Following in SEC’s Footsteps, WAC Extends ESPN Media Deal Through 2016-17

By Carolyn Braff

ESPN has announced a seven-year extension of its multimedia-rights agreement with the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), through 2016-17. This announcement comes on the heels of the 15-year media agreement that ESPN announced last week with the Southeastern Conference and includes many of the same provisions for coverage of women’s sports and distribution on ESPN’s growing collegiate network, ESPNU.

Putting the WAC on the Map

The WAC, which consists of nine member schools stretching from Hawaii to Louisiana, began to attract national football attention on Jan.1, 2007, when undefeated Boise State pulled off an unforgettable upset of the University Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. A second straight BCS appearance (Hawaii advanced to last year’s Sugar Bowl) and a national championship in the College World Series (Fresno State took home the national title) have kept the WAC on the radar of even casual sports fans.

“We tout their performance as a contributing factor,” says Burke Magnus, ESPN SVP for college sports programming, explaining the effect that the conference’s back-to-back BCS appearances had on sealing this rights deal. “I don’t think it had a direct correlation to any of the specific deal points. The bottom line is, it’s a good conference playing meaningful football games.”

The football component of the deal gives the conference a minimum of 10 games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with at least six additional games on ESPNU. All WAC member schools are guaranteed at least one appearance on an ESPN network annually.

Building a Court Presence

Besides football, the deal gives ESPN rights to distribute WAC men’s and women’s basketball, Olympic sports, and conference championships across platforms, including ESPN360.com, ESPN.com, and ESPN Mobile Properties. A minimum of six regular-season men’s basketball games will air on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC; an additional six will air on ESPNU; and a conference-tournament quarterfinal, semifinal, and the championship game will all get airtime on the ESPN networks.

As for dedicating a night of ESPN programming to WAC basketball, as has been done with several other conferences, that discussion is ongoing.

“We’re adding seven new years to two existing years of the current contract, and we hope to be able to add in as many of the new elements as quickly as possible,” Magnus explains. “I would suspect that those elements will phase into this current season and be up to speed by next year. Certainly, a regular basketball night would be part of that discussion.”

Women’s Athletics Step Up to the Plate

Coverage of WAC women’s sports echoes similar clauses in the SEC agreement. Six regular-season events will be covered in 2008-09 (chosen from basketball, volleyball, and softball), seven in 2009-10, and eight through 2016-17. The conference volleyball championship and basketball championship will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU each year.

“It was important that the deal have a women’s component,” explains WAC Commissioner Karl Benson. “On the women’s side, these are minimums, and I would hope that our women’s programs will be able to grow because of this and we’ll be able to receive additional exposure over the course of the contract.”

Growth Spurt for ESPNU

Of all ESPN properties, the ESPNU television network in particular stands to benefit from this deal.

“ESPNU has grown greatly over its not yet four years of existence,” Magnus explains. “We’re confident that access and exposure to WAC content through ESPNU will only help to further develop and accelerate its growth.”

Beginning with this 2008-09 season, the agreement gives ESPNU rights to televise conference-controlled games across a variety of sports. In conjunction with the SEC deal, which grants ESPNU a minimum of 13 SEC football games each year, ESPN’s 24-hour college sports network has immensely expanded its reach in the past week, a benefit that is not lost on Benson.

“We actually reached an agreement prior to the SEC agreement, knowing that they were going on simultaneously,” Benson explains. “The fact that the SEC now has reached a 15-year exclusive agreement with ESPN, I think it even adds more value to the WAC deal. I think it will grow ESPNU, and we will be the beneficiaries of that.”

Magnus adds that, just as the SEC deal includes a large ESPNU component, fans can expect ESPNU to be heavily involved in all of the network’s collegiate programming.

“This deal is more in keeping with how we’re currently doing business, which involves ESPNU in a large way,” he says.

Media Agreements Go Long

The WAC’s seven-year extension and the SEC’s 15-year deal seem to point to future media-rights contracts as all-inclusive deals that bundle digital rights with television rights and last a decade or longer.

“I don’t know if it’s a trend, because every circumstance is different, but our desire on the premium content is to go out as long as possible,” Magnus says. “These deals have gotten so complicated, with all the provisions relative to not just television distribution but digital media and all the provisions that are related to our distribution efforts, we would rather have the term be as long as possible.”

Magnus expects both the SEC and the WAC to remain highly competitive on the college-sports landscape for the foreseeable future, so it was in ESPN’s best interests to push the terms of both agreements out as far as possible.

Although financial details of the deals have not yet been discussed, Benson and several coaches from the WAC member schools express gratitude that their conference was able to strike a deal of this magnitude at a time when additional revenue streams are running far drier than usual.

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