• Loading stock data...
Sunday, April 21, 2024
  • -
    days
  • -
    hours
  • -
    minutes
  • -
    seconds

How ESPN and Fox Became College Football’s Broadcast Duopoly

  • ESPN and Fox have entered a league of their own as the two top college football broadcasters.
  • They’ve bankrolled seismic conference realignment, battled for media rights bids, and are competing on the airwaves.
Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY and Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY / Edit: Jeremy O’Brien

In 2011, then-LSU Chancellor Michael Martin made a prediction for the future of college football. “I think we could ultimately end up with two conferences: one called ESPN and one called FOX.”

Twelve years later, the dueling networks have purchased all the best inventory and bankrolled the seismic shifts in realignment. 

ESPN paid for Texas and Oklahoma’s jump to the SEC, while Fox funded Oregon and Washington’s move to the Big Ten and shelled out extra for USC and UCLA. (The two networks collaborated on paying for the Big 12’s future new members, too.)

For now, ESPN holds the media rights to most of the key conferences, airs dozens of bowls every postseason, and exclusively controls TV rights to the sport’s crown jewel: the College Football Playoff. But Fox is matching ESPN thanks to a new Big Ten contract and major shifts in programming.

Going forward, there will be the Big Ten and Fox and the SEC and ESPN — and then there’s everyone else.

The Rise of Two Empires

ESPN and Fox have operated as a cordial “college football duopoly,” Patrick Crakes, the ex-Fox Sports executive turned media consultant, told Front Office Sports.

The dynamic was decades in the making, from the 1984 Supreme Court decision breaking up the NCAA’s monopoly on college football rights, to the creation of conference TV networks in the early 2000s.

Conference networks “really lock in your partnership, even beyond the traditional rights cycles,” Octagon SVP of Global Media Rights Consulting, William Mao, told FOS. ESPN and Fox are the only two networks with these partnerships.

The duopoly solidified over the past few years, as the networks gained virtually complete control over the Big Ten and SEC.

Since the 1990s, CBS has owned some of the SEC’s top football content. But in 2020, the network relinquished that decades-old partnership of “SEC on CBS,” suggesting it had decided to focus on dominating in other sports. 

“When we had the opportunity to secure the last remaining piece of the puzzle, we jumped at that,” ESPN SVP of College Sports Programming and Acquisitions Nick Dawson told FOS.

ESPN and ABC inked a landmark 10-year, $3 billion package with the SEC. The deal, which starts in 2024, will put every single SEC sport on an ESPN network.

A year later, the SEC announced the additions of Texas and Oklahoma — a move that even commissioner Greg Sankey heralded as creating a “super conference.” ESPN was contractually obligated to pay around $21 million for each school per year.

It wasn’t long, though, before Fox secured a super conference of its own.

In 2022, the Big Ten announced it would welcome West Coast titans UCLA and USC amid negotiations for a new media rights package. 

During negotiations, Fox struck a deal through Big Ten Network that technically secured ownership of all of the Big Ten’s rights, a source told FOS. Inventory sold to other networks would have to go through a sublicensing agreement. So Fox executives were in the room for every other network’s pitches. ESPN executives were furious, pulled out of the Big Ten bidding — and ended a relationship that dated back to the network’s third year of operations in 1982. 

“It was weird,” added another source. “Never heard of anything like it.” 

Ultimately, NBC Sports and CBS jumped in with Fox to pay a historic amount for Big Ten rights: mid-$7 billion for a seven-year deal starting this season, although the conference’s inventory is predominantly controlled by Fox. (The dynamic only strengthened two weeks ago, when Fox agreed to be the sole patron of Oregon and Washington’s move to the Big Ten next year, shelling out $30-40 million.)

The duopoly goes beyond the two super conferences, however. ESPN and Fox share control of the third most-powerful football league: the Big 12. The conference inked a seven-year, $2.28 billion renewal with ESPN and Fox last fall — which has only gotten bigger since the networks funded the acquisitions of Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah.

Fox did not provide comment for this story.

The Battle For Supremacy

Up until this point, ESPN and Fox have been trading records throughout the day on Saturdays.

Early every Saturday morning, ESPN has the dominant program. Last year, ESPN “College GameDay” outdrew Fox’s newcomer pregame show,“Big Noon Kickoff” (started in 2019), by 70%. 

But starting in 2019, Fox deftly began scheduling its best game at 12 noon ET: “Big Noon Saturday” has far outdrawn ESPN/ABC’s top window, with 6.2 million viewers to 4.3 million. (Though the SEC on CBS, also drawing 6.2 million viewers last season, will soon become a property of ESPN.)

