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One conference’s new media deal is almost all streaming. Should others do the same?

Is this unique deal a one-off, or a sign of things to come?

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James Madison University athletic department

Recent media deals in college athletics have followed a trend. In March, the American Athletic Conference signed a deal that gave them a raise, but moved lots of their content to ESPN+. In April, the Big 12 signed a new rights deal that moves some to ESPN+. At this point, nearly every league in the Group of 5, along with a few other smaller conferences, has some sort of streaming package on ESPN+.

The Colonial Athletic Association decided to go in a different direction, announcing a four-year deal with FloSports, giving the streaming company rights to 50 football games, 140 men’s and women’s basketball games, and over 300 events in total. The league will maintain a small agreement with CBS Sports for men’s basketball.

This is the first time a Division I conference has made an over-the-top streaming company its primary rightsholder. Are other leagues likely to follow?

Most major conferences have their TV rights locked up for at least a few more years. The Big Ten’s rights are until 2022-2023. The Pac-12 ends in 2023-2024, and the Big 12 ends in 2024-2025. The Sun Belt recently extended its agreement with ESPN until 2028.

But there are two entities who will be looking for new media deals very soon: the Mountain West Conference and BYU football.

You can see the appeal for a conference like the MWC to lean more into streaming.

The current MWC contract with ESPN and CBS Sports, which expires after this athletic season, often requires late kickoffs or inconvenient dates. Back in 2017, Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman told USA Today:

The issue is for us, the money is not so great that, at least in my opinion, that we are willing to just play game times whenever TV calls.

Mountain West Craig Thompson, quoted here by the Las Vegas Sun last year, summed up the predicament nicely:

We have been told directly by the television partners, the later you play the more value you bring to us, ... So we have to balance that out. Do we want fans to attend, or do we want that exposure so somebody in the eastern or central time zone at 10, 11, midnight can watch our games?”

But, as CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio confirmed to me, if the game is streaming only, local institutions could hypothetically decide when to kick off. Presumably, the MWC could also go that direction to regain more control.

Of course, most Mountain West teams also really need TV revenue. Later in that same interview, Thompson said:

It still gets down to exposure and relevancy, to recruitment and revenue, and certainly the control of kick and tip times

The MWC already has some non-revenue sports on FloSports. It seems entirely possible the MWC could elect to stream more events, especially higher profile events, than the AAC, Sun Belt, or other G5 leagues.

BYU, on the other hand, seems less likely. Its football inventory (both because of BYU’s own brand and the brands of the teams it’s hosting) is much more valuable than the MWC’s, and the religious mission of the institution places a higher emphasis on exposure. One industry source told me BYU could take less money than it could get on the open market, in order to improve exposure.

What’s the argument for going streaming-first?

D’Antonio told me nobody else offered the combination of flexibility, commitment to “telling our story year-round, rather than just show the games,” and money that FloSports did. D’Antonio said this deal would secure a “seven-figure” rights fee for the league. That means schools like Elon and Towson will get a little extra money for their athletic departments.

D’Antonio also confirmed to me that some schools would keep the flexibility to broadcast football games on regional networks. The CAA boasts some of the best programs in FCS football, so that would be important. The current AAC media deal does not allow programs to do this, much to the chagrin of UConn. Any other league considering streaming-heavy options will need to consider the value of one-off exceptions, versus maximizing revenue.

But it isn’t without risks.

Streaming isn’t free. FloSports will cost $12.50 a month, and unlike ESPN+ or other major streaming options, the customer isn’t getting a ton of extra content, unless they happen to be interested in professional bowling or track and field.

D’Antonio told me the league was “sensitive to this concern and didn’t want to price ourselves out of the market,” but added that competing streaming networks might not be dramatically lower in price forever. He hoped that if it delivered a strong product, fans would understand.

The balance between exposure, fan experience, and revenue is tricky, especially for smaller leagues. This might encourage other leagues to be creative, but the industry source was skeptical deals like the CAA would be the wave of the future, saying, “I think this is a risk in a lot of respects, and not necessarily going to be a harbinger. Do I see FloSports doing this type of of deal with primary rights for football and basketball for another conference? No.”

Whether future deals look more like the Big 12’s, AAC’s, or CAA’s, one thing does seem clear: streaming isn’t going away.