Let’s be up front— Conference USA’s last TV contract was pretty much an unmitigated disaster. There were some pleasant surprises such as BeIN Sports emerging as an unexpected excellent broadcast partner and the conference moving to create an, albeit deeply flawed and elementary, central access point for online streams in www.CUSA.tv. Ultimately, the conference spent their last TV contract in an awkward middle ground where its games were diasporic and hard to find while the conference members were forced to adopt to a stark drop in much-needed revenue from their TV partners.
Fortunately for the conference the TV contract was a short one. The 2017-2018 athletics season will mark the final year of the contract. With conference commissioner Judy MacLeod and her staff set to begin preliminary negotiations with TV networks this fiscal quarter let’s take some time out to set some general expectations for the next contract.
A Pittance of Cash Revenue
Folks, the million dollar TV payouts for Group of Five athletic programs are long gone. They’re not coming back. The bubble is bursting. Accept it. 25% of homes in the United States no longer pay for a cable subscription and the rate of cord-cutting only continues to accelerate. Sports fans have already seen this decrease in revenue for cable companies impact the sports realm after ESPN was forced to sever ties with hundreds of employees as their subscription totals dipped to the lowest rate since 2005.
Conference USA was the first G5 conference to feel the brunt of this market crunch due to the short-term nature of their previous TV contracts but ultimately all leagues will see their contract offers shrink as networks struggle to maintain their rights to more lucrative Power Five conference TV deals. With C-USA in an extremely weak bargaining position, don’t expect TV partners to feel much need to shell out millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast C-USA athletic events.
A Varied Cast of TV Partners
While the MAC’s and Sun Belt’s TV contracts dole out most of their broadcasting rights to ESPN, C-USA has always utilized a more broad approach to distribution. Their current TV contract features games on ESPN, CBS Sports, BeIN, and the American Sports Network. I would not be surprised to see C-USA continue to cast such a large net. While I personally feel that the conference should consolidate their offerings to build out a set location for the majority of their games, I expect the conference’s athletic directors and presidents to continue to shortsightedly push the league to pursue games on prestigious platforms such as ESPN, Fox Sports, and CBS at all costs.
It also wouldn’t be a shock to see the conference chart a new path by making an attempt to strike a distribution deal with a non-linear content distributor such as YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix. Let’s not forget that Amazon paid a staggering $50 million dollars to the NFL for just 10 of the league’s historically awful Thursday night games earlier this year. It’s not a reach to think Amazon might be willing to dip their toes into the college football market at an extremely discounted rate.
A Huge Focus on Emerging Distribution Platforms
Speaking of alternative distribution options, expect “emerging platforms” or something similar to it to be the major buzzword coming out of the mouth of league representatives throughout the next few months. While the big screen will always be king, more and more consumers are accessing media through their smart phones and other mobile devices and the conference would be smart to lead the pack in streaming adoption and accessibility. Conference USA is already in a great position here following TV partner ASN’s transition to STADIUM. The new endeavor's close ties to Twitter will lead to 15 of the league’s football games being broadcast on Twitter completely free of charge or a required log in, bringing the conference’s product into the palm of hundreds of million potential consumers.
While a huge step in the right direction, 15 games on a true cordless platform simply won’t be enough in 2019 after an estimated additional 44.9% of cable subscribers cancel their subscription. For as bleak as the cable TV market looks now, it will appear downright catastrophic in just two short years. The conference needs to rapidly expand into this market horizon, even if it means forgoing a few additional games on lower tier ESPN channels. It might be years into the future but there will eventually come a day when more consumers will watch live video entertainment through platforms that didn’t exist ten years ago than legacy heavyweights such as ESPN and CBS. Conference USA needs to take bold risks in pioneering this space in the hopes that it pays dividends with added exposure in markets worldwide.
Once Conference USA's next media contract is unveiled the pundits will certainly laugh and snide at the lack of incoming revenue and placement on premier TV channels but the true value of the contract will be spelled out by the level of access to non-traditional distribution models it provides. While the impending media deal may well be truly awful, it's hard to imagine it not offering at least a moderate increase in access to live games over the current contract. Stay tuned for developments in the future of the conference's media rights as we receive them.