Is the way we watch college football about to change? Punt, Pass & Pork

Could the way fans consume college football be approaching a drastic change? Disney CEO Bob Iger's recent comments regarding ESPN certainly beg the question.  
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We love to speculate about how the bracket will look when the first College Football Playoff contract with ESPN ends after the 2026 season. The most popular guess is that it will include eight teams, and maybe the bowls get cut out and the quarterfinals and semifinals will be played on campus. But here’s a better question.

How will we watch those games?

Disney CEO Bob Iger joined CNBC’s Squawk Box last week and offered some answers that should raise the antennae of everyone who watches college football. Meanwhile, those who run college conferences and athletic departments should be very, very interested in every word that comes out of Iger’s mouth. Last week Iger gave the strongest impression to date that Disney property ESPN will eventually be sold directly to consumers instead of as part of a cable or satellite package. This is inevitable as the cable bundle erodes thanks to a new generation of consumers, raised on YouTube and Netflix, that keeps asking why it should continue to pay for channels it doesn’t want. How ESPN and the leagues handle this inevitability will determine how we watch our favorite sport—and other, less interesting sports—and will determine in large part how athletic departments fund their programs.

Let’s start with one basic assumption: At some point before these current league television deals expire in the middle of the next decade, home Internet service will improve to the point where it will allow for a clean 720-, 1080- or even 2160-pixel (4K) stream that never pixelates and never buffers. What comes through your Internet pipe will look exactly like what comes through your cable or satellite box— even on your new 100-inch screen. (I just threw out that number in case the wife is already contemplating gifts for my birthday in 2021.) Last year crews dug up yards throughout my neighborhood to install fiber optic cable that will eventually carry that programming. Chances are, the same thing has happened or will soon happen in your neighborhood. Or, if you’re lucky enough to live in a Google Fiber city, you can live in the future now. Thanks to Google’s prodding, other companies are now playing the “Game of Gigs” and it’s only a matter of time before most of the country has access to cable-killing Internet service.

So, what does that mean for you and for your favorite school’s athletic budget? For you, it means the way you pay for the games you watch will eventually change. At my house, Disney Junior, ESPN, HBO and HGTV are the most popular channels. The other 150 or so channels fall far down the list. So why wouldn’t I pay for only the channels I want? Because I can’t. DirecTV, my current provider, doesn’t offer that. Neither does the cable company where I live. Right now, the only one of those channels I can buy directly is HBO. For $14.99 a month, I can purchase HBO Now, which would allow me to stream anything that appears on HBO anywhere, anytime.

That’s going to change. Iger, who has previously couched any mention of an over-the-top ESPN in language that suggests it will come when we get our The Jetsons-era flying cars, seemed resigned to the inevitability of a direct-to-consumer ESPN. “There are a few brands in the television space that have the ability to do that,” Iger said. “HBO is doing that now. … Disney is another brand and product that could be sold directly to the customer. ESPN definitely is one of them.” But he did offer one caveat. “If you want to use HBO as the model,” Iger said, “I think what ESPN would be looking for is much larger penetration of the marketplace.”

Jim Harbaugh wants to let Michigan's play, not his words, tell the story

In other words, Disney wants ESPN bringing in the same amount of money as it does now. That is going to be a challenge in the over-the-top marketplace. Currently, cable and satellite subscribers pay more than $6 a month just for ESPN. Other ESPN offerings such as the SEC Network ($1.40 a month for subscribers within the SEC’s geographic footprint) add to the bill. We know not everyone who subscribes to cable or satellite service cares about sports. In fact, it is the non-sports fans sick of paying for ESPN and their local regional sports network who will eventually blow up the bundle. Let’s say two-thirds of subscribers decide they don’t want to pay for ESPN. Now what does ESPN cost?

The back-of-the-envelope answer is take the full suite of ESPN offerings—which cost between $8 and $9 a month—and multiply it by three. Would you be willing to pay $25 or so per month for ESPN? Your answer probably depends on what else you would want to buy. If you currently pay $75 a month for standard cable but only watch ESPN programming and network television, then you’d buy an antenna for the networks and jump on this. If you do the same and watch a broad spectrum of channels, you might end up paying more than you did with the bundle.

