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Bottom line: Under the terms of the Big Ten’s new TV contract, Big Ten Football will never air on ESPN+. SEC, and PAC-12 football games very rarely appear on ESPN+, while the Big 12 is regularly featured on ESPN+.
For Big 12, SEC, and ACC fans, and college football fans outside of the Power 5, your team may air on ESPN+ for certain games, usually lower tier games that don’t have championship implications. ESPN can’t air even the big games it has rights to on ESPN+ because doing so would undermine its business model, which still relies on tens of millions of cable subscribers paying for ESPN in a cable bundle. Why would anyone pay to watch ESPN if the best programming also aired on ESPN+? Only college football TV inventory that falls outside of a major media deal will make its way on to ESPN+.
That’s the rule. If you’re interested in the analysis, and more of the “why,” read on.
College football TV games are picked like a schoolyard kickball team
The world of TV contracts for college football seems convoluted, but it’s more straightforward than you might think. Games are assigned like teams are picked on a schoolyard, the best athlete is picked first, and down the line until teams are filled out.
Major media players, like Disney (ABC and ESPN), NBC Universal, CBS Viacom, and others bid on the rights to a certain number of games each season for a given conference.
For example, under the new Big Ten TV contract, which is expected to be worth more than 1 billion dollars per season, FOX is the top dog. FOX is paying big money to feature Big Ten football games on its Big Noon Kickoff, national afternoon games, and on some of its cable channels like FS1 and Big Ten Network. However, FOX is only taking 27 Big Ten football games per season, the rest of the inventory will be sold off elsewhere.
CBS still has the rights to SEC Game of the Week until 2024, when ABC and ESPN takeover all SEC football games. Because ESPN has taken SEC football away from CBS, will they make a play for a Big Ten game? It seems likely.
How is this relevant to whether your college football team plays on ESPN+?
If you follow a team that is part of a conference that has a major TV deal with one of the big networks, none of the big games will air on ESPN+. Instead the inventory will fall to the ancillary cable channels the network owns (think ESPN2, ESPNU, FS1), or to conference specific channels like Big Ten Network, SEC Network, ACC Network, or the PAC-12 Network.
Because the major media companies want the inventory and cable TV subscribers and cord cutters pay to watch it. If ESPN+ could circumvent these TV contracts it would instantly violate and devalue them, so they only get the games that no one wants, the “last pick” college football games.
For the Big Ten, the hierarchy is:
- FOX / ABC / ESPN [biggest games]
- FS1 / ESPN2 [smaller games]
- Big Ten Network [smallest games]
Some Big 12 and ACC football games will air on ESPN+
The Big 12 doesn’t have a “Big 12 Network” which is designed to feature lower tier games. The Kansas and Iowa States of the world aren’t drawing major media interest, so ESPN+ can step in and take the inventory, which falls outside of a major media deal. FOX has bid for the rights to some Big 12 games, but they only want the big games.
The ACC Network takes lower tier inventory for ACC games, but the ACC TV contract is wholly owned by ESPN. As such, ESPN can take a handful of ACC games, like Pittsburgh vs. New Hampshire, and air the games on ESPN+.
A game that may air on ESPN+ in another conference, like the Big 12, won’t make it to ESPN+ in the Big Ten because cable subscribers pay for the Big Ten Network, and the contracts contemplate airing much more inventory on the Big 10 Network. Technically, the FOX owned Big 10 Network owns all of the media rights to Big 10 sports and the resells it to other media outlets. For example, now that CBS has lost the SEC Game of the Week to Disney, they will likely step in and make a play for a Big Ten game.
If a game that could otherwise air on the Big Ten Network aired instead on ESPN+, or even aired simultaneously on ESPN+, it would disincentive households from buying cable TV packages, which would in turn hurt the Big Ten Network, a channel that is owned by FOX.
For this reason, big college football games will never air on ESPN+, even if ESPN has the rights to the game. The rights to those game, no matter which one it may be, have already been spoken for by a media giant. The games are divvied up based on popularity and championship implications, but even the lower level Big Ten matchups command the attention of major media.
ESPN+ airs the “homeless” games that won’t air on the lowest tranches of the various media giants channel hierarchy.
How to watch every Power 5 college football team
Boston College Eagles
Duke Blue Devils
Florida State Seminoles
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
NC State Wolfpack
North Carolina Tar Heels
Virginia Tech Hokies
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Illinois Fighting Illini
Michigan State Spartans
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Ohio State Buckeyes
Penn State Nittany Lions
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Alabama Crimson Tide
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ole Miss Rebels
South Carolina Gamecocks
Texas A&M Aggies
Arizona State Sun Devils
California Golden Bears
Oregon State Beavers
Washington State Cougars