College football doesn't draw the same ratings as the behemoth NFL. But the sheer volume of college games — which fill sports networks every Saturday — means a potential cancellation or postponement blows a huge hole into the fall TV calendar.
Two major NCAA conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12, announced this week that they will postpone their seasons because of coronavirus. That leaves ESPN, which also carries prime time games on sister Disney-owned network ABC, and Fox Sports as two of the channels with a lot of time to fill.
But what happens if the other power conferences, the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12, follow suit? The ripples would be massive, deeply impacting national networks and regional networks.
"If the Power 5 conferences cancel or postpone their games, it would be the equivalency of several of the most popular primetime TV shows getting canceled all at once," Patrick Crakes, former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant, told CNN Business.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, college football generates an estimated $1.7 billion in annual ad sales at the national level. And that doesn't even include all of the related media, such as sports talk shows and local programming, that lives off the passion for college sports throughout the week.
One consideration is the NCAA's size. There are 130 Division I college football programs, four times the number of NFL franchises. The addition of a four-team playoff has also fueled the championship atmosphere around college football, with this year's title game between LSU and Clemson drawing more than 25 million viewers, according to Nielsen data.
But the possible loss of the sport is more than just a dollars and cents issue for the networks. It's also about filling time.
College football owns that one day of the week on the TV calendar. It's synonymous with Saturdays in the same way the NFL has long dominated Sundays. Crakes noted that college football chews up not just entire Saturdays for three months each fall, it also fills vital prime time hours from Thursday to Saturday.
"The networks lay out hundreds of millions of dollars a year for these college football conferences, in aggregate into the billions, and you get it back because viewers view these games as must-see content," Crakes said.
"The investment is enormous, but the return is also supposed to be enormous — and right now, two-fifths of it is completely gone," he added.
Sports networks like ESPN and Fox Sports weathered the loss of live sports earlier this year by cobbling together programming made up of classic games, studio shows and pre-produced events like ESPN's Michael Jordan docuseries "The Last Dance." The strategy bought the networks some time until the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball resumed their games last month. (ESPN and Fox Sports declined to comment on this story.)
But that can work for only so long. While it's too early to say if college football will be canceled or postponed across the board (the Big 12 has said they plan on forging ahead while the ACC and SEC's plans haven't changed), losing the sport altogether could rip up sports networks' carefully planned programming once again.
"If the NBA and MLB playoffs happen, that'll fill some of the holes, at least for a while. But college football is the DNA of networks like ESPN. It's not just Saturday. It's all over the week," Jay Rosenstein, a former VP of programming at CBS Sports, told CNN Business. "It's a full-blown schedule that would be disrupted."
Rosenstein pointed out that ESPN invested billions into the College Football Playoff, which includes the national championship. Without it, the network loses "the only championship that ESPN, and ESPN alone, televises."
Earlier this year, some coaches and college administrators reportedly floated the idea of playing next spring, but that creates all sorts of logistical questions, including the scheduling of the NFL draft and competition with other sports.
"What happens with March Madness, the NFL draft, and the new MLB and NBA seasons?" Rosenstein said. "If college football gets postponed, it creates dilution. People can only watch so many sports at once."