Sixteen years ago this week, Big Ten Network debuted as a polarizing entity filled with long-term promise but short-term consumer pain. Only a handful of cable companies carried the creation in the Big Ten’s eight-state footprint, and it frustrated fans who were used to watching locally syndicated games if they didn’t appear on ABC or the ESPN networks.
One year later, BTN achieved near-universal distribution and hasn’t looked back. Fox, which then owned 49 percent of BTN, continued to build upon its college football portfolio by landing the Big Ten’s championship game in 2011, then rebranding Speed TV as FS1 in 2013. Fox became the Big Ten’s primary rights holder in 2016 and now has a controlling stake (63 percent) in BTN, which operates the league’s media rights agreements.
This year marks another pivot point in the Big Ten’s television contract. For the first time since 1986, the league doesn’t have a contract with ABC or 1988 with ESPN. The new frontier forged by former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and then BTN (now Fox Sports) president Mark Silverman in building BTN now leads to the Big Ten appearing on three linear networks, two cable companies and a streaming service.
The 2023 season is a bridge season of sorts. It serves as the Big Ten finale of both divisional play and as a 14-school entity. CBS has its final season with the SEC and will air seven Big Ten games, then jump to 15 beginning in 2024. NBC has its first linear contract with a conference and will showcase nine Big Ten games on its Peacock streaming service. Fox will continue to flex Big Ten football in its branded “Big Noon” slot as the league’s tier-one provider. FS1 and BTN will cover the league as they have previously.
“In this first year in 2023, it’s a little bit more of what we had traditionally seen in the past, where it’s almost a bit more of a choose your own adventure from a network perspective,” Big Ten chief operating officer Kerry Kenny said. “They get to rely on their strategy and their internal research to tell them which weeks are going to be more valuable than others.”
What does that mean for Big Ten viewing habits this fall? Here’s a look at how each network will cover the league.
What’s new?: For 2023, not much. Fox remains the lead network broadcasting Big Ten football and will show games primarily at noon ET. It will air Big Ten games in other windows when it chooses another conference-controlled game for its “Big Noon Kickoff.” FS1 will televise games in multiple windows, including four on Friday nights.
Game count: Between 24-32 combined for Fox and FS1.
Noteworthy: Fox once again claimed the Ohio State–Michigan contest, which annually is the highest-rated regular-season college football game. It also features the Big Ten debut Thursday night with Nebraska at Minnesota and on Nov. 11, Michigan at Penn State. Although unannounced, Fox is likely to air Penn State at Ohio State on Oct. 21.
FS1’s four Friday games this year are Central Michigan at Michigan State (Sept. 1), Virginia at Maryland (Sept. 15), Wisconsin at Purdue (Sept. 22) and Nebraska at Illinois (Oct. 6).
“For this 2023 season, and for the final six years, Fox does have that No. 1 overall pick in the priority position within that selection draft,” Kenny said. “But all of our partners are going to have great access to be able to get No. 1 picks in weeks throughout the season.”
What’s new?: It’s a new era for CBS, which never has held a Big Ten-only rights contract. The last time Big Ten regular-season football aired on CBS, the league negotiated its contract collectively with the Pac-12. This is an overlap year for CBS, which wraps up its long-time contract with the SEC and shoehorns seven Big Ten games onto its schedule. In 2024, that total number more than doubles.
Game count: 7
Noteworthy: CBS plucked some interesting contests for its inaugural Big Ten season, ranging from Ohio State at Indiana (Saturday) and Northwestern at Rutgers (Sunday) to a prime-time White Out (Iowa at Penn State, Sept. 23) to a Black Friday curtain raiser (Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 24). CBS also airs UNLV at Michigan on Sept. 9 and a pair of noon ET games on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4.
“For us, 2023 is a little bit of a transition year, as we fulfill the commitments of our SEC deal and 2024 is really the first full year of our launch,” CBS executive vice president of programming Dan Weinberg said. “But we worked really, really well with the conference to put together a nice schedule for this year of seven games, including a game in prime time and a game on Thanksgiving Friday. So we are excited.”
What’s new?: NBC has tried to break into the conference ranks for more than a decade, beginning with a bid for Pac-12 rights in 2011. This is the first time NBC is tethered to a conference and the combination of Big Ten in prime time and Notre Dame afternoon football make it a powerful entity.
NBC is scheduled to broadcast 15 games this year with 13 airing in prime time. The two exceptions come when Notre Dame has a prime-time kickoff.
