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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — What has long been assumed throughout the industry became a reality this week as ESPN appears to be out as an option to take the Pac-12’s primary media rights as the conference continues to seek a new deal, multiple sources tell CBS Sports.
The situation developed at the Fiesta Summit spring meetings this week when Big 12 officials were told by ESPN executives its league was one of three conferences the network would be airing in the future. ESPN currently has Power Five agreements with the Big 12 (new deal begins in 2025), SEC (new deal in 2024) and ACC (existing deal running through 2036). It has other college football deals as well, including one with the AAC that ends in 2030.
The Pac-12’s current media rights deal with Fox and ESPN expires July 1, 2024.
“[This is the] first time publicly [ESPN] said, ‘We’re not doing anything with the Pac-12,'” a Big 12 administrator aware of the exchange told CBS Sports under the condition of anonymity.
While ESPN will not be contending for top-tier Pac-12 games, it may be interested in a smaller package secondary rights for games specifically in the late-night window. Sources close to the talks emphasized that they are taking a never-say-never approach when it comes to potential partners as negotiations continue.
If ESPN is not interested in the Pac-12’s Tier I games — the most-desirable, likely highest-rated contests — there doesn’t appear to be an obvious brand-name suitor for the league. Other major linear platforms, including Fox, appear not to be interested in primary Pac-12 rights that would provide the bulk of income in a new media deal.
It was reiterated during the conference’s spring meetings that the Pac-12 remains confident it will land TV media rights deal with a major carrier for its Tier 1 content, sources tell CBS Sports. There has been speculation lately that NBCUniversal (specifically USA Network) could be involved.
USA Network has a long history of sports coverage back to its debut as MSG Network in 1977. That included having a college football package from 1980-86. NBCUniversal is currently renegotiating its media rights deal for “WWE Monday Night Raw,” which could impact its interest in the Pac-12. Fox is also involved in ongoing negotiations to renew “WWE SmackDown,” which airs Friday nights in primetime.
“I think they’re in a tough spot,” WWE CEO Nick Khan said of the Pac-12 in March .
ESPN has upcoming negotiations to consider itself with the NBA contract coming on the market and UFC soon set to enter a negotiating window. WWE and UFC recently merged into a single company.
Last year, ESPN lost Big Ten media rights for the first time in more than 40 years. The Big Ten will air its games across CBS, Fox and NBC. The Big 12 filled a portion of the hole in ESPN’s schedule by jumping ahead of the Pac-12 to do a new deal in October 2022 with both ESPN and Fox.
The Pac-12 has been seeking a much-publicized new contract since last summer after news broke of USC and UCLA headed to the Big Ten.
According to sources who have speculated on what a form a Pac-12 deal could find, the league’s Tier I content would likely be categorized as a minimum of two games a week for a rightsholder across a typical 14-week season. Those 28 games may be valued at approximately $200 million, an average of $7 million per game.
It has been assumed that an approximate $300 million rights deal might be needed to keep some Pac-12 schools from jumping to the Big 12. If a Tier I deal is closed at that valuation, the league would need to seek at least $100 million for the estimated 47-50 remaining games in the Pac-12 inventory (based on the league remaining at 10 teams.)
Oregon and Washington remain the Pac-12’s biggest brands with USC and UCLA departing the conference. What is not known is what those Pac-12 top tier games would look like. CBS Sports ranked the top-rated Pac-12 games on TV combined in 2021 and 2022 not including USC and UCLA. Oregon and/or Washington appeared in four of the top-five rated games.
In its new deal, Big 12 schools will average $31.7 million base revenue annually. With a $300 million rights deal, Pac-12 teams would receive $30 million annually.
Sources would not indicate an exact figure that would keep Pac-12 schools from considering a Big 12 move. Arizona president Robert Robbins has similarly declined to provide a number. However, informed speculation suggests the Pac-12 landing within 10% of the Big 12 figure — approximately $28.5 million — may be enough to keep the league together.
It is well known that Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark prefers some combination of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah as his league continues to explore expansion. Sources have indicated for months that there has been at least informal contact between those parties.
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