Over the course of this offseason, details have slowly trickled out about Conference USA's newly renegotiated broadcasting and media rights deals, and we knew as soon as Fox Sports backed out and ESPN never really jumped in, that the conference was likely to see a drop from their previous annual take of $1.1 million per school.
First it was "possibly as high as" a reported $540,000 per school per year, but definitely no lower than about $425,000 per school. Then it was "no less than $300,000 per school."
Well, now that the dust has finally settled, it looks like the cumulative total will be a mere $2.8 million annually, which works out to basically $200,000 per school per year. Think about that for a second. Ignore for a minute the fact that this final info means that CUSA's own conservative initial estimates were wildly exaggerant, and look at the pure numbers.
From $1,100,000 down to $200,000 per school per year. Each school will be getting 18% of the revenue they got in the last couple of years. EIGHTEEN PERCENT. That is an astronomical collapse in revenue. That could be especially difficult for a school like Old Dominion, one of the CUSA programs that waited a year to implement cost of attendance stipends and now is going almost-all-the-way to the tune of $600,000 per year.
This will create some degree of hardship for a number of programs, but one thing to keep in mind is that not all of that $900,000 drop is media revenue. Only about $700,000 per year was coming from media revenue, while the remaining $400-450,000 was residual windfall being distributed from the exit fees that UCF, Houston, SMU, Memphis, ECU, Tulane and Tulsa paid to head to what is now the AAC.
When you look at it that way, it actually is about a half-million dollar per year drop in actual television revenue, further excacerbated by the "exit fee slush fund" having dried up. But even if this deal is ugly in part from scrambling by the conference, it's in greater part a byproduct of Conference USA having to renegotiate at a terrible time for both media rights deals and their conference in general.
Look at the comparisons.
Three years ago, the newly formed American Athletic Conference (which is currently 60% former CUSA teams) inked a seven-year deal with ESPN that is currently bringing in $1.5 million per year per school for at least the next four years.
Two years ago, the Mid-American Conference was aggressive about renegotiating their rights deal with ESPN. Say what you want about the pros and cons of basically handing everything over to ESPN on a silver platter, but that deal will kick into high gear a year from now and begin paying each member school roughly $833,000 per year for the next ten years, pending any renegotiations in that time.
Conference USA waited until the end of their existing contracts with Fox Sports and CBS Sports to renegotiate and wound up doing so in a time when the value of cable television to their viewer base has dropped off a cliff. Fox Sports went away, the rights fee from CBS Sports dropped from $7 million to $1 million, and ESPN is not paying rights fees for the few games they will broadcast. That's decidedly more a product of how people watch television and subsequently how CBSSN and Fox Sports are doing than it is the actual product that CUSA has to offer. Though that does matter.
It certainly doesn't help that after having their snug winter blanket snatched away from them, the conference basically scrambled to get whatever scraps they could What have they got now, at least in terms of having their football games broadcast?
Five regular season games plus the championship game on ESPN networks, six games on CBS Sports Network, 10 games on beIN Sports, and 15-30 games (network's discretion on the exact number) showing on American Sports Network. Plus the carrot of any non-televised games being available on ESPN3. We don't know all of the various terms, but the ESPN deal is only good for this coming season and 2017, which means they'll be in at least a partial scramble again in a couple years.
Conference USA is now hovering in between the Mid-American and the Sun Belt ($110,000 per school per year) for one more year, after which the MAC will leave them in the dust. And with the Sun Belt about to shift its membership and add a championship game in the coming years, is CUSA suddenly at the bottom of the G5 revenue pile? It's not out of the question, and I have no idea how they're going to get off the mat this time.
They are talking about measures such as salary freezes and budgetary cuts, and I doubt it's going to be particularly pretty or make very many people across the member institutions' athletic departments particularly happy, but this is the boat they find themselves in now. Better start rowing.