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The New MAC - ESPN TV Deal Explained

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The new MAC TV deal with ESPN is a big deal, so let's take a few moments to break the questions down one at a time.

Dave Reginek

Tuesday morning the Mid-American Conference and ESPN officially announced the continuation of MAC football on the ESPN family of networks through the 2026-2027 athletic seasons. As part of a new 13-year deal, that overwrites the final three seasons of the MAC's previous eight-year deal signed in 2009, ESPN now has exclusive rights to broadcast all MAC sports, including men's and women's basketball games and Olympic sporting events.

The deal, which takes effect immediately, means that since the MAC and ESPN first reached a deal in 2003, until at least 2027, ESPN will be the home of MACtion.

Let's explain this deal Vox-style.

Why a new deal, now?

The 2014 MAC football season is nine days from the announcement of this new deal, and since this deal involves the reworking of the final three years of the MAC's old deal, it was important for the MAC to make it official as soon as possible.

Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher cited changes in the college landscape as well as securing long-term stability for the MAC as two motivating factors in pushing to get the deal down now:

...we were in that time period where a lot of conferences were blowing up; a lot of movement. ESPN was reworking deals with a number of leagues. And so they had to get through those things, and so in the past year we've been really intensive on this. Again, this has probably been the biggest project on my desk. This was important for us, it was important for, I think, the long-term health, particularly in terms of exposure, for this conference.

How long has this deal been in the works?

Several years is the short answer. The medium answer is that, according to Steinbrecher, the MAC approached ESPN after Ohio's run to the Sweet 16 in 2012 about renegotiating their TV Contract then (just three years into the deal). The MAC's deal wasn't very good, financially, for the MAC, so it should come as no surprise that the MAC took every opportunity it could to renegotiate and improve its bargaining chips.

Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior VP of programing and acquisitions, made a joke about  how persistent Steinbrecher was about renegotiating the deal during the press conference today, saying:

Jon had a way of coming to visit immediately after one of his teams did really well competitively. I would always see him in Bristol, walking around the campus. He was always there.

This deal didn't happen overnight.

How long is the new deal for?

Technically, the new deal is actually a rewrite of the final three seasons of an eight-year deal the MAC was in, with a 10-year extension. This totals 13 years, and means ESPN will broadcast MAC football, and other sports, through the end of the 2026-2027 season when this new deal expires. It's guarantees the MAC a spot on national television past the quarter century mark, an impressively long deal.

How much is this new deal worth? (UPDATED)

MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher was mum at the press conference, saying he wasn't allowed to disclose the figures but that:  "We're in a totally different area code than where we've been in the past. I think it puts us in good step with our peers."

Since then, Brett McMurphy of ESPN (and several others) have reported that this 13-year deal with ESPN is worth more than $100 million, or roughly about $8 million a season. That factors out to about $670,000 per school, per season, a big improvement over the roughly $120,000 each school received under the previous $1.4 million a year deal, a nearly 500 percent increase in annual payouts.

Initial reports by Sports Illustrated suggested the new deal would put the MAC at the head of the Group of Five pack, but in reality it still puts the MAC about $4-6 million a year behind the current deals that both the MWC and Conference USA have. Granted both of these conferences have primary national TV deals, secondary national TV deals and regional TV deals to get to that total, but that's the thing: they retain the control of their TV rights and make substantially more off of them, still.

Now, ESPN does control the rights to sub-license content to regional networks,and it's likely the MAC will receive a cut from all funds derived from these sub-license deals, but no one has come out and explicitly stated that yet, and it's still hard to see the MAC racking in another $6 million a season off of regional sub-license agreements. But it appears, from my point of view, that the MAC gave up a shot at a slightly larger payout for long-term security, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

UPDATE: 8/20/2014

According to new information McMurphy has dug up, the new deal could actually be worth much more in the final 10 years than the first three:

This would actually make a lot of sense as the deal is really a restructuring of the final three seasons of an old $1.4 million a year deal, plus a 10-year extension. It's perfectly logical to think that the extension would be worth more than the restructuring. This just goes to show that we really don't know all the financial details yet, and all of us (myself included) will need to hold off on judging the deal too hard until we get all the information.

What does this deal actually entail?

Everything. ESPN now controls traditional and digital broadcast and digital distribution rights for the entire MAC. Football, men's and women's basketball, Olympic sports. It's all under ESPN's control now. Previously, ESPN had the rights to national coverage of MAC football, and some men's and women's basketball, with the MAC—and sometimes individual member institutions—had the right to negotiate regional deals. Now ESPN controls all of that.

ESPN controls the rights to negotiate "sub-licensing" deals for program with regional networks, not the MAC, not individual schools. This also impacts streaming rights (more on that later).

Does this mean more MACtion?

Yes, and no. This does open up the possibility for more MAC men's and women's basketball on TV, and means a lot more MACtion on ESPN3 from all sorts of sports, but we will not see more weeknight football.

At the press conference Steinbrecher said, "We expect to continue to be in the November mid-week window. At this point we don't anticipate that going beyond there." Meaning, the MAC will continue to play 14 nationally televised weeknight football games each November, but don't expect to see that extend to other months.

In a follow up interview I had with Ken Mather, the MAC's assistant commissioner of media and public relations, he reiterated this point that the MAC does not plan to play more than 14 mid-week games each November, and that though other games could be picked up for carrying on ESPN's networks throughout the season, we will not see more weeknight games than we already do.

