College Football is Back: What TV Networks Stand to Benefit the Most?

The first week of college football is come and gone, and while we all know the NCAA is making a financial killing on the games, there are also the television networks that will be busy counting their profits from the coming season. There is a pile of cash to go around, so here are some stats about the major benefactors from broadcasting your favorite teams and games.

According to ESPN’s Media Zone, 179,000,000 viewers watched ESPN college games for more than 100 billion minutes last season. The network has the broadest coverage, but does not necessarily broadcast the most watched games. In that area, ABC and CBS each had 2 of the top 4 most watched games last season. (ABC owns ESPN, literally.)

There are 4 major television networks that take in the lion’s share of the TV ad revenue: ESPN, ABC, CBS, and Fox. Disney owns ABC and ESPN, so you might want to count that as one network. The payout range by the networks for the most sought after conferences – SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC – is between $425 and $450 million for each conference per year.

There is a long term problem though because many of these contracts are up for renegotiation in a couple of years and cable network revenue is falling for all the networks. Current analysis shows that those major 5 conferences are going to be looking for even more money for a number of reasons, including the building of new stadiums. The fan interest is there, especially with the recently added playoff format and the increase in mobile device apps for viewing.

But the money to the colleges for broadcasting the games does not come without its own strings attached. Like the NFL, networks do not like broadcasting in stadiums where there are a large number of empty seats. So schools are required to buy up tickets of the visiting school (and presumably give them away if necessary) to meet the terms of the contract. There are also required payouts to the teams if the game is being played at a neutral stadium site. But it seems all the money stays in the same NCAA pool, and all participating colleges get their piece of the pie.

The major cable network and streaming options for watching are basically Sling TV, PS Vue, Hulu TV, YouTube TV, and DirecTV Now. Of course, they all will cost you something to watch the games live, and that is where the networks are able to end up showing a profit at the end of the season. The biggest money maker is, naturally, the playoffs.

The networks broadcasting the games do make as much money as people generally think. It is the NCAA and the individual colleges that are increasingly taking control of the college football money engine. The top five are virtually guaranteed to have the power when it comes to renegotiation in 2020 and beyond. But with falling cable subscription revenues the question is if there will be a consolidation of broadcast power in the major networks that will give control to major players ESPN and ABC.


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