Meanwhile, the way you watch ESPN might change. ESPN could still program an over-the-top system the way it does a cable-based one, but it doesn’t necessarily have to spend money to produce shows to fill every hour across multiple channels. Those who use the HBO GO streaming service know HBO makes no distinction between what appears on HBO, HBO2 or HBO Family. You simply point at what you want and then watch it. ESPN could do the same. It could keep SportsCenter running around the clock and keep popular shows such as College GameDay and Pardon the Interruption, but it wouldn’t have to throw money at shows that don’t move the needle just to have something to fill the time.

ESPN will have to find a price point that works for the masses, but it still must deal with the rising costs of rights fees. The reason ESPN can leverage such high fees from cable companies is the threat of customers enraged by the fact that they can’t see their team’s games. The key to ESPN’s dominance of the marketplace remains live events, and those are only getting more important to programmers and more expensive. This is the main reason behind ESPN’s recent budget cuts. Once the majority of people are getting their sports programming through the Internet, it could become more cost effective for sports leagues to deliver games directly to the consumer. And this is where your cable (or satellite or over-the-top) bill meets the bottom line at your favorite school’s athletic department.

ESPN and competitors such as FOX Sports will need the rights to premium live sporting events more than ever to drive subscribership in the era that’s coming. That’s why I disagree completely with what Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told USA Today’s Dan Wolken last week.

Scott is correct that rights fees won’t go up forever, but the Big Ten deal could be the last hurrah before networks get more cost-conscious because of cord-cutters. The Big Ten is going to get a massive deal because ESPN and Big Ten Network partner FOX need those rights to compete in the new marketplace. With deals for all of the other Power Five leagues, the NFL, NBA and MLB all locked down until at least 2020, the Big Ten’s deal next year is the biggest thing left. It might be the last one of these deals signed for a primarily bundled marketplace.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The SEC has a symbiotic relationship with ESPN, but it also has a fan base so passionate that it made the SEC Network the most successful launch in cable history. Would the conference eventually try to sell directly to consumers? Or would it rather allow ESPN to continue to handle the production and delivery and take a rights fee instead of building its own delivery service? The Big Ten will face the same question, though the Big Ten also has the luxury of a 49% stake in its network that could eventually sell for a huge cash infusion. The Pac-12 owns its network outright, but it has far fewer subscribers paying far less than the SEC and Big Ten networks. Would it be viable sold directly to customers? Or would it need to be sold to a network such as ESPN or FOX that could then bundle it with other college leagues or other sports offerings?

Has the Pac-12 passed the SEC as college football's top conference?

And what about the ACC? The league is in talks with ESPN about forming a network, but with the ground shifting beneath the industry, will ESPN be willing to create a new channel? Meanwhile, the Big 12 has no conference network because Texas partners with ESPN for the Longhorn Network and Oklahoma partners with FOX for its network. Can the league survive if other leagues are making money with over-the-top deals? Or would all the Power Five leagues come together when their current deals end and pool their rights to sell at a larger premium? That’s essentially what the College Football Association was in the 1980s, and it would allow leagues to charge more for games. It also might recoup some revenue lost if sports rights fees have peaked with this most recent round of deals. But it also would require all five leagues—or however many leagues are left in 2026—to agree on something.

It’s quite possible that rights fees have hit their zenith, and athletic departments need to prepare for the fact that their revenue is not going to grow at the rate it has over the past 15 years. It might even dip as viewers adjust to a new world and figure out how they want to pay for it.

Chances are we’ll end up paying about what we pay now to watch college football in 10 years. But we’ll be far more aware of how much we pay, and we’ll be sending that money to different places. That’s why Iger’s comments should have every athletic director and conference commissioner thinking about how their leagues are positioned for their next deals.

A random ranking

The Spice Girls are discussing a potential reunion next year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of “Wannabe.” We're all old, and here is the definitive ranking of the Spice Girls.

1. Sporty
2. Ginger
3. Scary
4. Posh
5. Baby

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First-and-10

1. An appellate court’s decision—or lack thereof—on Friday has to feel like a victory for the NCAA and schools in their fight to keep athletes from sharing a larger portion of the financial pie in college sports. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a stay of Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling in the O’Bannon v. NCAA case only hours before Wilken’s ruling was scheduled to go into effect.

Wilken’s original ruling from last summer called for schools to be allowed to offer athletes a minimum of $5,000 a year each to use their name, image and likeness rights. That money could be put in trust until each player’s eligibility expired. Had Wilken’s ruling gone into effect, the NCAA’s rules against schools paying athletes would have been considered an illegal restraint of trade. In issuing the stay, the three-judge panel that heard the NCAA’s appeal in March wrote: “Without expressing a view as to either party’s likelihood of success on the merits, the court grants a stay of the district court’s injunction in this case.”

