In discussing the Big 12 yesterday, OU president David Boren reiterated a point that seems to have been lost in all the talk about which schools the Big 12 might, someday, maybe, potentially invite to join the conference. The entire reason for expanding right now would be to create a conference network.
Think about your average fall Saturday television schedule. ESPN wants enough content in its stash to put games on at least three channels all day (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU). Fox has two mouths to feed (regular Fox and FS1). There's also ABC.
With 10 teams in the fold, the Big 12 doesn’t have enough games in its inventory to fulfill the deals with its two primary rights holders and set aside games for a conference network.
To give you an idea, with 14 teams, the Big Ten had the rights to 99 football games a year ago. The conference put 40 contests on the Big Ten Network last season. Notably, that included 22 valuable conference matchups, or roughly two games a week once intra-conference play began in earnest.
The 10-team Big 12 had the rights to 66 football games in 2015. All but 19 of them were shown as either network broadcasts on ABC and Fox or primary cable telecasts on FS1 or the ESPN family. Those 19 games, which would theoretically make up the inventory for a Big 12 network, included just four conference games (three of the four involved Kansas). So, the Big 12 network would have about half the available inventory of live football relative to the BTN and far fewer games of value.
Despite its limited geographic and population footprint, the Big 12's current deal with Fox and ESPN for its first- and second-tier rights generates a competitive return for its members relative to the other major conferences because more than 70 percent of its football games are available for major network and cable telecasts. The nine-game conference schedule ensures that even more of those games are of value to ESPN and Fox.
A 10-team Big 12 could theoretically elect to hold more of its games back for the conference network. To get on par with the BTN, that would mean putting a full two-thirds of its games on the Big 12 network, including a decent number of valuable conference games. I’m sure that would be fine with Fox and ESPN – so long as the conference was willing to take a huge haircut on its current TV deals for its first- and second-tier rights.
ESPN does make it work with the Longhorn Network having only one or two football games, along with a limited number of basketball games and a whole lot of Olympic sports. It also charges cable providers a scant 29 cents per subscriber in Texas and two pennies per subscriber outside the state of Texas. As things currently stand, ESPN won't recoup its investment in the LHN anytime soon. In other words, BevoTV and a sustainable network for an entire conference are apples and hummus.