Let's talk about media rights deals.
This past week, Comcast sent a chill down the collective spines of every college sports executive by getting tough on the Big Ten:
ICYMI – Yesterday, Fox Sports National Networks & BTN President Mark Silverman discussed the possibility that Comcast may drop Big Ten games on BTN and FS1.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) July 25, 2018
Learn more » https://t.co/EzfNSldR6D #KeepBigTen pic.twitter.com/YhjokdMD5J
Did you hear the panic in Mark Silverman's voice there? I don't think this is getting enough attention.
Comcast, the universally-loathed cable and internet giant, is holding a gun to the Big Ten Network's head. And if they're willing to do that to the Big Ten, the very first conference to create its own TV network, that means nobody is safe.
Details aside about carriage fees and the like, this is a powerful message from the cable companies to the bloated sports networks: We're not afraid of you.
This could be the first hole to be poked in the great sports TV bubble of the 90s and early 2000s. As cable networks see subscribers and revenue dwindle thanks to cord-cutting, more distributors are going to hold conferences' feet to the fire. That combined with the fragmentation of the sports audience from league predominance to team predominance threaten to bring the Autonomous Conferences' house of cards tumbling.
And if you're UCF and The American Athletic Conference, it may be best to just stand aside and watch the world burn when it happens.
Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better
The SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 all have their own networks. The ACC is getting ready to launch one. But as the cable distribution landscape changes, cracks are forming. The Pac-12 Network has struggled for years, and is now feeling the pinch from AT&T/DirecTV. The BTN is sweating. ESPN operated the SEC Network and will do the same for the ACC, but the Worldwide Leader's cord-cutter problem has been well-documented.
Adding insult to injury, ESPN's gambit to take over the Fox Sports Regional Network portfolio was just dealt a huge blow, as Disney has agreed to divest those networks - and their 61 million subscribers - as part of avoiding further scrutiny by the Department of Justice.
If the sports TV bubble bursts, we could see the conferences lose tens of millions in revenue as the networks cut their losses. And we'll finally know the answer to exactly how many people watch teams they don't care about.
But even as those conference scramble to squeeze the last bit of juice out of the orange, The American has been quietly setting itself up to be ahead of the game.
The American's Bet on the Future
AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco is a sharp dude. He was the Executive VP for Programming at CBS when they struck a deal with Turner to televise all NCAA Tournament games, among other achievements. Before that, his fingerprints were all over a slew if rights deals for ESPN. If anyone knows where the TV sports market is going, it's him.
The American opens its negotiations for TV rights in February. Aresco has played several hands perfectly since taking over the former Big East in 2013, and this is his biggest hand yet.
He's on the record as saying he wants to deal with ESPN first, because of course he does. But shockingly little has been said about some of the other more massive players in the media industry: Apple, Google, Amazon, and Netflix.
Let's take Amazon, which just scored a deal with the Premier League to televise soccer, albeit somewhat limited. These are nearly-trillion dollar companies (Apple already is) with many times more cash on hand than the broadcast networks to throw at potential programming sources.
The American, with many of its schools in major metropolitan areas (8 of 12 full members are in the top 50 Neilsen markets, Navy is also in the Top 50, and all are in the top 100) and with relatively young alumni bases, could be a very interesting test case for streaming networks looking to televise major college football and basketball.
The American has also pioneered lean production for its Olympic sports with the American Digital Network (Full disclosure: I call play-by-play for the AAC Baseball Tournament on the ADN, plus other events on occasion). This is a fully digital streaming network that uses a relatively straightforward production setup to deliver high-quality sports programming at a fairly reasonable cost. Because of advancements in technology, it's easy to scale and deliver even more programming, and that could also be attractive to a streaming network like Amazon or Netflix looking to expand its own sports offerings.
UCF Is in the Perfect Place
One of the results of this is audiences will not get bigger, but those audiences will be more loyal and demand more targeted coverage of their teams, even as general revenues may suffer.
Turns out UCF is one step ahead of that as well. The advent of UCFKnights.tv has given Knights fans access to all of the sports that the networks and the ADN do not cover, and this is a huge advantage. Again, technological advances mean that expansion of UCFKnights.tv's production quality is relatively inexpensive, and it will improve over time as equipment and facilities accommodate more opportunities to stream events.
Granted, sometimes the quality of the telecasts is suspect right now, but lest I remind you that, as a student from 2001-2005, I and a small group of friends pioneered streaming live audio of UCF sports over the internet, and now look where we not only are but also have been for the past five years.
As UCF motors along in The American, it's important to think about where it could have been. The Big 12 currently has the weakest bonds between its member schools, and another round of conference realignment could see it go the way of the Big East.
For now, UCF and The American are in the catbird seat, as they can negotiate their TV deal with their stock rising, where the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 have to wait at least another four years - plenty of time (or so The American hopes) for the college sports industry to see an economic turning point.
If events break in The American's - and UCF's - favor, we may indeed see the Knights' program sitting in exactly the place fans want it to be, all while not having to do anything differently than what they've been doing.
These are interesting times, indeed.
(UPDATE: This article was clarified to reflect that The American's TV negotiations open in February)