Sports: The $EC Gets Richer

Last Thursday, Disney rolled out a whole bunch of headlines at its Investors Day. While most of the world was geeking out about all the new Star Wars content coming to Disney+, the announcement of the finalization of the acquisition by ESPN (a Disney subsidiary) of TV rights for SEC football was the biggest in our tiny corner of the Internets. 

Beginning in 2023, ESPN will pay $300 million, according to Sports Business Daily, per year for 10 years for rights to the SEC’s best game of the week. That’s a massive upgrade from the $55 million per year CBS has been paying to have first dibs each week. So the “SEC on CBS” will become the “SEC on ABC” in a couple of years. 

This deal should do two things for Arkansas - one good, one bad. 

The good is it should bury any of the ongoing “Arkansas should jump to the Big 12” whining from some Razorback fans. This new TV contract means the money is simply too good to leave the SEC. 

It rares up every so often. When fans think the SEC office screwed Arkansas with the COVID-altered football schedule, when a certain SEC ref makes a questionable call against Arkansas, when the Razorbacks again finish below .500 in conference or when the football team has a bye week and sports talk radio yappers need to fill airtime, that discussion begins to rise up. 

Fans seem to think moving to the Big 12 will help Arkansas earn more respect from other conference teams, create real rivals and provide a more competitive playing field in football. Though nobody can explain why any of those things would happen. (Of course, if Arkansas really wanted all those things they could just drop to the Sun Belt and play Arkansas State every year.)

In February, the SEC distributed $44.6 million to each school for a total of $651 million. That was while getting that measly $55 million from CBS. The new contract will likely push the total revenue to be distributed to $900 million - about $64 million per school. 

The Big 12’s most recent distribution was $37.7 million per team. Unless CBS, Amazon Prime, Hulu or AppleTV swoops in with a gigantic TV rights deal, it won’t come close to matching the SEC’s new windfall. 

Of course, there is a downside to all this too. 

Get ready to have to sign up for ESPN+ to see all the Arkansas (or any other SEC) games you want. And if you already subscribe, get ready for increased rates. Disney+ declared one less than 24 hours after announcing a huge slew of new Star Wars content. ESPN+ will eventually do the same. 

We’ve already seen what happens to sports when a network pivots to streaming by looking at what NBC Sports has done with the English Premier League. 

For several years, NBCSN showed every English soccer match possible. Manchester United in the Theatre of Dreams, Liverpool never walking alone and a cold, rainy night in Stoke? You could watch them all on NBCSN all Saturday and Sunday morning from 6 a.m. (or earlier) until past noon.

But then NBC launched the Peacock streaming service this year. Suddenly, Premiership matches on NBCSN were drastically cut and more than 175 matches were paywalled on Peacock. Instead of having two full weekend mornings of futbol, we suddenly got one with the second on Peacock streams. For example, the weekend of Dec. 12-13 there were nine matches shown on NBC outlets - four on Peacock, four on NBCSN and one on NBC itself. And those four on Peacock? They were the best matches of the weekend. NBCSN aired “American Ninja Warrior” reruns from 2012 instead of live sports. 

That’s where we are headed with this SEC/ESPN deal. And, frankly, where we are headed with all sports eventually.

Decades ago, Arkansas famously offered any radio station in the state Razorback football games for free. At one point in Fort Smith, four radio stations carried games - even rock-and-roll radio stations aired the Razorbacks. In the era before cable TV, that helped build the sidewalk alumni fanbase - people who didn’t attend the UA but were diehard Razorbacks fans. 

So how will paywalling games on subscription services affect fandom? Time will tell.