With American Athletic Conference Extending ESPN Rights Deal, Athletic Departments Will Expand Live-Production Efforts

Besides sizable linear slate produced by ESPN, 11,000+ games will be produced by AAC schools for distribution on ESPN+

The American Athletic Conference and ESPN made it official today, announcing a 12-year extension of its global-media-rights agreement. The deal advances the multiplatform-distribution relationship through the 2031-32 academic year.

The deal guarantees the conference a sizable increase in exposure across ESPN’s family of linear networks, including more than 1,650 games on some combination of ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU. It will also vastly alter the landscape of video production on the campuses of The American’s 12 institutions. with schools taking over production of many of the Olympic events running on ESPN+, the new direct-to-consumer, subscription-based streaming service. As outlined in the deal, that’s live coverage of well more than 11,000 events.

How many events each school will produce will be determined on an annual basis, with the host institution responsible for production. It’s expected that all member schools will be running at full force by the start of the 2020-21 academic year.

“Knowing that we would likely have a large presence on ESPN+ and that we would have certain production requirements, we have been in close touch not only with ESPN but with independent consultants, and we’re working on the necessary infrastructure,” said American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco during a media conference call on Wednesday. “All of our schools have bought in to that. They know they are going to have to build up infrastructure and that is something that is ongoing. We’re very confident that we’ll be in good shape there. We’ve got some lead time in this deal.”

He also noted that taking on a significant chunk of the production work from ESPN was not a surprise and was, in many ways, in line with where much of the college-sports-media landscape is heading, in particular within the “Power 6” conferences.

“Even before we started negotiating with ESPN, we had a sense — based on the changing world, where things were with ESPN, and what we saw other conferences doing — that we would likely be involved with this,” said Aresco. “We engaged consultants and talked to ESPN about the right ones to talk to. We’re well ahead of schedule on this, and we’re very confident that we’ll not only be in a position to produce events at a high quality but that we’ll have the infrastructure in place well before we need to use it.”

This is a similar model to the one ESPN currently has in place with the SEC and ACC (sans the conference–linear-network aspect) but is more like the deal the media giant has with The Ivy League, where ESPN+ serves as the de facto “conference network” for fans. ESPN offers insight from its full-time staff to oversee production build-outs and train conference and athletic-department staff on live event production. The network also offers a sizable graphics-package template so that programming is consistent across all platforms and with the ESPN brand.

According to Burke Magnus, EVP, programming and scheduling, ESPN, these partnerships have proved beneficial for both sides.

“The institutions have appreciated, I think, the expertise that we bring to the table in terms of getting their institutions in a position to produce and distribute this content, to get their institutions up to certain capabilities,” he said. “Also, we provide a real-world experience for many of their students and have some of their staff learn from those who are doing this full-time for a living. It has been a great partnership to date, and I think that will be the case here as well.

“The added benefit for both sides at the end of the day,” Magnus continued, “is that you get thousands and thousands of events produced. Only a few years ago, those numbers were considerably smaller. It has been great exposure opportunities for Olympic sports, women’s sports, really everything that happens on campus. It has raised the bar in circumstances where we have done this previously, and I think this will be no different.”

Conference championships will also be a part of the deal. Some or all tournaments in cross-country, golf, indoor and outdoor track and field, soccer, swimming and diving, baseball, softball, women’s lacrosse, rowing, and volleyball will air on ESPN networks or ESPN+. Whether a host school or the conference office itself (potentially) will produce those events will be determined at a later date.

The American comprises University of Central Florida, University of Cincinnati, University of Connecticut, East Carolina University, University of Houston, University of Memphis, University of South Florida, Southern Methodist University, Temple University, Tulane University, University of Tulsa, and Wichita State University.

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Here’s an outline of the numbers of games guaranteed in the deal per a joint release by the ESPN and the AAC:

The American will continue to have an extensive presence on ESPN’s linear networks — ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU — with more than 1,650 games from the conference to air across them during the period of the agreement.

Football:

  • At least 40 regular-season games per season, including at least 20 on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2, which represents increased annual exposure across those networks vs. the current agreement
  • A similar number of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday games
  • Conference Championship game on ABC or ESPN each year

Men’s Basketball:

  • At least 65 regular-season games per season, with at least 25 across ESPN and ESPN2
  • Complete annual coverage of the Conference Tournament across ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU, including the Conference Championship game on ESPN

Women’s Basketball:

  • At least 13 regular-season games per season, with a minimum of five on ESPN and ESPN2
  • Conference Tournament Semifinals on ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU and the Conference Final on ESPN or ESPN2.

More Sports:

  • A minimum of five additional Olympic-sports events per year on ESPN networks, with details to be determined

ESPN+ will carry more than 11,000 events from The American, including thousands of football and men’s and women’s basketball games.

  • Football: 30-35 games per year in addition to those on the linear networks
  • Men’s Basketball: Approximately 135 conference-controlled games in addition to those on ESPN’s linear networks
  • Women’s Basketball: Approximately 160 conference-controlled games per year in addition to those on the linear networks, plus the first round and quarterfinals of the Conference Tournament
  • Additional Sports: Hundreds of games each year across multiple sports, including baseball, softball, women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s soccer, and volleyball
  • Conference Championships: Conference Championship action across men’s and women’s cross-country, golf, indoor and outdoor track and field, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, baseball, lacrosse, rowing, softball, and volleyball

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