ROSEMONT, Ill. — To open nearly 36 minutes of give-and-take in a meeting room here Wednesday, capping three days of spring meetings at league headquarters, Jim Delany bragged on a loss. The Big Ten’s commissioner congratulated one of his associates, Andrea Williams, on her recent appointment as Big Sky commissioner. Delany said he’d miss Williams, but he wanted to mention the move because Williams had earned it, and he noted that she would be the fifth former conference employee to become a commissioner in the last two decades.
“It’s not a plan when people come here,” Delany said from the head of a long table overlooking neighboring Interstate 294, “but it’s obvious that conferences and presidents and athletic directors around the country recognize people here for what they’ve done.”
Parse that and pick it apart as you will, but the underlying sentiment makes a decent amount of sense: Jim Delany has built one of college athletics’ behemoth leagues, innovating and outsmarting his way to making Big Ten schools a ridiculous amount of money, and he is on the verge of making those schools an even more ridiculous amount of money when he finalizes a new media rights deal likely sometime this summer. If another fledgling league like the Big Sky can tap into even a fraction of that mojo, if Delany’s acolytes have absorbed even a bit of his touch by osmosis, their constituent schools and their respective bank accounts will be better for it.
This helps explain why, in moment of relative uncertainty regarding just how college sports will be presented to its audience for the near- and long-term future, no administrator or coach who passed through the Big Ten offices for spring meetings this week demonstrated the least bit of concern. The league will have to innovate and experiment to thrive. That is the reality foisted upon every conference due to ever-evolving technology and viewing habits. But the man in charge of the Big Ten’s innovation essentially has built a powerhouse because of his willingness to do so, and do so deftly, to the tune of around $30 million or more for each of his schools on an annual basis—a number that could rise significantly starting next year. “When it comes to the big-time TV stuff,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, “I have no higher confidence in anyone than Jim to get us across the finish line.”
There’s reason to be confident when one foot may be across that line already. Sports Business Journal reported in April that FOX was on the verge of a six-year deal for half of the Big Ten’s broadcast rights, beginning in the fall of 2017. It’s of not-enormous surprise when you consider that FOX has partnered with the league to produce the Big Ten Network since its inception—“They’re creative, they’re really good, really interested in big events, interested in big brands, interested in great production,” Delany said of FOX on Wednesday—but what might follow defines Delany’s great experimentation more than any move he’s made, including the start-up of a league network when no one figured that would work.
ESPN, the reigning monolith on the college sports broadcast end, the rights-holders for the College Football Playoff, might have no part in the Big Ten’s next rights agreement.
And no one in the Big Ten seems altogether worried about that. “No one has amnesia about the relationship we’ve had with ESPN,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. “They’re terrific. But we’re at a different place and they’re at a different place in 2016 than we were in the last round. That doesn’t mean we can’t get to the altar and get married again. But we’re at the dating stage right now. And that’s a process. That always occurs when you go through a renegotiation. You’d certainly love to stay married with that current partner, but ultimately you have to do what’s in the best interest of the 14 institutions. That’s where (Delany) is tremendous. He has not only the support and the confidence of the athletic directors, but more importantly, he’s got the support and confidence of the presidents. He’ll move us forward, just like he has.”
Of any risk a commissioner might take, cutting ties completely or at least significantly with ESPN would rank high. But it may be that the cord-cutting and un-bundling unsettling the industry demands a different view, a bold and perhaps even counterintuitive approach.
Given Phillips’s estimation that Big Ten administrators have had about 70 calls with Delany over the past two or three years on media rights and other subjects, and given that all of them insist that Delany keeps them abreast on the progress of any talks, it is safe to assume they know exactly where the league will end up—even if they won’t or can’t confirm it. It is safe to assume that Delany is taking his league, again, on a path most wouldn’t take. And the startling lack of apprehension about that confirms that the Big Ten’s commissioner is well beyond benefit-of-the-doubt status when it comes to risk-taking. “Jim tries to stay ahead,” Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst said. “He’s outside the box on things.”
Asked for examples of where Delany was outside the box, Eichorst replied: “Everywhere.”
Delany, naturally, swatted away a direct question Wednesday about the prospect of walking away from ESPN. “We’re interested in having great partners that have great platforms, that are interested in marketing and promotion,” he said. “The market will decide what happens. ESPN has been a great partner, as CBS has, as FOX has. It’s a new day. We’ve approached it that way. We’re into the marketplace and we’ll see what we shall see. I wouldn’t talk about walking away from anybody in the middle of any negotiation.”
And yet he sort of did, even if suggesting that treads a little close to mind-reading.
Riffing after a query about whether Ohio State-Michigan is as valuable as the Big Ten championship game, Delany noted that in his first year on the job, 16 of 66 football games made it to a television screen. “The world has changed dramatically in that 25-year period and it continues to change,” he said. “We’re probably at a place where there will be more experimentation. And I hope we do find a way to do some experimentation as well as manage the transition that is happening. I feel confident that we will.”
The Last Great Experiment, if you will, is seeing how far your brands and properties take you without the services of the preeminent television disseminator of college sports. Of course Delany is working from a position of strength that mitigates the true risk here. He has Ohio State. He has Michigan and Penn State and Indiana and so forth. He has basically built-in guarantees that people will crave his product because they’re Big Ten fans and most of them need football or basketball like they need oxygen and water.
If someone is willing to pay him an egregious amount of money for his league’s media rights, and the term of the deal is a relatively brief six years—expiring with plenty of time to adjust before the College Football Playoff theoretically renews or changes shape in 2026—then Delany can take his chances now and likely emerge unscathed on the other end. Even if the experiments blow up in his face to a degree.
“You can be sure that those with great, great content will always, relatively speaking, be treated very well,” he said.
The Big Ten is about to be treated very well. Really, the Big Ten is about to be treated like the dang sultan of the known universe, getting a reported $1.5 billion from FOX for half of its product. And there are real implications for that, beyond just being staggered by the figures. If you’re Jim Phillips, and the cost of providing scholarships for your 19 teams at Northwestern is north of $20 million already and going nowhere but up, an infusion of new media revenue is always welcome. If you’re the Big Ten schools and just generally concerned with outpacing or keeping pace with the SEC, a league advantaged by geography and demographics in football, more cash to build pretty facilities and create more bells and whistles for recruits is essential to the cause. This isn’t risk-taking for the sake of risk-taking; this is indeed about the continued soaring health of the whole enterprise.
And yet you suspect Jim Delany is already casting one eye to the next thing, to what’s beyond after the next six years of raking in an insane amount of dough. Maybe it’s just making even more money. Maybe it’s enhancing his own network to further consolidate for the possibility that, at some point, everyone will be going a la carte or over-the-top with their football and basketball viewing. Understandably, we’re all focused on where the Big Ten’s television negotiations end up this summer. And the entire Big Ten seems almost irrationally calm about it, because maybe they understand that their commissioner works without seeing an end to anything.