The Big 12’s ESPN+ deal means paywalls aren’t just for mid-majors now




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On Wednesday, the Big 12 announced a new digital rights agreement with ESPN. Beyond giving ESPN the rights to the Big 12 championship game every year until 2024, this new agreement also moves some Big 12 inventory to ESPN+, a paid subscription service.

All of the Big 12’s men’s basketball games that weren’t already on an ESPN network — plus a slew of non-revenue sports, spring football games, and some actual football games — will now be on ESPN+.

One big takeaway: this is the first time a significant amount of a power conference’s inventory is moving behind a paywall.

If you’re a fan of a non-power school, this isn’t new. The American just signed a big new TV deal that will move lots of their football and basketball games to ESPN+, and all sorts of MAC, Sun Belt, etc. games have been on streaming platforms over the last few years. Almost every non-power basketball conference has some ESPN+ presence.

But if you’re a fan of a power conference school, almost all of your football or men’s basketball games could be found on conventional TV, even if on a conference network or a local-only channel (Kansas games were sometimes on Spectrum Sports Kansas City, for example, and Kansas State had its own service). Every so often, a basketball game might end up on BTN+ or SEC Network+, but generally not several a season, especially if you live in-market.

Is this a good thing? Well, it depends.

If you’re a big basketball fan who already subscribed to ESPN+, this is great. You’re going to get to stream more games featuring really good teams.

If you’re a fan of non-revenue sports, this is probably a great thing too, as you’ll have an improved tech solution to watching baseball, wrestling, volleyball, and other sports.

And obviously, if you’re a university athletic department, this is great. You’re getting more money (SBJ reported the new digital rights deal bumps up the Big 12’s ESPN deal to $22 million annually, although the Big 12 told the Kansas City Star that number wasn’t accurate), and some of your sports get a better platform.

But I’m guessing you’re not a university athletic department.

If you were counting on going to a bar to watch Bowling Green-Kansas State or every Texas Tech basketball game, this might not be so great for you, as it isn’t totally clear how streaming options for bars or restaurants might work (this is one of the reasons UConn isn’t thrilled about the AAC TV deal).

And if you were hoping a post-cable world would be simpler, well, that’s probably not going to happen. To legally watch everything, fans will probably need to pay for multiple services.

Don’t be surprised if this happens even more in the future.

Right now, the Big 12, American, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt, Missouri Valley, Ivy League, and others have some events on ESPN+.

The Mountain West’s ESPN/CBS contract expires after the 2019-2020 season. Should the MWC reach an agreement with ESPN, some inventory will probably move to the service. I’d assume that if BYU football signs a new deal with ESPN, at least one annual game will end up on ESPN+ as well.

The other power conferences have TV deals that expire later in the 2020s, but if fans are paying to watch Big 12 events behind a paywall, other power conferences could consider similar moves.

If you were hoping to have everything you’d want in one simple package, you might be left wanting. But hey, at least you’ll be able to watch TCU baseball on your phone a little easier, if you want.



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