How ESPN's Monopoly Power Is Consolidating College Football

Disney's ESPN is rearranging how college athletics works. Why? Market power.

Welcome to BIG, a newsletter on the politics of monopoly power. If you’d like to sign up to receive issues over email, you can do so here

In 2011, the dominant American TV sports channel ESPN offered the Big East, a college sports conference that included a number of significant universities on the east coast, a billion dollars to be the exclusive TV broadcaster of its basketball and football games. At the time, and today, ESPN had dominant power over virtually every aspect of televised college football, which is a key revenue source for college athletics. Not only did it have exclusive broadcasting rights over many of the key conferences - such as the Atlantic Coastal Conference, but it owned a large chunk of post-season playoff games outright, awards shows, and broadcasting rights over much of the rest.

Further, it’s likely that ESPN ties coverage on their journalism side to what they own rights to. So a school might not be featured as prominently on the flagship sports news shows SportsCenter and College Game Day if ESPN isn’t covering that game. That’s what they did to the NHL; hockey coverage plummeted when ESPN lost TV rights. As a result, college football conferences are very cognizant of always trying to have some games on ESPN because of their power within the industry.

Nevertheless, the Big East turned ESPN down, and put out its TV contract onto the open market, to let other broadcasters bid. That was a mistake. Shortly thereafter, the rumor is that ESPN set in a motion a plan to destroy the conference by encouraging key schools Pittsburgh and Syracuse to leave Big East to go to the ACC. As one school athletic director put it, “ESPN — is the one who told us what to do.” The Big East shrank into a minor irrelevant league, and the remaining teams in it lost TV exposure and revenue. The lesson was clear.

Ten years later, ESPN is at it again. It already has locked up the key football conferences in long-term deals - the ACC, Big Ten, and the SEC. The SEC is the powerhouse conference in college football, and ESPN paid $3 billion last year for the rights to broadcast games. The only remaining holdout is the Big 12, a conference of mostly public universities which broadcasts part of its games on the remaining competitor to ESPN in college sports, Fox.

Now, ESPN is luring the two marquee teams in the Big 12 - Texas and Oklahoma - to the SEC, because the sports behemoth has exclusive control over SEC broadcasting. The problem is Texas and Oklahoma have committed to the Big 12 and have to pay millions of dollars if they leave the conference, with one big caveat. If the Big 12 falls apart on its own, then they are free to go without a buyout. According to the Big 12’s commissioner Bob Bowlsby, that’s exactly what ESPN is trying to engineer. Bowlsby is accusing the sports channel of being "actively engaged in discussions with at least one other conference regarding that conference inducing additional Members of the Big 12 Conference to leave the Big 12 Conference."

In other words, ESPN is trying to blow up the Big 12 entirely, in order to let Texas and Oklahoma go to the SEC without having to pay a penalty fee. Ultimately, these kinds of moves will lead to more concentration of the best teams into one conference, which will become a quasi-minor league team for professional sports. The best prospects will go to the SEC not just because it’ll be the easiest path to professional sports, but because now that players can earn money themselves by signing deals with brands, the SEC itself will be professional sports. The rest of college football will wither, as the Big East did.