[Sean King for Shaw Media]
What started out as a modest eight-game MAC commitment for ESPN midweek football in 2004 has transformed into a monster, eliminating the traditional Saturday game activities for six weeks, essentially eroding fragile season ticket bases, and devouring “townie” businesses and support. Consider this: More than 25 percent of the MAC’s 96-game regular-season this fall were weeknight dates.
On paper and within a Group of Five budget, the $100 million contract signed with ESPN in 2014 appears to be a godsend and, yes, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher deserves major “props” for the deal and his visionary foresight (keep reading).
Upon closer examination, the ESPN pact runs through 2026-27 and generates $8 million per annum for the league or $670,000 annually per school, which represents significant and unprecedented TV revenue stream for the league. Or does it?
Everything’s relative. According to one source, the MAC lags behind the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA to the tune of $4 million to $6 million a year in TV money within the Group of Five. But compared with the Big Ten and the Power Five, whose TV contracts range in the billions, that looks like pocket change.
Right or wrong, the debate continues in local homes, businesses, watering holes, the Huskie Stadium stands, internet chat rooms and, I’m sure, within Mid-Am athletic departments. In our community, the past two NIU midweek home game attendance numbers (an announced 8,872 vs. Eastern Michigan and 6,603 vs. Ball State) speak volumes. This nonsupport for a proud, high-profile Northern Illinois program that has been bowl-eligible nine times in the past 10 years doesn’t jive. Strange. Is this what the MAC really wants?
If anything, this fall on TV the MAC leads the country in exposed aluminum seats, which belies the ESPN recruiting aspect I’ve heard. “Son, come play in the MAC before 15,000 empty seats” doesn’t make much sense. Yes, the weather in the Midwest is cold in November – even worse at night. I’m sure there’s a league memo to ESPN (or vice versa) to minimize the crowd shots on TV. Sad aspect of #MACtion, sorry.
The other downside: Who’s watching? To date this season, the largest Huskie TV viewership (808,000) was for NIU-Nebraska on Fox Sports 1. I’m not sure what size audiences ESPNU or ESPN3 draw.
Imagine Frazier’s frustration when higher-ups insist that NIU athletics should be more “self-sustaining.” Of course, it should. Isn’t football the top revenue-generating sport? How do you sell season tickets with only two Saturday home games? And, by the way, due to #MACtion, how far are Northern Illinois and other MAC schools from reaching the NCAA’s 15,000 home attendance average criteria? To digress, who or what pays that bill?
Historically, the past three commissioners – Jerry Ippoliti, Rick Chryst, and Steinbrecher – all have been proactive in getting the league on TV. In 1997, Ippoliti initiated the pacts for the first MAC Championship Game and the Motor City Bowl. Chryst expanded the ESPN relationship in football and men’s basketball. Steinbrecher bridged the present-day TV needs to the future and realized the next technology is video streaming.
Much of that $670,000 payout per school has gone to institutional TV production for campus ESPN3 originations in football, men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports. With outside production costs soaring, the traditional MAC Game of the Week packages or relationships, such as NIU had with SportsVision and its various successors, are outdated and not viable in a mid-major context. That said, did you see that Louisville just paid $8 million for an on-site, state-of-the-art TV studio for the new ACC Network? The MAC is not in that financial realm.