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New Streaming Bundle Could Take ‘Edge’ Off the ESPN-Fox College Sports Rivalry

  • The ESPN-Fox-WBD package will feature the CFP, March Madness, the Power 4, and the Big East.
  • The combined offering could lower the stakes in rights negotiations as networks get a chance to profit from one another’s inventory.
Jan 1, 2024; Pasadena, CA, USA; Pat McAfee (left), Lee Corso (center) and Kirk Herbstreit on the ESPN College Gameday set at the 2024 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Rose Bowl.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The newly announced sports streaming bundle, which pairs Disney’s ESPN with Fox Corp. and Warner Bros. Discovery, combines three of the industry’s biggest rivals—and it could create a new dynamic in college sports. 

For the past few years, ESPN and Fox, the ruling duopoly of college football media rights (and much of the industry’s other top products), have battled for top-shelf inventory. But the new marriage could contribute to a detente, potentially lowering the stakes for negotiations now that networks will profit from one another’s inventory when fans purchase the new bundle.

“This is the three big sports programmers getting together to create some scale and leverage on their side,” an industry source tells Front Office Sports. “It should take off some of the edge.”

In 2020, ESPN bought up all of the SEC’s rights, as well as the ACC’s, and Fox scooped up the Big Ten (though CBS and NBC have a few notable windows). The Big 12 will work with both broadcasters. 

The new bundle, which should be available in September, will include conference networks and inventory from the entire Power 4, plus top Big East matchups, the College Football Playoff, and men’s and women’s March Madness games. (The men’s tournament has long eluded ESPN and Fox, given the event’s history with CBS and WBD.)

ESPN and Fox are the rumored front-runners in negotiations for the expanded CFP media package, as FOS previously reported. Warner Bros. Discovery has also expressed interest. Fox has made major strides in catching up to ESPN with its Saturday morning pregame show, Big Noon Kickoff, and its top game-window, Big Noon Saturday. But to really come for ESPN’s top spot, Fox needed to acquire at least a slice of the CFP pie—until now. 

Even if ESPN gets all of the playoff rights, Fox and WBD would appear to benefit to some extent through subscription revenue. (The details of the revenue split—along with other key details, including the cost to consumers—remain unknown.) The existence of the bundle itself could also make ESPN, or any broadcaster, more amenable to sublicensing other games to rival networks, says Octagon’s SVP of global media rights, William Mao.

For now, however, executives claim the rights battle will wage on, lest any antitrust lawyers be watching. During a Fox Corp. earnings call Wednesday, CEO Lachlan Murdoch said the network would remain as aggressive as always with bids. And Disney CFO Hugh Johnston told Bloomberg that the three networks have no intention of submitting joint bids for future inventory.

“We’ll continue to compete with each other for sports rights, just as we always have,” Johnston said. That competition just might be lacking a bit of its old bite.

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