Given the gravity of Wednesday’s announcement from the American Athletic Conference, balloons and cake at 11th and Harvard wouldn’t have been over the top.
“This is the most significant day in TU sports history as it relates to economics,” University of Tulsa athletic director Derrick Gragg said. “It’s what we call in the business a game-changer. It’s a difference-making thing that a lot of people dream of experiencing in their career.”
The American and ESPN have reached an agreement on a 12-year media rights extension beginning in 2020-21, a contract worth a reported $1 billion. For each school in the league, the deal results in an annual payout of nearly $7 million, or an additional $5 million per year, according the Sports Business Journal.
“Although we do not release financial information, this agreement provides financial security and additional resources for our member schools, who have competed incredibly effectively even with limited resources,” American commissioner Mike Aresco said on a media teleconference Wednesday. “We are delighted to be moving into a very bright future with ESPN.”
During a financially stressful time at the university that resulted in eliminated positions and various cutbacks, the TU athletic department can breathe a sigh of relief knowing the TV contract will alleviate budget problems.
“This will allow us to decrease the amount of monetary support we get from the institution as a whole,” Gragg said. “Our subsidy from the institution is already one of the lowest if not the lowest in the conference, but still this allows us to further reduce that.”
Gragg was involved with the contract negotiations for the past 18 months, serving on the American’s athletic directors advisory committee and on the commissioner’s media rights committee.
“A lot of credit obviously goes to Mike Aresco, whose experience in television and working out these kinds of deals is very evident with the outcome of this new announcement,” Gragg said. “It’s a very exciting day, and I feel really good about it.”
With the new agreement, the American will have a more extensive presence on ESPN’s primary networks — ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. More than 135 conference-controlled games will air annually on the networks, and more than 1,650 events will be telecast throughout the duration of the contract, which runs 2031-32.
Among the annual events on ESPN networks will be the football championship game, all rounds of the men’s basketball tournament and multiple rounds of the women’s basketball tournament.
A large number of conference games will be shown on ESPN+, a streaming service that launched in April and costs $5 a month or $50 a year. In the first two years of the deal, there will be a total of 1,250 games on ESPN+, and that will go up to at least 1,000 per year starting in 2022.
“I think people balk at some of those things initially, but it’s kind of the way of the world now,” Gragg said. “I do think avid sports fans will always do what they need to do to follow the sports they’re trying to access.”
ESPN has been the conference’s principal media rights holder for football, men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports since the league’s reconstitution in 2013-14. With the amount of money invested by ESPN, the American is hoping to distance itself from the other leagues in the so-called Group of Five.
“I think this marks a clear separation as it relates to the other conferences that we’re compared to,” Gragg said. “The Power Six connotation we’ve been branding the past couple of years, I think it’s closer to that now.”
Since joining the American almost five years ago, TU has won 16 conference championships, the most in the league, and has 17 runner-up finishes. In 2017, the Hurricane was the American’s top-ranked school in the final Learfield Cup standings.