For more than 40 years, ESPN and the Big Ten have been synonymous when it comes to the broadcasting of college football and college basketball. Though FOX has emerged as a prominent partner for the Big Ten, both in showcasing top-tier games and actually owning a majority stake in the Big Ten Network, ESPN is often associated with the conference due to a longstanding relationship that provides the network with a great deal of programming. However, a report from John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal indicates that could be changing in the near future.
Ourand notes that, while “there remains the possibility ESPN could wind up with a package,” it would take a “last-minute change of direction” for the worldwide leader to keep a piece of the Big Ten’s media rights on its next deal. FOX already secured the most prominent part of the Big Ten’s next package, but Ourand reports that CBS and NBC are now “clear front runners” to split the rest of the conference’s offerings.
In addition to FOX’s branding of “Big Noon Saturday” built heavily around the Big Ten in the early window, their agreement also includes Big Ten Network and FS1 rights for both football and basketball. In the arrangement that could be coming together in the near future, CBS would replace its vacated SEC rights in the 3:30 pm ET time slot (after ESPN swiped those away), with NBC reportedly projected to carry Big Ten games in prime time.
The loss of the Big Ten would be quite jarring for ESPN, though Ourand’s piece does hint at a potential run at the Pac-12 and/or Big 12 to replace some of the tonnage. Still, that doesn’t quite carry the same luster, particularly with the recent agreement for UCLA and USC to join the Big Ten and the Big 12’s loss of Oklahoma and Texas. Elsewhere, NBC adding the Big Ten alongside its current agreement with Notre Dame would be quite intriguing, and CBS avoids the large-scale absence of college football after the well-publicized shift away from the fabled SEC on CBS broadcast.
ESPN certainly can’t be ruled out until the ink is dry on a signed agreement, but this would be a big loss for the network. It would also set up a situation in which Big Ten fans could be treated to national windows from noon and into prime time with the conference’s programs on display across the board.