by Conor Gereg
It was both nostalgic and indescribably refreshing to see Madison Square Garden come alive last month for the Knicks first home playoff game since 2013. The scene of the hallowed arena effervescently roaring to life once again is a familiar scene for fans of one of college basketball’s most storied conferences, the Big East, a league that’s synonymous with The Garden since 1979.
For one week in early March, MSG belongs to the Big East, and since the 2013-2014 season, Fox Sports has provided exposure to one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports, the Big East Tournament. Beyond the tournament, Fox brings an unmatched level of production to every regular-season game. Suffice to say, the Fox/Big East honeymoon has continued to roll on.
“Big East teams are thrilled with the coverage Fox provides,” said Kevin McNamara, a longtime voice of the conference during his 30 years at the Providence Journal. “To get every game on national TV is a real coup and needs to continue, in my opinion.”
Fox Sports has spared no expense in creating a platform for the league. Fans blissfully listen to the outro to John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” between timeouts and hear in-game commentary from the dulcet tones of familiar voices like Bill Raftery and Gus Johnson. The Big East feels like a conference heavyweight in large part because Fox makes it feel that way.
“I love everything about FS1. Production quality is top-notch, big-time announcers, big-time coverage,” said Jared Kotler of the CT Scoreboard Podcast. “Pre-game, post-game, halftime—they’ve got it all covered for fans.”
From Los Angeles to Boston, Fox Sports and their FS1 and FS2 channel packages are nationwide and brought into the living rooms of nearly 90 million subscribers. This, in stark contrast to leagues like the Big 12 and American, which can at times find content hidden behind additional paywalls and subscription services like ESPN+.
“Look at how teams in the Football Five conferences are always shipped to ESPN+ for so many of their games,” McNamara added. “That’s what the Big East needs to avoid, in my opinion.”
The 2013 media deal that inked Fox Sports to The Big East is set to expire at the conclusion of the 2024-2025 season and while there is little doubt that these two entities will renew their vows, it’s fair to acknowledge that some things have changed since the initial 12-year contract was penned. Maintaining national access to Big East content will certainly be a priority for the conference but there’s work to be done at the institutional level.
“The pillars are in place for continued success [with the Big East’s media deal], however NCAA success beyond Villanova is a vital piece that certainly needs improvement. That’s on the individual programs, not the conference office,” McNamara said.
The conference seemed to understand this urgency in bringing in another national brand to pair with its ten member schools, so in June 2019, the league’s addition of UConn was a necessary step in reinforcing what was already a premier athletic conference.
“I believe Fox was instrumental in pushing for UConn’s addition to assist in the TV contract valuation,” McNamara noted when addressing UConn’s inclusion to a conference they chartered over 40 years ago. “UConn is obviously a very attractive program for Fox and do not forget the addition of the women’s program. Those UConn-Baylor, UConn-Notre Dame regular-season games are ratings winners.”
With Connecticut’s added value the question now becomes: how much more is the Big East worth to Fox? It may be just a few years before we find out.
UConn’s previous conference, The American, finalized a television contract with ESPN just months before UConn’s exit from the league. Losing UConn meant a change in The American’s value, so in turn, one would imagine their addition to the Big East would translate to a boost in value.
The incumbent media deal with Fox nets each member school in the Big East $4.6 million annually, a number that is then supplemented by a variety of factors, variables like NCAA Tournament appearances provide a boon in value, bringing in approximately a million dollars for every tournament game appearance in March. By way of illustration, for a league that sent 7 of its 10 teams to the 2017 tournament, a shared bonus check of $7M certainly helps all conference members.
These numbers mean very little outside of the context of other media contracts across college sports. The Big 10 for instance nets approximately $50 million per school annually, albeit a significant amount of this value stems from football, a sport the Big East doesn’t sponsor. Can the Big East compete with schools whose media contracts earn multiples of what Fox pays?
The athletics arms race is an expensive one. Former UConn President Susan Herbst once called the university’s athletics programs, “the front porch” for the school, an apt analogy for UConn’s most visible asset. This asset however is a costly one to maintain.
Fox is acutely aware that the cost of doing business within the college basketball world. The price of maintaining status atop the sports is mounting precipitously. A common trend within college athletics is the divide between the high major universities and those at the lower tiers. Want to stay afloat with schools from the Big Ten and ACC? Prepare for a bloated athletics budget that’s capable of affording state-of-the-art practice facilities and handsomely paid assistants. Today’s assistant coaches at the high-major level now out-earns most head coaches at smaller universities.
This spring saw the University of Kentucky pry Orlando Antigua and Ron “Chin” Coleman away from Illinois, rewarding them with industry-leading deals. Per the Courier-Journal, Antigua will earn $850,000 next season while Coleman will receive $450,000 with $50,000 increases over each of the next three seasons. Let’s compare these numbers to the compensation at the mid-major level. For instance, Dustin Kerns at Appalachian State earns $300,000, or Michael Huger of Bowling Green earns $415,000.
If the league doesn’t see a healthy increase in its next media deal, the Big East will fall behind the sport’s largest and most profitable leagues and ultimately fail to attract the coaching talent that procures success. Want the best recruiters on staff? How about an assistant coach known for player development? It’ll cost you.
An upgraded media deal in 2025 can address that.
“One can certainly see a jump [in the value of the next media deal]. The teams within the Big East are strengthening and I think that can lead to more eyeballs,” Kotler said. “For instance, does Georgetown maintain its level of success and get back in the fold a bit more? UConn adds even more eyeballs especially as they’re rising back up in relevance again too.”
It’s reasonable to anticipate that an increase from $4.6M per school annually could grow to $6-8M with a new media deal in 2025. This feels especially plausible with UConn en tow once the league pulls up to the negotiating table. Will a new deal be enough to keep the league competitive with their football-sponsoring rivals? The answer to this hangs in the balance of what could upset the symbiotic relationship between Fox Sports and the Big East.