By RALPH D. RUSSO
The Southeastern Conference’s signature mid-afternoon Saturday game will move from CBS to ABC starting in 2024 as part of a new 10-year contract announced Thursday with ESPN and the powerhouse football league.
The deal makes ESPN the exclusive media rights holder of SEC football and men’s basketball, and will end the conference’s relationship with CBS after three decades. CBS has been airing the league’s Saturday afternoon centerpiece game and football championship since 1996.
“The SEC has now, has had and will have a 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time broadcast network game. The change will be from CBS to ABC,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told AP. “So that’s a point of consistency.”
The SEC football championship game will also air on ABC.
The SEC and ESPN are already in the midst of a 20-year deal that includes a partnership on the SEC Network. The new deal will line up so both will run through the 2033-34 sports season.
The difference in the new deal: The mid-afternoon game is less likely to be the SEC’s game of the week. For the first time, SEC games will be available for ABC’s Saturday Night prime-time slot, too.
“So Saturday night, prime time on ABC is the highest profile window, the biggest stage in terms of college football. And we love the fact that we can now bring the ABC platform into the mix, starting in 2024,” ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro told AP.
Sports Business Journal first reported a year ago the SEC and ESPN were moving toward a partnership. The deal would likely have been announced sooner if not for the pandemic.
The SEC’s contract with CBS was worth about $55 million per year to the conference.
Both Sankey and Pitaro declined to reveal financial terms, but Sports Business Journal reported the new deal will be worth more than $300 million annually — an amount confirmed to The AP by a person familiar with the agreement on condition of anonymity because the value of the contract is private.
The new deal also gives ESPN the right starting next season (2021-22) to place one nonconference football game and two nonconference basketball games from each school per season on ESPN+, the network’s subscription-based online streaming service. The company said ESPN+ has 11.5 million subscribers.
“It’s a recognition of … the changing dynamics around media availability and media consumption,” Sankey said.
Sankey said moving the SEC’s media rights under one roof will allow the conference to set start times for more games much farther out. The conference hopes that’s a boon for both TV and online viewers as well as fans going to the games.
“I think more than half of our games we can set up (kick-off times) during the summer,” Sankey said. “They’re still going to be some of the 12-day and even maybe narrower adjustments, but those will be limited.”
Unlike most major spectator sports, the vast majority of game times in college football are set within two weeks of kickoff. The lack of lead time is a frequent complaint from fans across the country and has contributed to dips in college football attendance.
“It’s common sense, but we have just not operated that way in college football,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “There is still going to be a lot of flexibility for our partners to adjust and put the more interesting games in the highest-profile windows, but it’s a good balance what the league has worked out with Disney.
“It’s going to allow fans to have a lot more clarity on when their favorite team’s going to be playing a lot earlier ahead of time.”
Sankey said schools will be allowed to set kickoff times for games shown exclusively on ESPN+.
There has been speculation the SEC could buy out part of the remaining three years of its current deal with CBS and hasten the move to ESPN. Asked about that possibility, Sankey said the SEC and its members “look forward to maintaining our strong relationship”
ESPN executive vice president Burke Magnus said that while the network would be happy to have the new deal with the SEC start sooner rather than later, it’s not something ESPN can control.
“We’re open to that possibility, but it would have to be a circumstance that works for all involved,” Magnus said.
As for the familiar SEC on CBS theme song, Magnus said he gets asked a lot about whether ESPN would consider trying to acquire it.
“I enjoy it the same way other fans do. It’s iconic,” Magnus said. “I’m not in the music business, I don’t even know what’s possible necessarily or who owns it. But I do understand the special place it holds among SEC fans.”
ESPN already has exclusive rights to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which also has a network partnership with ESPN, and the American Athletic Conference.
ESPN holds at least partial rights with almost every FBS conference, including the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.
Pitaro said adding more SEC inventory to ESPN’s portfolio would not deter the network from being involved with other conferences when deals come up in the not-so-distant future.
The Pac-12′s current deals with Fox and ESPN expire in 2024; the Big 12′s end in 2025; and the Big Ten’s latest contracts with ESPN, Fox and CBS run through 2023.
“College sports in general will remain a huge priority for ESPN as we move forward,” Pitaro said. “And as each individual deal comes up for renewal, we treat it on a case-by-case basis.”
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