Still, if the appeals court planned to uphold Wilken’s ruling, why not allow the ruling to go into effect? There is no guarantee any schools would offer such payments, but it is a near certainty that if one Power Five school did, the others would follow suit. That’s how recruiting works. Schools find the line and walk as close to it as they can. So, if the ruling had gone into effect, the payments would have likely begun. And things would have gotten very messy if the appeals court had eventually struck down Wilken’s ruling. For that reason, the NCAA and schools have to harbor some hope after Friday that things might break their way.

Of course, the judges may also want extra time because this is a complex issue made more complex by a curious decision by Wilken. In granting the plaintiffs’ wishes to ban the NCAA and schools from colluding to create an arbitrary price ceiling ($0) for name, image and likeness rights, Wilken’s ruling created an arbitrary price floor ($5,000). That didn’t make much sense, and perhaps the judges are attempting to unspool that particular knot.

No matter the reason, the NCAA didn’t have to change its rules on Saturday to come into compliance with the ruling. It still may, but the three judges deciding the appeal would rather not create an odd in-between period before issuing a ruling.

2. Saturday was also the first day schools could send written scholarship offers to recruits in the class of 2016. Plenty of prospects posted photos of their offers to Twitter and Instagram, so it’s a lot easier to see which schools are writing than it was when future Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier pulled back the curtain on this part of the process back in ’08.

With so many offer letters flying around on social media, recruits are bound to do the math and realize that schools offer many more players than they can take. Georgia gets credit for the most straightforward explanation of why the written offer may not actually result in a scholarship. The Bulldogs’ offer letter includes the following paragraph:

Our scholarship offer is contingent upon:

Your attainment of the University of Georgia’s requirements for admission
A remaining scholarship at your playing position at the time of your decision
The fulfillment of your responsibilities to your high school team
The recommendation of your high school coach

3. Here are some samples of offer letters from around the country.

Ole Miss:

Florida (which might want to check the spelling on the name of alum Cris Collinsworth):

Miami:

Arkansas:

Oregon:

Texas (Speaking of spellcheck, it’s p-r-e-s-t-i-g-i-o-u-s):

Maryland:

Alabama and Florida State:

4. Repeating is tough—even for loaded defending national champions. Exhibit A: Ohio State’s announcement Thursday of the suspensions of defensive end Joey Bosa, receiver Corey Smith and H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson for the season opener at Virginia Tech on Sept. 7. Ohio State can certainly win that game without this group, but no team wants to take the field without its All-America defensive end and some of its best offensive weapons.

The suspension adds even more intrigue to Braxton Miller’s position switch. With Marshall and Wilson out, Miller should get a chance to show what he can do in the Buckeyes’ hybrid playmaker position. But who might be throwing or handing the ball to the former quarterback? Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said last week that we wouldn’t know until we see J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones take the field with the offense in Blacksburg.

5. Beginning in 2016 each Big Ten team will have to schedule a game like Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Michigan-Utah or Oregon-Michigan State. The teams will also be banned from scheduling FCS foes. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany outlined the new guidelines last week at his league’s media days. Starting next year Big Ten teams will play nine conference games, and one of their three nonconference games must come against a Power Five opponent. Notre Dame and BYU will count as Power Five opponents. So, in ’16, Power Five schedules will look like this:

• ACC: Eight conference games, FCS opponents allowed, with at least one Power Five opponent in nonconference play. Five teams must play Notre Dame as a nonconference game. Has a championship game.

• Big 12: Nine conference games, FCS opponents allowed, with no Power Five requirement. No championship game.

• Big Ten: Nine conference games, FCS opponents not allowed, with at least one Power Five opponent in nonconference play. Has a championship game.

• Pac-12: Nine conference games, FCS opponents allowed, with no Power Five requirement. Has a championship game.

• SEC: Eight conference games, FCS opponents allowed, with at least one Power Five opponent in nonconference play. Has a championship game.

6. Still, the Buckeyes keep winning. Or at least their helmet does.

7. LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings, defensive back Dwayne Thomas and defensive lineman Maquedius Bain will not face charges stemming from a June arrest. The trio was arrested after the players entered the apartment of another student on June 12 to retrieve items Jennings had reported stolen two days earlier. On Sunday Ross Dellenger of TheAdvocate in Baton Rouge, La., reported that former LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson was arrested on June 12 and charged with unauthorized entry. What dwelling did Robinson—who was booted from the team after last season—allegedly enter without permission? The apartment of Jennings and wide receiver Malachi Dupre. Robinson told police he entered the apartment to use the restroom.