The competition will only increase as the Big Ten’s contract goes into effect this year, and ESPN/ABC take full control over the SEC next season.

The next battle between the two top broadcasters could be for College Football Playoff rights, potentially worth up to $2.2 billion in a 12-team format. ESPN plans to be aggressive, but it may have to relinquish some of the package to another network given the price.

After pouring billions into the sport, ESPN and Fox are now the two college football broadcast untouchables. 

“I would argue that’s the golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules,” Washington State president Kirk Schulz said of the two networks’ control over college football and expansion. “That’s where we are right now.”

Linkedin
Whatsapp
Copy Link
Link Copied
Link Copied

What to Read

Everything You Need To Know About the Legal Attempts To Kill the ACC

Four lawsuits involving the conference, Clemson, and FSU could determine the future.

A Bare-Knuckle Fighter Won His Pro Debut. The Far Right Scored a Marketing Win

With Proud Boys sponsoring him, experts say extremist groups will use his success to elevate their ideologies and recruit new believers.
Dec 27, 2023; San Diego, CA, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Louisville Cardinals during the first half at Petco Park.

Hearings Have Concluded in the Pivotal USC Athlete Employment Case. What’s Next?

The potentially landmark labor case could end the NCAA amateurism model.

Players Accused of Sexual Misconduct Can Still Compete, Feds Say

New Title IX rules ban suspending accused athletes until a school investigation occurs.
podcast thumbnail mobile
Front Office Sports Today

Why Ian Rapoport Lives for the NFL Draft’s Chaos

0:00
0:00

Featured Today

Women’s Basketball Finally Has a TV Deal to Match the Excitement. Now What?

A lucrative new media-rights contract could rectify problems of the past, but the future of March Madness media rights is anyone’s guess.
Mar 16, 2024; Washington, D.C., USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack forward DJ Burns Jr. (30) cuts the net after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels for the ACC Conference Championship at Capital One Arena.
April 6, 2024

How Two College Seniors Helped DJ Burns Cash In on a Final Four Run

Two college seniors are facilitating deals for NC State’s big man.
Mar 31, 2024; Portland, OR, USA; NCAA officials measure the three point line while coaches from the Texas Longhorns and NC State Wolfpack watch with referees in the finals of the Portland Regional of the NCAA Tournament at the Moda Center center.
April 1, 2024

NCAA Has No One to Blame for Latest Women’s March Madness Transgressions

NCAA is still making avoidable mistakes three years after a complete overhaul.
Nov 16, 2015; Bloomington, IN, USA; General view of the championship banners at Assembly Hall prior to the game between Austin Peay and Indiana.
March 31, 2024

How to Make It in Basketball: Become a Manager at Indiana

Inside the Hoosiers’ unglamorous, profoundly rewarding incubator for basketball’s biggest names.

Careers

Powered By

Careers in Sports

Looking for a new job? Check out these featured listings and search for openings all over the world.
Live Nation
Multiple - USA Careers
Adidas
Multiple - USA Careers
FanDuel
Multiple - USA Careers

No Subscription Totals? Netflix’s Decision Could Impact Sports Plans

The streaming giant says a focus on subscriber totals doesn’t reflect the full state of the company.
April 17, 2024

The Questions Are Mounting for ‘Spulu’ As Lawmakers Demand Answers

A pair of high-powered Congressmen are demanding answers about the forthcoming service.
April 18, 2024

Diamond Sports Group Is About to Survive Bankruptcy. Will It Matter?

The bankrupt company faces key questions relating to both programming and distribution.
Sponsored

Rapid Returns: How Technology Is Getting You Back to Your Seat

How Oracle’s POS technology is helping fans get back to their seats faster.
April 16, 2024

Chicago’s Sports Media About to Experience a Major Shake-Up

Three Chicago pro teams’ media rights could shift to Stadium as soon as this fall.
April 16, 2024

Caitlin Clark Drives Massive WNBA Draft Audience for ESPN

Clark’s coronation was the most-watched WNBA telecast in decades.
April 16, 2024

The Yankees’ Radio Voice Retires, Ending an Era of Longevity

The longtime Yankees radio announcer was an industry outlier in many respects.
April 15, 2024

Star-Studded NBA Play-In a Potential Ratings Boon for ESPN and TNT

The initial portion of the NBA postseason features three former MVPs.