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IOWA CITY - Fox Sports expects to make a major push to acquire Big Ten media rights when the league's television contract expires after the 2016 football season, a company executive told The Gazette on Wednesday.
"I think when the time comes, we will certainly be an active participant in next round of Big Ten rights talks," said Mike Mulvihill, senior vice president for programming at Fox Sports. "Clearly we have a majority interest in the Big Ten Network. We have an ongoing relationship with the conference with the Big Ten championship game. I think the relationship between our management and Big Ten Conference management is exceptionally strong. I expect that we'll be a very active participant in those discussions."
Fox airs the Big Ten football championship game through 2016 and owns 51 percent of the Big Ten Network (BTN). The Big Ten has a current $1 billion deal with ESPN/ABC for first-tier rights that expires after the 2016 football season. Fully vested Big Ten members (not counting Nebraska) receive more than $24 million annually from league and NCAA coffers, most of which comes from television rights.
Based on new deals for other conferences, those numbers expect to soar after 2016. But Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told The Gazette two weeks ago he has no plans to start negotiations for the league's next deal until fall of 2015.
ESPN currently packages or airs Big Ten games on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. BTN also airs Big Ten games. The Big Ten's contract doesn't include road games, which are coordinated by the opponent and its television agreements.
Fox and its new cable channel, Fox Sports 1, air Big 12, Pac-12 and Conference USA games this fall. Among Fox Sports 1's high-profile match-ups involving two major conferences include Iowa-Iowa State, Arizona-USC, Texas-Texas Tech, Oregon-Oregon State and Washington-Washington State. The network airs between four and five college football games each weekend.
Fox's package would involve the main broadcast channel, Fox Sports 1, the Fox regional networks and the Big Ten Network. Fox regional networks located in or near Big Ten areas include North (Minnesota), Midwest (St. Louis), Wisconsin, Ohio, Detroit and Kansas City.
"I think everything that we talk about going forward is going to address the needs on both the broadcast side and national cable," Mulvihill said. "Every deal we do in the future will be for both Fox and Fox Sports 1."
ESPN expects to fight for the Big Ten's rights. With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers next year, the Big Ten's footprint will include 11 of the 29 largest metro areas, including three of the top four (New York, Chicago and Washington D.C./Baltimore). ESPN also is considered the authority on college football and its family of networks broadcasts every bowl game but one this year.
ESPN's presence makes it a challenge for Fox - or any other television company - to secure head-to-head viewership in college football. That's especially true with Fox Sports 1, which debuted just last month.
"We're going up against a competitor that is extremely well-established, and I think ESPN may be more firmly entrenched in college football than they are in any other area," Mulvihill said. "It's a daunting task to try to find our audience in the face of, not just the great relationships that ESPN has, but the great product that they put on the air. It's going to be an ongoing challenge for us.
"I don't think we had any expectation that we were going to come in and take over the college football space in a week or even a year. It's going to be a multi-year effort for us. Given that, when you look at it within those parameters, knowing it's going to take time for us to establish our niche in college football, I'm really satisfied with the quality of games we had in week one, the quality of the product we put on the air and the quality of the numbers."