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ESPN, the AAC, and the MAC: Why #MACtion Fans Should Be Wary

While there is obviously a lot of excitement, there is a lot to be concerned about with the new deal reached with ESPN.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After the NCAA lost the O'Bannon case a couple weeks ago, the MAC as a collective recoiled, due to the implications of the case when it came to the payment of student-athletes. That, combined with the autonomy vote for the so-called P5 conferences, surely spelled doom for the MAC and the other G5 conferences.

However, the MAC has set itself apart from its G5 brethren with a landmark deal with ESPN to air all MAC football, men's and women's basketball, and select Olympic sports on the ESPN family of networks, including ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3 for the next 13 years. This is a big step up from the joint venture between ESPN and the MAC to create the ESPN3 MAC Digital Network back in February, which only showed select games and replays on WatchESPN.

Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher said in a conference call on Tuesday that "despite so much uncertainty that seems to be swirling about these days, this new agreement should be a clear indication that the Mid-American Conference is a strong and vibrant conference that continues to be nationally relevant." He also used an old Steve Martin quip to describe the league's expectations, saying the conference has to be "so good, you can't ignore it."

This is sort of where it stops being so positive. While a lot of details were announced in both the initial announcement and in the subsequent press conference call the next day, there was a lot of potential implications therein that truly have me concerned as a fan of the #MACtion. While we're never going to see B1G or SEC money, the MAC could really use a significant pay raise in order to keep up with the increasing cost of operation that it takes to run an athletic department, something that is greatly affected by the autonomy debate. Here are some numbers to consider when looking at this topic:

  • The Western Athletic Conference, which no longer sponsors football, has a $4 million dollar TV distribution contract.
  • Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference have football/basketball distribution contracts worth $11.3 and $12 million dollars, respectively.
  • After 2009's contract with ESPN, the MAC made $1.4 million per year for basketball and football TV rights. This placed them 11th out of 12 conferences (if you consider Notre Dame a conference) in terms of TV revenue.
  • The American Athletic Conference has a separate contract with ESPN (seven years, $126 million) that our friends at The UConn Blog suggests could shut out the other members of the G5 from postseason success, especially considering the new playoff format, which only allows four teams from ten conferences, period.

Another thing that this deal does is give ESPN the exclusive production rights, which means free university or MAC- Network streams are a thing of the past, as well as the contract recently signed with Time Warner Cable. This will be replaced with ESPN going into a partnership with the individual schools in setting up an ESPN3 stream for every event within the next four years, essentially making it a subscription service. ESPN also controls the rights to regional sub-licensing, revenue that the MAC may never get a chance to see.

Finally, the biggest part of this deal: the MAC still is 11th out of 12 conferences in terms of TV revenue, while getting virtually no guarantees in terms of regional sub-licensing (read: Time Warner Cable.) It's never a bad thing to try and cash in on short-term successes, and the MAC has been very successful in the last five or so years. This contract means that the MAC is still $4-6 million behind the Mountain West and Conference USA, who also retains their national and regional distribution rights, meaning more money for each school. While a nearly 500 percent increase in revenue to individual schools is nothing to sneeze at, the long-term security comes at the cost of a bigger payout. FOX Sports has seemed to be faring well with their football coverage (I, for one, was a fan of their B1G Championship coverage,) and the NBC Sports Network, as well as the CBS Sports Network have also been looking into covering more college sports. with the advent of DVRs, live sports programing is at a premium right now, and something that doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Could the MAC perhaps have inked a deal with any of those networks for a more lucrative sum? We'll never know the answer to such questions thanks to this 13-year albatross.

This being said, the exposure could potentially be a boon for fans of #MACtion, even if the free, though poorly-produced, streams for those without ESPN3 access, will be gone. The main concern is how much does ESPN value the MAC and its fans. ESPN sold off AAC games to CBS Sports Network essentially as soon as possible, so ESPN's past behaviors don't necessarily favor the MAC. With so many unanswered questions, there are many valid concerns for MAC schools.

But for now, weekday #MACtion shall reign, so that's nice, I guess.