadium on Saturday, make your product accessible to fans. Digital content is the only way to go. It's also cheaper to create than ever. That's part of what makes this move attractive to ESPN; the league gives the network hours of live entertainment. It's up to the Sun Belt to try to make as much out of this opportunity as possible. 

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Posted on March 2, 2018 and filed under Southwest Round-Up, Texas State.