ESPN has bowling date with BCS

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College football's Bowl Championship Series is poised to go to ESPN in two years and become the first major sports championship series on cable TV. An announcement could be made today.

On Monday, current rights-holder Fox Sports notified the BCS Group that it wouldn't match an offer from ESPN for a package that will begin in 2011. Fox Sports is in the middle of a four-year deal for the BCS Championship Game as well as the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta bowls.

ESPN had offered $500 million for four years compared with Fox Sports' $400 million. The current rights deal is for $330 million. The new deal would include radio, international and digital rights as well as shoulder programming on ESPN. The games would appear on ESPN but not on sister network ABC, as they had as recently as three years ago.

"Even with today's vast economic uncertainties, Fox Sports made a very competitive bid to keep broadcasting BCS games free to every home in America, one that included a substantial rights fee increase and certainly as much as any over-the-air network could responsibly risk," Fox Sports said Monday. "Unfortunately, the university presidents and BCS commissioners were not satisfied, and they've decided to take their jewel events to pay television."

ESPN wouldn't comment about a potential deal.

"However, we wish to remind everyone that ESPN is distributed on expanded basic, a product enjoyed by 98 million homes that offers the best entertainment buy in America, including many championship caliber sporting events," the network said.

In general, cable has in recent years increasingly become the home for championship-level sporting events. Versus has the early games of hockey's Stanley Cup Finals before the concluding games are aired on NBC. Two years ago, TBS took over the telecasts of one of Major League Baseball's League Championship Series, alternating leagues annually with Fox Sports. And ESPN last week announced a deal to put golf's British Open completely on cable with only highlights on ABC. But this likely would have no ABC component and be available to the 98 million satellite and cable homes that get ESPN.

The difference between over-the-air and cable channels are that broadcast networks can only count advertising sales as revenue. Cable, on the other hand, has two revenue streams: ads and per-subscriber fees, of which ESPN has the highest.

The BCS games have been a reliable, if somewhat disappointing, performer in the primetime ratings. They managed to win their respective nights for Fox in the ratings this year, though they weren't what they used to be.

The 2008 BCS Championship Game averaged a 14.4 household rating, down from a 17.4 in 2007 and a 21.7 on ABC in 2006. Last year's Fiesta Bowl averaged a 7.7, down from an 8.4 in 2007 and a 12.9 in 2006. The Orange Bowl averaged a 7.4 this year, compared with a 7.0 in 2007 and a 12.3 in 2006 on ABC. The Sugar Bowl averaged a 7.0, compared with a 9.3 in 2007 and a 9.0 in 2006. (partialdiff)
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