BCS headed to cable via ESPN deal

No games will air on ABC under four-year rights deal

NEW YORK -- ESPN and the BCS Group played defense Tuesday about their new four-year deal that would put the highest-profile sports championship squarely on cable TV for the first time.

The $500 million was about $100 million richer for the BCS and its schools than rights-holder Fox Sports was willing to pay to continue when the current deal ends in 2010. But it also means that three bowls -- Fiesta, Orange and Sugar -- and the BCS Championship Game would move from free, over-the-air TV to cable beginning in January 2011.

In arguing for the BCS to accept its $400 million offer -- $80 million more than it currently pays despite so-so ratings -- Fox Sports and others have said that millions of viewers would be left out when the BCS made the jump from broadcast to cable. But the BCS felt otherwise. It not only accepted ESPN's offer Tuesday, a day after Fox declined to match the offer, but it also did so unanimously.

BCS coordinator John Swofford told reporters in a conference call Tuesday afternoon that ESPN was a "natural fit" because of its commitment to college football. He also addressed the controversy, without being asked. He said there's little distinction between basic cable and over-the-air TV, with ESPN available in 98 million of the about 110 million TV households.

"That is narrowing each and every year," Swofford said.

But many of the questions to Swofford and ESPN chief George Bodenheimer centered on the jump to cable. Bodenheimer said there would be no surcharge to any distributor because of the BCS deal; ESPN already receives the highest per-subscriber fee from cable and satellite distributors. Bodenheimer said that the bowls and championship games would be televised on ESPN although he didn't shut the door on a role for ABC in the future. Before the BCS went to Fox two years ago, ABC carried all the games. Bodenheimer cited last week's deal to carry the British Open live on ESPN but with highlights on ABC over the weekend.

"We found a nice way to evolve their coverage into the future" and something like that was possible with the BCS, Bodenheimer said.

The Rose Bowl will remain on ABC until at least 2010. Negotiations for the next rights deal are continuing. "No decisions or conclusions to change anything have been reached," Bodenheimer said.

Swofford said that with the February digital transition and three years further into the digital era by the time the agreement begins, the number of BCS viewers who would be shut out because they will still have over-the-air TV will be "relatively minimal."

"You're talking about a situation where you're seeing more and more sporting events go to cable," Swofford said. "Certainly I think the college football community, people who truly follow college football, are extremely well-tuned to ESPN and see ESPN in essence the home on television for college football because of the number of games that are on."

Bodenheimer said that one benefit of having ESPN carry the bowl games and championship is the channel's ability to "give as much time to the game as is necessary and appropriate." ABC, on the other hand, has much more limits to the network time it can devote. Bodenheimer likened the model to what ESPN has done for "Monday Night Football," which is a part of everything that ESPN does -- TV, radio, the Internet -- beginning Monday morning. ESPN Radio will continue to broadcast the BCS games through its more than 750 affiliates. ESPN will operate the BCS Web site plus have digital rights for simulcast on ESPN360.com broadband service and ESPN Mobile TV. It also will have the international rights plus TV rights to encore games on ESPN Classic and ESPNU and VOD through multiple platforms.

Meanwhile, Swofford seemed unmoved by President-elect Barack Obama's recent comments on "60 Minutes" and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" criticizing the current BCS structure.

"If you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear decisive winner," Obama said on "60 Minutes." "We should be creating a playoff system."

But Swofford said that the BCS schools, athletic directors and commissioners had decided earlier this year to keep the system the way it is through the life of the next deal. That means it would be into a second Obama administration that any changes might be made.

"There was simply not enough support at that time to make any substantive changes," Swofford said.