Playoff System Could Send BCS TV Rights Into Stratosphere

BCS Championship Bowl - H 2012
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BCS Championship Bowl - H 2012

A plan awaiting final approval in which four teams would square off for college football's national championship could generate more than $3 billion in the next TV rights deal.

With the commissioners of the Bowl Championship Series unanimously approving a long-gestating playoff system for college football, television rights for the BCS are poised to get much more expensive.

The four-team seeded playoff system -- which still needs approval from the 12-member BCS presidential oversight committee that meets next week in Washington -- would take effect after the 2014 season, when the current BCS contract expires. Disney currently pays $155 million annually for the major bowl games and the BCS National Championship Game, which air on ESPN. And analysts have predicted that number could more than double to $400 million a year or $3.2 billion over the life of an expected eight-year deal. ESPN has an exclusive negotiating window beginning in early fall.

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Under the proposed plan, the semifinals would be played at existing bowl games and the championship would take place at a neutral site selected through a bidding process, like the Super Bowl, serving to further event-ize the championship game.

There are sure to be multiple parties interested in the package with more companies making a concerted effort to challenge ESPN’s dominance as the major destination for live sports. NBC and CBS are working to grow their sports cable networks, while News Corp.-owned Fox reportedly is hatching plans to also launch a national cable sports network.

“Even if they kept the same BCS system everybody was complaining about, you would expect [TV rights] to easily double,” says Richard Brand, media rights attorney at Washington-based Arent Fox.

Major college sports have become increasingly popular in the past several years as sports in general has emerged as one of the only remaining big-tent live viewing experiences in a time-shifted media landscape.

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More than 24 million viewers watched this year’s BCS National Championship Game -- in which Alabama shut out LSU. It was the second-highest rating in cable television history, behind only the 2011 game, which attracted 27.3 million viewers. Meanwhile, 17.5 million viewers watched this year’s Rose Bowl, and 13.6 million watched the Fiesta Bowl.

Last year, the Pacific-12 Conference negotiated a $3 billion, 12-year deal with ESPN and Fox for its football and basketball games, more than quadrupling what the networks had been paying. In May, ESPN extended its deal with the Atlantic Coast Conference through 2027 for $3.6 billion.

All of which bodes well for a major increase of the BCS.

“People think, 'How can they ever sell enough commercials to support this?' ” adds Brand. “But when you’re talking about putting these games on your network, it has a major tangential effect. These networks need programming. You’ve got to think the money [for the BCS] is going to be spectacularly high.”