Game count: 15
Noteworthy: NBC’s prime-time deal for the final three weeks in November caused some issues among some Big Ten athletic directors. The Big Ten’s old contract avoided late November kickoffs for logistical and weather concerns. Ohio State agreed to hold a night game against Michigan State, and the Spartans will host Penn State on Black Friday indoors in Detroit as part of a compromise.
“This was something that we worked on closely,” said Jon Miller, president of partnerships and acquisitions for NBC Sports. “(Athletics director) Gene Smith at Ohio State was terrific, and we were able to get the Ohio State-Michigan State game on November 11. We obviously have Penn State on Black Friday up at Ford Field. It’s important to us and important to our venture overall, to be able to put the most attractive matchups in prime time.”
NBC debuts with Penn State playing host to West Virginia on Saturday. As part of its Notre Dame contract, it also airs the Irish hosting Ohio State on Sept. 23.
What’s new?: Everything when it comes to Peacock. This has rankled some Big Ten fans who now realize they need a streaming option for perhaps one, maybe two, of their team’s games. (Peacock also exclusively streams one Notre Dame game.) Peacock is available on most televisions by using a Fire TV Stick or other streaming device through an HDMI port and with wireless internet for a monthly fee.
Michigan and Penn State each face nonconference opponents on Peacock during the first two weeks, while Peacock scored a coup with Washington at Michigan State in Week 3. Six other Big Ten games are heading to Peacock throughout the season.
Game count: 9
Noteworthy: Per the Peacock Playbook, NBC reruns of “The Office” claim its top streaming category for fans of all 14 schools, but what comes next? For Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State, it’s “Yellowstone.” For Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin fans, it’s “That 70s Show.” “WWE” carries the day at Iowa and Rutgers, while Michigan fans prefer “Parks & Recreation.” Rounding out the list are “Everybody Loves Raymond” at Purdue and “Law & Order: SVU” for Penn State fans.
Michigan kicks off the Big Ten’s Peacock era. Is everybody ready?
What’s new?: It’s the 17th season of football on college athletics’ first fully functional all-sports network. When it comes to covering games, not much has changed. BTN had high-profile crews out of the gate with Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis and Charissa Thompson calling the inaugural Appalachian State at Michigan debut. The network cultivates several future headliners, then replaces them with the next wave of up-and-comers every few years.
Game count: 41
Noteworthy: BTN doesn’t always get saddled with the lowest games on the weekly slate. The universities invested too much time and money to make it a subpar football product.
“Every Big Ten team will have at least two games on BTN, at least one of which is a conference game,” Kenny said. “That really differentiates them from some of the other conference networks out there just in terms of making sure everybody’s playing on BTN.”
What’s new?: It once was unthinkable the Big Ten wouldn’t have a contract with ABC/ESPN. Considering polls and opinion matter more in college football than any other sport, no conference previously would have dared to pull away from the ESPN juggernaut. But the Big Ten eased itself away from ESPN, first with BTN for secondary rights, then with Fox as a main rights holder. This year, the Big Ten left ESPN altogether.
“ESPN is no longer totally in charge; we broke it away from them, started our own network, introduced Fox as a competitor,” former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. “When that happened, ESPN not only lost a quasi-monopoly over college football that the NCAA used to enjoy but ESPN enjoyed for a good 20 years until we introduced Fox.”
Noteworthy: Big Ten teams still will play regular-season games on ABC/ESPN, but they will come from other leagues’ television contracts. There are five Big Ten games scheduled during the first three weeks, highlighted Sept. 9 by Wisconsin at Washington State on ABC. Then in the postseason, every Big Ten-affiliated bowl game will appear on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.
2024 and beyond
The television situation streamlines in 2024 with CBS picking up a full allotment of Big Ten football. The goal is to build a consistent time frame for Big Ten football with Fox at noon ET, CBS at 3:30 p.m. ET and NBC at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Big Ten also becomes an 18-school conference with newcomers USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon.
“Those three networks for the first 42 or 45 picks — depending on the length of the season — they will select which weeks that they’ll be in the No. 1 pick position or the No. 2 pick position or the No. 3 pick position,” Kenny said. “Once you get through those top three picks in the season, for each of those weeks, then it goes to FS1, Peacock and BTN entering the draft and selecting the remaining picks in each of those weeks beyond that.”
With Fox providing the funding for the Big Ten to add Washington and Oregon next year, the Fox family of networks will air more games in non-traditional windows. That means more Friday night games and late-night Saturday kickoffs. Those games will appear on either Fox, FS1 or BTN but it’s unclear where those selections will fall in the draft process.
(Top photo: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)