LSU coach Les Miles announced Friday that Jennings, Thomas and Bain have been reinstated to the team. This means Jennings will be at practice to compete with Brandon Harris for the starting quarterback job. Robinson could have other problems, though. East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney Hillar Moore told Dellenger that Robinson’s case was sent for pretrial diversion but rejected.

8. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich offered a bit of guidance when he took the stage last week during Pac-12 media days. “I know everybody will want to address the quarterback position,” Helfrich said, “and the only thing we’re going to talk about are the people that are here and involved in the program.” Translation: Don’t ask me about Vernon Adams, the Eastern Washington graduate transfer who still is not with the Ducks. Adams is expected to finish his bachelor’s degree and join the team three days into camp. Helfrich’s request didn’t stop anyone from asking about Adams, who would compete with Jeff Lockie to replace Marcus Mariota. Helfrich dodged as best he could considering there isn’t much he can say at the moment, but he suggested the Ducks might consider playing two quarterbacks.  “If guys are different, you can use their skills completely differently,” Helfrich said. “People talk about, what about when you’re looking them in the eye in the huddle? We don't do that. We need a guy to be a great practice player, great leader and score the football. That's what we need.”

9. Also at Pac-12 media days, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez told a story about Mike Leach and a Speedo. There’s video. (Not of the Speedo, thankfully.)

10. This week in Jim Harbaugh …

What’s eating Andy?

Pro tip: When the "report" that some schools that rarely tweak their uniforms are going to break out new black jerseys is based entirely on a picture of some T-shirts, you probably don't need to worry about any new jerseys.

What’s Andy eating?

I’ve made my worship of bacon quite plain in this space, so it probably seems a bit odd that I haven’t ordered many BLTs in my life. It’s a bacon sandwich, after all. What could be better?

My problem isn’t with the B. Nor is it with the L. It’s with the other two ingredients that go between the bread on most BLTs. I wish I liked raw tomatoes. It would make eating so much easier. But while I have no trouble eating spaghetti sauce, ketchup and salsa, I gag when I bite into a raw tomato. This makes BLTs tricky, but tomatoes are easily removed. Besides, my wife loves them. She’s happy to eat the slices I pick off the bread.

My bigger issue is with the preferred condiment of most BLT makers. The typical BLT comes slathered with mayonnaise. As I have written before, mayo tastes the way despair feels. The easiest way to ruin a perfectly good sandwich is with a glop of stinky, white failure sauce. (For a more elegant takedown of Big Mayo, please consult this fine piece Drew Magary wrote for Bon Appetit.) For some reason, people in the food service industry can’t fathom why you wouldn’t want congealed sadness on your sandwich. They repeatedly ask if you’re sure you don’t want it. Or worse, they just slap the mayo on the bread anyway.

So, I usually don’t bother with the BLT. I order some other kind of sandwich—one that embraces mustard like a good, God-fearing American sandwich should. But I shouldn’t have to give up on a sandwich in which my favorite food item is the star. Fortunately, the proprietors of Cymply Fresh in Gainesville, Fla., understand this.

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The place makes BLTs on grilled fresh sourdough with thick, candied bacon that mixes sweet and savory better than anything since Sade’s greatest hits album was released. That alone would be enough to make me go through my I-hate-mayo spiel or even wipe off that noxious spread after it was served. But the owners of Cymply Fresh don’t want to make us suffer. They want us to enjoy a sandwich built around that most perfect of all foods. Enter cashew aioli.

If you clicked that Magary link, you know aioli is usually just churched-up mayo. But not cashew aioli. It uses nuts instead of eggs, and that switch makes all the difference. It’s still a creamy sauce with a little kick of vinegar, but it doesn’t taste the way that a million souls crying out in agony sounds. In fact, it tastes pretty good. It offers a solid backdrop for the two-ends-of-the-spectrum pork. The bacon can dazzle different taste buds while the aioli and the sourdough keep the beat.

So thank you, Cymply Fresh, for understanding that great bacon should not be sullied by the world’s foulest condiment. Hopefully, you will blaze a trail that helps a venerable sandwich shake free of mayo’s evil grip.