Perhaps more so than ever before, collegiate athletics is driven by revenue from large television deals negotiated between conferences and companies like ESPN or Fox Sports.
Power Five conferences like the SEC and Big Ten hold the largest deals with major broadcast outlets that distributed north of $40 million to each member school in 2018. Members of the American Athletic Conference, however, failed to make even 10% of that revenue from their current television deal.
That will change beginning in the fall of 2020. Under a new 12-year, $1 billion television partnership between the AAC and ESPN, each member school will draw in close to $7 million per year for the rights to their content.
While schools like East Carolina University will see increased revenue from the deal, much more responsibility is going to be placed in the hands of the athletic department on gameday.
“The content that will not be picked up by the linear network, then the athletic department will produce the content,” ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert said. “That will be for every sport other than football. The conference office, if we are not picked up on a linear channel, then the conference office is going to pay for the production of football games. Athletic departments in our conference are going to pick up the content for every other event.”
In plain terms, if a non-football ECU athletic event is not picked up by a channel like ESPN, ESPN2 or another traditional linear platform, that event will be streamed on ESPN+. When that happens, ECU’s athletic department will foot the bill for producing the event.
At least in the early years of this new television deal, expect to see many ECU sporting events on the subscription-based channel that will run consumers $4.99 per month. For the Pirates’ staff, the cost will also be noticeable as it will be their responsibility to hire an entire production team and neutral play-by-play and color analysts.
As reported by Stephen Igoe, the number of ECU-produced games is set at about 45 non-football events for the first year of the contract and will likely cost the athletics department somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000. Those numbers could fluctuate depending on the success of ECU athletics.
To help offset some of that cost, however, creative steps are in the process of taking shape. A proposed partnership between ECU athletics and the School of Communication could create a symbiotic relationship moving forward. While still in the early stages of being ironed out, a partnership could mean students would gain valuable knowledge on the production side of sporting events.
“We’re meeting this month with a group to talk about that further,” Gilbert said. “We are interested in partnering with them (the School of Communication) and giving students on campus the ability to get experience doing that. We’re not there yet but certainly early indications are both parties are interested in the partnership.”
While ESPN will be shelling out more money to the conference, a reported $83.3 million per year, they would now have less work to do for the content that makes its way to ESPN+.
Despite some initial drawbacks to the deal, it does not take much digging to find the positives for both ECU and impacted students.
“No. 1 is it’s going to provide each conference member more financial resources,” Gilbert said. “Two, I think the ability to stream more events, obviously if you look around the landscape and how people are viewing content, that’s probably the next direction of where sports viewership is going. Providing partnership for the Communications school and others on campus to get valuable experience which will in turn help them get jobs right out of college because of the expertise that they’ll have putting on and producing athletic events.”
As of yet, there is no timeline for when opportunities will begin opening for students in this new proposed partnership. ECU School of Communication Director Linda Kean wrote in an email that she would keep students informed if and when opportunities with the athletic department present themselves.
On the streaming side of things, Gilbert said he does not anticipate any potential dropoff in viewership even when a major portion of ECU athletic events could possibly go behind a paywall on ESPN+ in the coming years.
“Certainly, I do think our fan base is passionate and willing to do that, to view the Pirates knowing that ultimately it is helping our athletic department,” Gilbert said.
The new television deal between the AAC and ESPN takes hold prior to the 2020 Pirate football season and runs through the 2031-2032 academic year.