The NCAA has agreed to an exclusive partnership that will have more than 200 NCAA Division 2 Championship events streamed by Hudl. The partnership will be managed by Warner Bros. Discovery Sports with WBD Sports already holding the Division 1 NCAA Men’s Basketball rights through its ownership of TBS, TNT, and TruTV. The partnership was already expected with news of an impending deal reported in October.
The partnership will start with the Division 2 Football playoffs first-round, second-round, and quarterfinal games being exclusively on Hudl. The semifinals and national championship will remain with ESPN. The cost for the football games is either $9.95 per game or $19.95 for access to all playoff games through the quarterfinals.
The partnership will also have women’s volleyball matches streamed on Hudl at a cost of $9.95 per contest or $29.95 for all of the games. Men’s and women’s basketball will also be part of the exclusive partnership but pricing details will be determined later. A contract with CBS still remains in place for the men’s and women’s basketball semifinal and national championship games. The men’s title game will air on CBS while the semifinals and women’s national championship will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
For the NCAA, this is a smart move. Not knowing the exact details of the agreement, this is a chance for the NCAA or Hudl to get back a bit of revenue associated with running the Championships. (It may even be a case of the NCAA offloading the production costs associated with broadcasting the events to Hudl and letting them monetize them with a subscription model). It certainly won’t be a huge amount but any subscription revenue they receive is better than before when they weren’t receiving much (any?) revenue.
For the fans, it’s a mixed bag. They will have to pay a new subscription fee to watch these events but they now have access to the early rounds of these championships. Previously, the rounds prior to the quarterfinals were not shown on either ESPN or NCAA.com (the link is from October 2022). For super fans of D2 sports, or even those who cover one or two sports in-depth, the subscription fee is probably worth it for content they didn’t previously have easy access to. The worry is how the NCAA packages its Division 2 Championships going forward. It feels like this is a pilot run to potentially put other championships from Division 1, Division 2, and Division 3 behind the same paywall.
Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for the early rounds but if they include entire championships – including semifinals and championship games – for football or basketball after the current TV deals end, that’s a net negative for the casual viewer. The casual viewer is the exact kind of viewer that would be most likely to turn into a future subscriber and moving the sport’s biggest game behind the paywall isn’t necessarily going to translate to more long-term subscribers. The opposite is also true though. The biggest game is likely to see the highest amount of viewers and people are more likely to buy a one-time subscription for a national title game than an all-access pass. There are arguments to be made for both sides but the subscription model leads us to the next point and fair warning, it’s a bit of a rant.
Paywall Trend Continues
The NCAA is just the latest entity moving to a paywall model and the following paragraphs are not directed at them. Instead of just complaining about the NCAA’s decision, we’ll provide some ideas to make streaming the bundle better at the end of the article. This is more of a rant on how the information and entertainment industries as a group have moved towards a paywall and subscription model (When referring to the information and entertainment industries, we are referring to streaming platforms, newspapers, social media, television, etc.). The NCAA just happened to be the most recent example of this trend and this is a blog about college sports and realignment but it fits into previously published articles on the topic making it tangentially related.
We’ve done a fair bit of research on this website regarding the contemporary history of college football TV contracts. At times, it was exhausting to try and find an article that would give a crumb of information that could be used as a source or a point to cross-reference. The worst part was the unrelenting number of paywalls we ran into attempting to find basic information on realignment changes, television rights contracts, or attempting to go behind the headlines, which rarely paint the full picture (bonus points for the readers that see the irony of this article’s headline and actual content).
The issue is the fragmentation of the two industries has never been worse. The vast majority of consumers don’t have unlimited amounts of income so they are forced to pick the outlets that supply them with the best sources of information and forms of entertainment. Companies are free to make the paywall decision but consumers are free to voice their displeasure with their wallets. Companies can’t complain about losing subscribers when they make decisions that consumers don’t like (such as but not limited to lower content quality, charging users for basic features, removing features, etc.).
This kind of model is not going away and may even get worse, especially for college sports fans. It was good in the beginning as an alternative to the high costs of cable but lower initial prices have given way to increasing numbers of pricing increases. YouTube TV increased its prices as a result of acquiring the NFL Sunday Ticket package. Netflix has implemented numerous price increases over the last decade along with other unpopular changes. Disney Plus and Hulu saw a recent price increase as well.
How this impacts college sports is the impending arrival of the ESPN direct-to-consumer option. It’s likely an ESPN bundle won’t arrive until 2025 at the earliest but it is yet another fragmentation of the streaming world. Early reports indicate ESPN will still remain part of cable TV options and streaming platforms such as YouTube TV. Assuming Disney doesn’t spin off ESPN as a separate company, it’s not difficult to envision them going the Netflix route and removing a majority of those options outside of Hulu in an effort to collect as much revenue as possible directly from the consumers. In terms of realignment, schools and conferences will follow the money so as long as there’s enough money for them, the fragmentation will continue (Until they begin to realize an NFL-style rights deal might yield more money at the expense of half the current FBS teams).
None of this is to say that streaming platforms or websites should always be free and hope the advertising clicks are enough. Hell, we run ads on this website, and in 2023 alone, we’ve had to change some back-end WordPress plugins to avoid subscription fees. We would have been charged a subscription fee to continue using the original plugins as a punitive measure solely because we run ads. This is yet another example of the pervasive subscription model. The difference is ads are passive and they don’t prevent the viewer from seeing the content. Meanwhile, subscriptions are beginning to feel gratuitous to the point even lower quality outlets are implementing them. As a consumer, there are too many options for information and entertainment that require a subscription.
Despite the long rant, this deal isn’t all terrible but it’s not perfect. Assuming the NCAA will put more championship events behind the paywall in future years, there will be an option for the diehard D2 fans to have access to early rounds of tournaments. However, it will be another subscription they have to pay for and that thought alone might scare some consumers away. Ultimately, we want to see which championships they add and whether they will include Division 1 (smaller championships that don’t have huge revenue upside) and/or Division 3 championhips.
Keeping in mind that this deal is in the very early stages with plenty of additional events possible, there are some suggestions. For starters, it would be helpful to provide a full-access pass to all championship events for a flat fee of $150 or $200 as an example. In future years when more events are included, this would be a great deal for Division 2 (or D3?) fans and consumers. Another idea is to have a “two-championship bundle” in which the subscriber can choose to have access to all events for any two championships. There might need to be some different pricing depending on the two events selected but keeping the two-championship bundle lower than each one individually would be a consumer benefit and might entice more subscribers than keeping them separate.
Since this is a college sports and realignment blog, will this impact realignment at the Division 2 level?
Yes and here’s why. It’s difficult to fathom a Division 2 president who was previously unhappy in D2 seething so much about this decision that they decide this is the breaking point and are now committed to leaving the division. Of all the concerns a college president has, this one isn’t likely to register. That’s more of a job for the realignment blogs to think about and then speculate on…
Photo courtesy of the NCAA