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Pirate Notebook No. 460
Monday, January 10, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Fox deal makes dollars and ‘sense’

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

More coverage. More money. An elimination of those dreadful Tuesday and Wednesday night broadcasts. Those are the important details of Conference USA’s new television agreement with Fox Sports Media Group.

Considering the impact each can have on the league’s overall profile, you can understand why C-USA divorced ESPN and returned to one of its earlier media partners.

On all levels, the move made sense.

The deal, which will run through the 2015-16 athletic year, guarantees that a minimum of 20 football games will be broadcast per season, with the majority of those being showcased on Saturday. That’s double the coverage the league received from ESPN.

Financially, C-USA will pocket $7 million annually from Fox and $14 million combined when you factor the existing partnership with CBS College Sports. Again, another significant increase from the checks C-USA was depositing when ESPN was a part of the deal.

Yet not everyone considers this a no-brainer.

Maybe that’s because Fox Sports Net is an adolescent network compared to ESPN’s maturity across the landscape. To that end, you can certainly understand some of the discomfort from fans who naturally will view the new deal as a demotion.

ESPN, after all, has become the most influential sports media source, and has completely altered the coverage of college athletics. When it comes to brand recognition, ESPN is the Rolls Royce of college sports coverage, whereas Fox is the equivalent of a Buick.

But to that end, you have to question which is better: Getting stuffed into the trunk of a Rolls, or riding shotgun in a Regal?

I’ll take the latter.

The overwhelming majority of ESPN’s C-USA telecasts were held on non-traditional nights. That largely meant Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday night broadcasts, with the occasional Monday or Sunday thrown in for measure.

ESPN has essentially used C-USA and other BCS non-AQ conferences as guinea pigs to experiment with the idea of midweek broadcasts. It’s been a no-lose scenario for the network when you consider its broadcast alternatives.

Seriously, what did ESPN have to lose by scheduling Memphis and Marshall on Wednesday night?

Its handful of bowling viewers? A few poker enthusiasts? The hassle of finding a different night to televise big Belgian dudes hurling beer kegs?

The answer, of course, is nothing.

Meanwhile, C-USA schools suffered a major hit to their overall perception. Midweek games served mostly to segregate those schools involved from the rest of college football, and emphasized the media’s use of the “mid-major.”

ESPN was sending a clear message that C-USA and similar conferences didn’t deserve the same airspace as the BCS AQ leagues. Unless, of course, C-USA schools stepped out of conference to play a high-profile opponent, which explains how East Carolina received the red carpet treatment in comparison to other league members.

With Fox, ECU can now enjoy the best of both worlds: televised conference games played on Saturday and distributed nationally by a media partner with a significant reach, along with the possibility of non-conference games being televised by a different network.

"Both parties will reap the benefits of this agreement," FOX Sports Networks President Randy Freer said in a statement. "Not only can Fox provide extensive national TV exposure for the conference through a variety of outlets, but we can also serve the conference's member schools and local fans through our strong regional presence.

“An RSN like FOX Sports Houston is a natural fit to distribute Rice and Houston games, while SMU, UTEP, and Tulane are located in FOX Sports Southwest's footprint. We'll have tremendous programming opportunities to explore, especially with cross-over match-ups with our other conference rights."

Those other conference rights include the Big 12 and Pac-10. If Fox has worked for them, there is no reason it shouldn’t for C-USA, and truthfully it already has in the past.

In 2000, East Carolina had eight national television appearances, with four of them occurring on Fox Sports Net. Additionally, the Pirates were broadcast regionally twice on Fox Sports South.

Given that history, along with the details of the contract, there is no reason to believe C-USA’s new deal with Fox won’t be more favorable for ECU. In the end, it should add some padding to the coffers and increase the Pirates’ exposure.

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01/10/2011 02:36 AM

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