As for other sports, specifically men's basketball, we should see an uptick in games that appear on the ESPN networks. Steinbrecher said that for the next few years we should expect to see a similar amount of televised basketball games as we've seen in the past few seasons, but as infrastructure is in place for schools to produce the broadcasts, that should ramp up. Eventually every MAC men's basketball home game will be available on an ESPN platform, but that will likely take a few years as it's dependent on schools being able to run the broadcasts for many of those games at a level of quality ESPN requires.

The vast majority of basketball games will be available either on ESPN3 or through regional TV due to sub-licensing deals. Don't expect to see Wednesday night MAC basketball on ESPN2, but Steinbrecher did mention that we could see several Friday night games featured on ESPN networks this fall (though keep in mind this could simply mean ESPN3 as well).

The of course, there will also eventually be broadcasts of olympic sports matches on ESPN3, but many of those are still years down the road.

So there will be more MACtion available to stream on ESPN3?

Yes. Steinbrecher and ESPN Senior VP Burke Magnus both spent a lot of time talking about the MAC's presence on ESPN3, and it will grow significantly under this new deal.

The MAC has already had a pretty big presence on ESPN3 for some time. Most home football games have been available on the digital streaming service for a few years. As well as the occasional basketball game. In February ESPN announced the creation of a digital MAC channel on ESPN3 that allowed users to stream every game of the men's and women's basketball tournaments, but that was just a drop in the bucket compared to what this new deal will bring to ESPN3.

As mentioned before, this deal includes ALL TV rights. Broadcast and digital, meaning that ESPN3 can broadcast (and will in the near future for men's basketball and football) all MAC sponsored events and MAC home games. This is contingent on a part of the deal that will ramp up on-campus production facilities and infrastructure to a point where the schools can produce coverage of home basketball games for the digital service themselves, so until all schools are capable, you won't see every home men's basketball game on ESPN3, for example, but in coming years you will see every home MAC football game on the service.

What if I don't have ESPN3, will I still be able to watch free live streams from the MAC's site or my school's site?

The short answer is eventually, no. As mentioned, the plan is to eventually move all schools over from their current streaming services to ESPN3. The school's sites will get to host an ESPN3 player and all game streams will come through via ESPN3. But this is still a ways down the road.

In order for this to work, the plan is to over the course of the next three to four years, get infrastructure in place to allow schools to produce the broadcasts of these events themselves and stream them on ESPN3. Ken Mather told me an audit has been done to determine what level technologically each program's broadcast capabilities are currently at to determine which three or four schools will immediately begin working to produce content for ESPN3.

The way Mather explained it to me, this does mean that ALL schools will be required to start streaming men's and women's basketball games through the service, almost immediately. Meaning, if they're going to be streaming MAC basketball games, they can't do it through their own service (many of which were free, including the MAC's own digital network) and will have to go through ESPN3, with the eventual goal that all of the games they would stream (think volleyball and wrestling meets) would also go through ESPN3 by the end of that four-year ramp up and training period.  (We'll have a more in-depth examination of this later).

Is the MAC digital network as we knew it dead then?

It appears so. I'm still trying to confirm whether or not we will be able to stream some MAC games, for free, through the conference site this fall, but my early understanding from what I've been told by conference officials is that yes, the current MAC digital network, that was hosted on MAC-Sports.com, will be converted to the ESPN3 network (Which was already baked into the MAC's new site that debuted earlier this summer).

Wait, what about the MAC's deal with Time Warner Cable Sports Channel, is that still on?

While the MAC and TWC Sports Channel reached their regional broadcast deal not even a year ago, it's now officially dead as we knew it. As Steinbrecher pointed out in the press conference, all regional broadcast deals were secondary to the MAC's national deals. When the MAC successfully renegotiated its national deal, giving ESPN total control of their rights (exclusivity) that voided the MAC's regional deal with TWC.

For many, this is great news. The production quality on TWC Sports Channel was terrible. Action often happened off screen, the level of knowledge wasn't there (like the infamous promo of a game in which they incorrectly said Shayne Whittington was on Ball State), and then of course there was the issue with actual distribution.

Few people who didn't have Time Warner Cable could get the channel in this region. Personally, I had TWC but the channel was not available to me this past fall/winter, despite living in Columbus—squarely in MAC territory. Even if you had TWC and it was available, you typically had to have a premium cable package to get the channel. Anyone who lived in the MAC's footprint who didn't have TWCSC and wanted to stream a game that the channel was broadcasting via ESPN3 with out of luck. TWC blacked out streaming access to those in the regions where the channel was available. Further enraging MAC fans.

Now this deal is voided. That doesn't mean we couldn't still see MAC basketball on TWCSC, it just means it'll be under the control of ESPN and TWC will have to sub-license the content. It also means that ESPN (or more accurately, the schools which they will be providing infrastructure to) will be responsible for the actual production of the games, so the quality should improve. The MAC/ESPN don't currently have any sub-licence deal in place. but Ken Mather told me it's something they're actively working to get figured out before the start of basketball season, and that rules about things such as streaming blackouts has still yet to be determined.

What else?

This is a pretty big deal, and there are all sorts of implementations to be done, and effects to be felt in the coming months and years. As more questions arise, we will update this post with answers. Have a question we didn't answer? Leave it in the comments section below. You can also follow our StoryStream, where we're adding all stories about this deal so you can easily follow this developing story in one place.