Why the ESPN–Big Ten Split Shocked College Sports, and How It Impacts Everyone

Up until recently, Bob Thompson described himself as a “social media pariah.” Name the platform—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok—and he was not on it.

But what better time to join the fray, he thought last month, than while recovering from shoulder surgery?

The former television executive, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., has spent the last few weeks laid up in bed with his arm in a sling.

And so, as one does, he joined Twitter. He was in for a rude awakening.

“Boy,” he says, “I learned pretty quickly that there are lots of experts out there.”

Thompson’s new venture aligned perfectly with a seismic time in the sport as the new-look Big Ten finalizes the richest TV contract in industry history, estimated at around $1.2 billion a year.

The timing was no coincidence. Thompson, the president of Fox Sports Network for a decade until he stepped away in 2009,

is fascinated by these mega-million media rights agreements that are ultimately altering the landscape of college sports.

No TV deal is as fascinating as the one commissioner Kevin Warren & Co. are amassing in Chicago,

 where starting in 2024 three different networks are expected to acquire the rights to broadcast his league’s games in three different windows: Fox (noon),

CBS (afternoon) and NBC (primetime). In a somewhat expected but still shocking move, the conference is moving on without the Worldwide Leader in sports.

ESPN and ABC are out, and the college sports world is awed.

“It is surprising,” says Thompson. “They’ve been together for 40 years.”

“It is jarring that ESPN is not a part of a major partnership in college sports,” says one Power 5 conference administrator. “It has a shock value.”

“Weird,” “unbelievable” and “risky” are words industry stakeholders used to describe the splintering of a four-decade-old partnership between the country’s top sports network and, arguably, its richest college sports conference.

The ESPN–Big Ten marriage dates back to the third year of ESPN’s existence, and the relationship with ABC is even older.

In 1966, the network nationally televised Michigan State’s 10–10 tie with Notre Dame—the first college football game to be broadcast in Hawaii and to troops overseas in Vietnam.

While the conference says deals are not yet finalized, an announcement is expected as early as next week.

In a move indicative of college sports’ shift toward television revenue and away from time-honored traditions, the split is expected to have wide-ranging impacts,

notably freeing up TV space and money for the Pac-12 and Big 12, both of whose media rights agreements expire over the next two years. “It was a really good day for those two conferences,” says Thompson, who believes ESPN wants at least a piece of each league.

ESPN’s divorce from the Big Ten is yet another wave in a sea of change that has engulfed college athletics.

The network carried 27 football games and 80-some-odd men’s basketball games a year.

It partnered with the two leagues to operate the ACC–Big Ten Challenge, an annual basketball event that started in 1999 and one many presume will now end.

Starting in 2024, the league is paying the SEC roughly $300 million a year for that conference’s top games.

Space is somewhat limited. ESPN has a primary deal with the ACC as well,

along with other contracts with Group of 5 conferences. “Half as many games for twice as much money, that gives everyone pause,” says Thompson.

CBS and NBC seem unlikely partners now that they are with the Big Ten. And Fox’s situation is tricky.

The network is a partner with the league that just poached the Pac-12’s two biggest brands in USC and UCLA.

So who will bid against ESPN for a West Coast league whose games normally kickoff after 9 p.m. ET?

One thing ESPN won’t do is overpay, says one college football official who has been involved in negotiations with the network. 

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