Change is a constant in college athletics, and not just in regard to the NCAA’s name-image-likeness policy and the transfer portal.
Some of the changes are thrust upon the landscape by outside factors, and others are just part of the evolution of the world.
For major college conferences, two big issues for the future are how they will deal with COVID and its vaccines and what the media rights picture looks like in the years to come.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby addressed both those topics at the outset of the conference’s Football Media Days Wednesday in Arlington, Texas.
After a year where almost every walk of life, including college athletics, was affected by COVID, the Big 12 and all other collegiate leagues are hoping for a return to normal with full schedules and full stadiums in 2021.
Vaccines have helped slow the spread of COVID. Many people still have not been vaccinated, though, including some student-athletes, despite the widespread availability.
“All people are better vaccinated than not vaccinated,” stated Bowlsby. “I certainly respect [individual choice], but you are better off being vaccinated, and we are going to do everything we can to encourage student-athletes and coaches to be vaccinated.”
This past spring, North Carolina State’s run in the College World Series was suddenly halted when COVID-positive cases and contact tracing hit the Wolfpack and knocked them out in the semifinal round.
“That was a wake-up call,” said Bowlsby of what can still happen as a result of COVID. “It was a really good example of how you can get off the rails if you are not vigilant. You have to have self-discipline, and if you aren’t vaccinated, you have to be tested.”
The Big 12 doesn’t plan to mandate COVID vaccines, though those who have not been vaccinated will have to undergo regular testing if they want to remain associated with the program.
“Everyone who is not vaccinated will be tested,” explained Bowlsby, who has been the Big 12 commissioner since 2012. “The schools are tracking the numbers of people who are tested; the Big 12 is not. Anyone who is not vaccinated will be tested.”
Bowlsby added that the league doesn’t plan to have minimum roster numbers necessary to play this coming season, which is different than last year.
COVID and the ensuing vaccines are changing college football in the near term. In the long term, television packages are also going to evolve, said Bowlsby.
“It doesn’t matter what package you look at, whether it’s the huge package the NFL just did, they all have major streaming components,” he said. “We got involved with ESPN+ three years ago. We believed it was the wave of the future, and I continue to believe that. The decline of linear cable and the increase in streaming is documented, and we feel good about where we are.”
The Big 12 commissioner then dropped a bit of a bombshell.
“Disney and ESPN leadership has made the comment that they are going to be entirely streaming based in the not-too-distant future,” stated Bowlsby, who added that the industry expects to lose 20 million cable/satellite subscribers over the next few years. “That is an extraordinary comment for one of the biggest linear cable operations ever to make that. It’s significant.”
That platform change doesn’t mean broadcasts of college sports are going away. It’s just that fewer and fewer of those games will be available through traditional cable or satellite channels in the future, and more and more will have to be pulled up through Internet-based streaming services.
“I feel good about where we are,” said Bowlsby. “We are up to about 15 million households [with ESPN+]. Everybody is still finding their way in the digital environment, but we have learned a lot.”
The change in television distribution may actually lead to less change when it comes to conference movement, explained the Big 12 commissioner.
“The last round of conference realignment was driven by the number of cable households,” said Bowlsby. “Now that’s shrinking, and as a motivation for conference expansion or realignment, it’s gone, or just not there at this point in time.”
Many things change, but some things don’t.