- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Bowl Championship Series on Tuesday announced an agreement to broadcast college football’s title game and three major bowl games on ESPN - the latest marquee sports events to make the move from over-the-air television to cable and satellite networks.

The BCS title game, along with the Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, join the British Open, “Monday Night Football” and a portion of the NBA and Major League Baseball playoffs as major sports events no longer seen on every television in America.

ESPN will pay an average of $125 million annually over the four years of the agreement, which stretches from 2011 through 2014. The network aggressively outbid Fox, which has aired the games each of the last two years.

The new agreement will prevent college football’s top games from airing in about 16 million households, but BCS coordinator John Swofford said officials were comfortable moving to ESPN because they believe the line between free television and cable or satellite services is blurring.

ESPN is available in 98 million households, making it one of the most widely distributed cable channels. ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer also said 95 percent of the people who watched last year’s BCS title game were hooked up to either cable or satellite.

“I think it’s important to note the distinction between cable and over-the-air networks, and the fact that that is narrowing every year,” Swofford said. “The number of people that distinguish between the two will continue to get smaller as well, especially as we approach 2009 and the analog signal is no longer available and we move to digital.”

The new contract also could allow the Rose Bowl to move to ESPN after 22 years on ABC. The Rose Bowl has a separate television contract that runs through the 2014 season, and officials said no decision has been made about which network will broadcast the game past 2010. The Walt Disney Company owns ESPN and ABC.

ESPN and other cable networks have aired major sporting events for decades, but the most prestigious events remained on free television until just recently.

Major League Baseball’s latest television contract, for example, moved one of the league championship series from Fox to TBS beginning with the 2007 season. Likewise, one of the NBA conference finals series now is broadcast on TNT.

ESPN last week announced that it would show all four rounds of golf’s British Open, the first time that event’s final round will not be seen on broadcast television.

“It’s not like this is a watershed event,” said Neal Pilson, a sports television consultant and former president of CBS Sports. “I think we’ve seen a gradual trend where some, but not necessarily all, of the major sports properties are moving to cable.”

The NFL has steadfastly clung to a free model for its games, even distributing its own NFL Network and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” games to over-the-air channels in the markets of teams involved. The Super Bowl, the World Series and the NCAA men’s basketball championship still are shown over the air.

By moving games away from free television, the BCS could see lower ratings, at least in the short term.

Ratings for sporting events vary, but industry sources noted that NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” usually rates higher than “Monday Night Football” on ESPN. Afternoon NFL games broadcast on Fox and CBS often are the most-watched programs of the week.

When it comes to bidding for major sports contracts, ESPN has an inherent advantage over broadcast networks like Fox because it collects revenue from both advertising and carriage fees. Cable and satellite operators pay more for ESPN than any other channel and often have blamed ESPN for the rise in the cost of service over the years.

Bodenheimer said the BCS contract would not result in a surcharge to operators, but industry analysts cautioned that carriage fees could rise in the future.

Fox, for its part, bid hard for the BCS, offering to raise its annual rights fee to $100 million from about $80 million, according to SportsBusiness Journal. But it wasn’t enough.

“Even with today’s vast economic uncertainties, Fox Sports made a very competitive bid to keep broadcasting BCS games free to every home in America, one that included a substantial rights fee increase, and certainly as much as any over-the-air network could responsibly risk,” Fox Sports said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the university presidents and BCS commissioners were not satisfied, and they’ve decided to take their jewel events to pay television.”

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