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ESPN To Focus on NCAA Championships After Forgoing Big Ten Rights

  • ESPN is now iced out of Big Ten football and basketball.
  • The network plans to prioritize upcoming negotiations for NCAA championships, per a source.
Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few months, the Big Ten has been in the middle of negotiating what could be the largest media rights deal in the history of college sports — hoping to command at least $1.5 billion annually, Front Office Sports previously reported.

Now, negotiations could reportedly wrap up by the end of the week — and CBS, NBC and Fox will all have major pieces of basketball and football. ESPN rejected a Big Ten offer for $380 million a year — meaning it is now officially out of Big Ten football and basketball rights for the first time in four decades, Front Office Sports confirmed.

But for ESPN, when one door closes, another one opens: The worldwide leader in sports is now eyeing the upcoming negotiations for renewing NCAA championships rights, sources confirmed to FOS. 

ESPN remains committed to broadcasting women’s college sports, and the network can provide a platform that other networks either can’t or are not interested in providing, a source said.

  • Currently, ESPN pays about $34 million a year for 29 Division I championships. 
  • But a gender equity report found that in 2025, women’s March Madness alone could be worth $81-112 million each year — and that was before ratings jumped even higher this past year. 
  • One expert previously estimated to FOS they could be worth even more.

The NCAA said in a progress report that it’s already considering selling those rights as a standalone product, suggesting its gearing up to command major rights fees.

When that deal expires in 2024, ESPN will likely have to shell out much more cash to keep properties like women’s basketball that have grown exponentially. And given the network’s recent investment in elevating coverage in those areas, it is interested in continuing to help them grow.

As far as football goes, ESPN is well covered. The network already boasts exclusive rights to the SEC, and pays a modest price for the ACC.

The network’s deal with the SEC pays out about $300 million annually for football and basketball — a discount compared to the Big Ten’s price-tag for the CBS 3:30 p.m. ET football window alone, which is reported to be $350 million annually. It’s also a discount compared to what the Big Ten asked ESPN to pay — $380 million a year.

ESPN is also interested in pursuing Pac-12 and Big 12 rights, as well as College Football Playoff renewals, a source told FOS.

The actions of the worldwide leader in sports suggest it may be content with its existing football powerhouses — and an investment in upcoming properties with its leftover change.

ESPN has not yet provided an on-record comment.

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