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Apple to ‘Reengage’ with Big Ten for Media Rights Following Additions of USC, UCLA

Matt Tamanini

On Thursday, the world of college sports was completely turned on its head when it was reported that USC and UCLA would be leaving the Pac-12 in favor of the Big Ten (B1G) beginning in the fall of 2024. The Trojans and Bruins would be joining one of the two most powerful college conferences to play alongside longtime Rose Bowl rivals in Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, and others. Not only does that make the traditional East Coast and Midwest-based Big Ten the first transcontinental conference, but it also completely changes the landscape of the league’s media rights deals, which it is currently negotiating.

The B1G’s rights deals — split between Fox and ESPN — expire at the conclusion of the upcoming football season. The conference has already reportedly granted Fox half of the rights in the forthcoming package — including the first choice of games — which comes as no surprise because the network has been the league’s partner on the Big Ten Network since its launch in 2006, and currently owns 61% of the channel.

Big Ten Network

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The Big Ten was also reportedly negotiating with, ESPN, CBS — who lost its rights to games from the Southeastern Conference (SEC) beginning in 2024 — Amazon, and NBC. CBS was expected to land a high-quality weekly game to slide into the SEC’s former signature slot on the network at 3:30 p.m. ET. Apple, who had been involved in the discussions early on, appeared to be out of the running for a slice of the broadcasting pie… at least until Thursday.

The B1G was expected to be the first collegiate conference to secure a rights deal worth more than $1 billion, and that was before the league added two blue-blood programs from the second-largest media market in the country. After jointly reaching out to the Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren on Sunday, June 26, USC and UCLA officially applied for Big Ten membership on Thursday morning. By that evening, the conference’s presidents and chancellors had officially voted to admit the schools beginning in 2024, following the expiration of the Pac-12’s current media rights deal.

So, with the two California schools now officially members of the Big Ten, it appears that ESPN and CBS will be getting some exceptionally deep-pocketed competition for the conference’s remaining rights. The Sports Business Journal's John Ourand and Michael Smith are reporting that following Thursday’s dramatic news, Apple reached out to B1G officials in hopes of reengaging discussions about a potential deal.

With the additions of the two highly visible institutions to the B1G, as well as the assumed increase in competition, the media valuations for the league’s rights are likely to increase significantly meaning that if Apple wants to add Big Ten rights to its growing catalog of live sports, the company will likely have to commit to a substantial price to wrestle the rights away from established linear networks. There is an expectation that in order for a portion of the games to move to streaming, Apple — or Amazon if it was to secure the rights — would need to pay a premium in order to offset the loss of simplicity, familiarity, and discoverability afforded on the competing networks.

Related: Is Apple’s MLS Deal a Blueprint for What a Streaming NFL Sunday Ticket Could Be?

As of late, Apple has been aggressive in its moves to become a player in live sports. In addition to a pair of weekly, Friday night Major League Baseball games, the tech giant landed an unprecedented 10-year deal to broadcast every single Major League Soccer Game and is considered a frontrunner to land the lucrative NFL Sunday Ticket package. If Apple TV were to add exclusive games from one of the two most powerful college football conferences, it would certainly be a substantial boon to its growing sports visibility.

Another important factor that is still up in the air in this scenario is that college football experts do not expect this to be the end of the conference expansion. The Big Ten now sits at 16 schools, but none between Nebraska and Los Angeles. Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said, “We’re in an unbelievably crazy time in college athletics … Things are going to continue to change.”

The school’s president Kristina M. Johnson added, “I’d be surprised if this is the last move nationally.” Reports began circulating late on Thursday that other Pac-12 schools including Oregon and Washington were interested in joining the B1G as well. If that’s the case, the league’s footprint, roster of high-profile programs, and media valuation would all continue to increase dramatically.

If the Big Ten moves as quickly to add Oregon and Washington (and potentially other schools) as it did with USC and UCLA, the price tag for its rights deals could continue to escalate at meteoric rates. While the league had been expected to finalize its media plans at any moment, negotiations are now expected to last into August as all parties involved evaluate the rapidly changing landscape.

Whichever network(s) land the remaining rights to the Big Ten media package, it is sure to come with a hefty price. However, just as the conference is engaging in a membership arms race, so are the networks and streamers when it comes to populating their slates with high-value content, and when it comes to college sports, there is arguably no more valuable brand than the B1G.

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