CSVS Recap: To Maximize Value, Conferences Will Continue Aggregating Rights

By Carolyn Braff

The first day of SVG’s inaugural College Sports Video Summit, held this week in Atlanta, ended with a bang, as five heavyweights of college sports programming took the stage. Conference chair Tom Buffolano moderated as experts from across the college sports landscape offered attendees a view from the top, examining the rights relationship between networks and universities. According to the panel, the current trend toward aggregating rights at the conference level is here to stay, which means that the schools themselves have plenty of questions to answer if they are going to get their own piece of the rights-agreement pie.

Success in the Aggregate

“Most rights are now aggregated at the conference level,” explained Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA. “And those rights now include almost everything on campus. By aggregating enough quality content and putting it online, we hope to broaden our exposure and generate more revenue.”

Last year, the Southeastern Conference succeeded in doing just that, completing two 15-year, all-encompassing rights agreements—one with CBS for network broadcasts and the other with ESPN for cable rights. Those agreements cost the respective networks a record sum, and Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice president of college sports programming, explained that the pressure is now on. In order to justify the hefty investment it made in cross-platform rights, ESPN must now utilize as many aspects of the agreement in as many places as possible.

“That was a significantly higher rights fee than what we had done in the past, but it included significantly more rights than in the past,” Magnus explained. “A consolidated, bundled approach to rights selling is the best way for conferences to maximize the money coming back to them. Whenever it’s been parceled off over time, that tends to muddy the waters, confuse things, and ultimately drive down the value of the rights.”

With as many mouths to feed as a conference has—the SEC has 12 member institutions, for example—aggregating content among all of the schools enables the lower-profile programs to effectively rise to the level of the high-profile ones, driving up the value of the rights to content from the entire conference.

The Digital Domain

Television rights agreements are fairly straightforward, but with platforms like Twitter and YouTube constantly sprouting up as new distribution channels, defining “multimedia rights” can be an exercise in futility. Today’s multimedia channels certainly do not encompass what will be available five years from now, much less when the SEC’s contract runs out 15 years down the line. Is it possible for rights agreements to be absolutely clear on what content can end up where? According to Magnus, it depends on the monetary investment involved.

“Clarity in terms of who can do what has been a major frustration for us,” Magnus explained. “Not too long ago, it was a Wild, Wild West out there. Within a single conference, there were half a dozen different relationships in a single category [like streaming or mobile rights]. The higher the investment, the more clarity there is because you can do a deal that is a lot more comprehensive.”

What’s Left for the Independents

While aggregating rights at the conference level certainly benefits the conference, individual athletic departments with conferences that have not aggregated those rights, or independent programs such as Notre Dame, can quickly find themselves at the bottom of the video rights food chain.

“Understanding what our rights are and what is left for the individual institution is not easy,” explained John Heisler, senior associate athletic director for media and broadcast relations at the University of Notre Dame. “When our football team plays on the road against opponents from different conferences, what we can do one week on the Web is different from what we can do the week after that. Seeing the fine-print details of these rights relationships becomes so much more important on the school level.”

For those schools in conferences that have given away their rights to video content, a little creativity—and a usable archive—can bring valuable video back to campus.

“Content is only usable if it’s accessible,” explained Frank Cardello, executive VP of sports for Thought Equity Motion, a company supplying online-video content. “Having the rights to non-live or archive content is pretty valuable, since that is the content that builds up to the event and allows viewers to learn and get context.”

Protecting the Content from Fans

After all of the network-university rights relationships have been awarded formally, both parties must go on the offensive to make sure that their rights are protected informally, as well. Even if a competing network cannot stream an ESPN game, what’s to stop a fan from bringing a camera into a stadium, recording the game, and posting it to their personal blog?

“We have detailed language on media credentials, and that will soon have to be copied to tickets, as well,” Heisler said. “But where do we draw the line? Will fans no longer be able to bring a camera of any kind into your venue?”

“We’ve come to be very Zen about those issues,” Magnus added. “It’s primarily a conference-based issue as they look to recapture the enduring rights to their content, but [having fans virally reproducing content] is not all bad. At the heart of it, it’s fandom—there is something good about it on the conference side.”

“I think it’s too early to come up with a blanket policy,” said Steve Herbst, EVP and general manager of CBS College Sports Network. “These things very much have to be solved on a case-by-case basis. Vigilance has to be there, but enforcement is tricky at this point.”

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