Word has leaked through Sports Business Daily that the NCAA has two offers on the table for consideration of a new multi-year contract for coverage of college basketball’s premier event, the NCAA Tournament. A joint bid from CBS (the existing rights-holder) and Turner Sports amounted to an $840M annual deal over fourteen years, while an ESPN bid came in at around $800M annually for the same duration. The NCAA’s current exclusive deal with CBS (involving only 65 teams) is at $710M per year through 2013, so either of the proposed deals looks better in comparison.
But what does this mean? If this really represents ESPN’s final offer to carry March Madness, then CBS/Turner will probably have the rights for the foreseeable future, which would be fine if the Blinking Eye Network had a competent business partner in this venture. No disrespect to Turner Sports when it comes to covering the NBA or MLB, but college basketball? Does the network even carry a single game all season long? Yet they’re going to switch off every other year with CBS on Final Four coverage? This is insanity. With the additional 31 games, we’ll have Marv Albert and Doug Collins doing random first round games where they’ll be calling Brad Stevens “Bud” and his star player “Dwight” Howard. If you need a parallel example, look no further than how Fox has crapped the bed covering the BCS Bowls the last few seasons. Yeah, the NFL and CFB are the same game, right — we can do that! Ugh.
According to the NCAA, though, they are seeking to re-engage the WWL in an effort to integrate what only makes complete and total sense — for a cable network that devotes much of its existence from November through March to finish off what it starts each season. You’re rarely going to find us around here shilling for ESPN, but this one appears to be a no-brainer from all possible perspectives except one. Guess what that one is? You got it — money. It’s no secret that CBS is losing money on its current $710M annual deal to carry the Tournament, so how does ESPN expect to be able to make those dollars back with a bid at $800M or more? Ahh yes, the mystifying and little-understood cable carriage fees.
Put very simply, ESPN is in a prime position to take complete control of college basketball from start to finish of every season for the next generation if it simply ups its bid by about $50M per year. We’re certainly not saying that is an insignificant number, but with the inherent revenue advantage that ESPN has at its disposal based on cable carriage fees in addition to the increased advertising bump, this needs to happen. ESPN needs to act like the monopoly that it is and take control of this situation. Stay tuned. A decision will likely be made within the next two weeks.