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The college football season is the latest (partial) casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States — and another blow for media companies who will now be without hundreds of hours of live programming, and the ad revenue that comes with it, in the fall.
As of publication time, 52 of the 120 schools that play at the top level of college football — more than 40 percent of the total — have decided to cancel or postpone their fall sports seasons. The Big Ten and Pac-12, two of the so-called “power five” conferences, announced their decision Tuesday, following similar moves by two smaller leagues, the Mountain West and Mid-American conferences, and unilateral decisions by the University of Connecticut and Old Dominion University in Virginia.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 both have long-term, multibillion-dollar TV contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports to air their games; Fox Sports also operates and has a 49 percent ownership stake in the Big Ten Network.
ESPN and Fox Sports declined comment.
The other three power five conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 and Southeastern Conference — have not yet made a decision on the season. (ESPN has media deals with all three, and the SEC also has a contract with CBS.) All five leagues had previously said they would play only conference games this fall, partly to cut down on travel amid the ongoing pandemic, reducing the length of the season by several weeks.
Fox Sports and ESPN’s college football schedules were in flux even before the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcements, as leagues called off their non-conference slates and pushed the date of season-opening games into late September.
The two sports giants raked in almost $215 million in ad revenue for games involving Big Ten teams last season, per ad-sales data reported by Sportico. Programming that has to take the place of those games likely won’t rates that high, though Fox and ESPN also won’t be paying rights fees for games they don’t air.
Fox Sports stands to take the bigger hit, as games featuring Big Ten teams made up almost two thirds of its college football sales in 2019. ESPN, which has a bigger portfolio, got about 20 percent of its college football revenue from the Big Ten. As a whole, college football — including bowl games and the four-team national championship playoff — brought in nearly $1.7 billion in ad revenue for the 2019 season.
Of course, the biggest prize for both ESPN and Fox Sports (along with NBC and CBS) remains the NFL, which as of now is on track to play its regular season as scheduled. The 2019 regular season brought in almost $4.5 billion in ad sales.
ESPN may also be able to make up some of the lost revenue from a reduced college football slate with the NBA, whose restarted season will run into October. The league’s playoffs begin Aug. 17 and will run into early October, with the finals airing on ESPN’s Disney sibling ABC.
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