HARRISONBURG — While the new partnership between the Colonial Athletic Association and streaming platform FloSports involves the broadcast of 300 games across a variety of sports sponsored by the league, including football, men’s basketball is at the heart of the groundbreaking deal.
When the CAA announced earlier this month it was becoming the first Division I conference to make an online streaming service its primary media rights partner, it did so with boosting its signature sport in mind.
“We wanted to make sure coming out of this we had ways in which we were able to improve upon our men’s basketball product,” CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio said. “There’s never a guarantee that’s going to happen, but we are always trying to do that. Many times initiatives to make that happen are going to require resources and there’s only so many ways a conference is going to be able to garner resources.”
While the CAA has become arguably the best football conference on the FCS level and has seen plenty of success on the national level in sports such as lacrosse, soccer and softball, men’s basketball has dropped off since George Mason and VCU made it to Final Fours in 2006 and 2011. Placing multiple teams in the men’s NCAA Tournament and/or seeing teams make deep runs during March Madness provide the biggest opportunity for mid-major conferences to build their brand and generate revenue.
Both VCU and George Mason eventually left for the Atlantic 10 and though College of Charleston left the Southern Conference to join the CAA, the SoCon has by most estimates since passed up the CAA in the ranks of mid-major hoops leagues. The Southern Conference did so by reinvesting the exit fees of schools such as Charleston into a fund specifically designed to enhance the men’s basketball product. This past season Furman entered the AP Top 25 for the first time and Wofford made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed, advancing to the round of 32.
That at least partially explains why the CAA found the FloSports deal intriguing. While D’Antonio declined last week to reveal the specifics of the “seven-figure rights fee,” The Charleston Post & Courier reported FloSports would pay the conference $4.5 million. That’s a small sum compared what ESPN and Fox have paid for the rights to Power 5 conferences, mid-majors such as the CAA have found it difficult to find broadcast partners willing to pay at all.
Instead, the CAA must pay networks to broadcast games on linear television, which is where a large chunk of the money earned from the FloSports deal will be reinvested. The CAA is also finalizing a deal with CBS Sports Network which would include eight regular-season men’s basketball games for the 2019-2020 season and up to 16 in future years after the conference failed to have a regular-season home game on national television last season.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” new William & Mary coach Dane Fischer said. “They are obviously a platform you can reach in a number of different ways. The basic cable stuff is still there, but there’s going to be an opportunity to view that in a number of different ways as we become a more on-the-go society.”
The specifics of the FloSports deal also allow more flexibility. While negotiating a potential streaming deal with ESPN, it became clear the industry giant would demand exclusive rights to all CAA content, as well as advertising revenue.
With the FloSports deal, CAA schools are allowed to stream games that aren’t picked up by FloSports on their in-house streaming platforms, such as James Madison’s popular MadiZONE productions. The agreement also allows the CAA schools to make agreements with Regional Sports Networks, or RSNs, such as NBC Sports Washington or MASN. Games that are streamed by Flo could also be available in local markets on those RSN and the CAA schools have an opportunity to generate advertising revenue from all broadcasts.
“As we entered into the negotiation phase and discussions about this project, it was very evident early on that the institutions wanted a level of flexibility to continue to do many of the things they were already doing,” D’Antonio said. “Some of our schools very much value their own digital product; JMU is certainly one of those institutions. Many of our schools also have strong RSN relationships. At some point we may be in an age when linear doesn’t exist anymore. But many of our schools that have those RSN relationships did not want to see those relationships go away.”
The immediate financial benefits have become clear as more details emerge, but the question on many fans minds is whether the upstart media company will provide the much-needed exposure.
While much of FloSports’ CAA content beyond games, including studio shows produced by Flo in Austin, Texas, will be available in front of the paywall, concern about the cost of a Flo subscription was a hot topic upon the unveiling.
A typical FloSports monthly subscription costs about $25, but later in the summer a rate of $12.50 per month for CAA subscribers will be available. That’s still more than twice the cost of ESPN+, but league officials have placed an emphasis on the value of the exclusive content that also includes high-level basketball recruiting events, MLS soccer and other broadcasts.
They’ve also stressed that subscriptions are on a month-by-month basis, meaning fans can pay for the service during months they plan to watch, drop it during less busy months, and come back at the same rate.
But for the partnership to pay off, both the CAA and FloSports will have to convince consumers to seek out a product they may not be too familiar with. Some have argued that even though ESPN had a clear upper hand in the financial negotiations, the exposure the network provides may have been worth it.
It’s undeniable the self-branded Worldwide Leader In Sports largely sets the agenda for the athletics consuming public. Perhaps not coincidentally, ESPN had as deal with the Ohio Valley Conference, including six regular-season games on ESPNU, and helped make Murray State standout Ja Morant a household name.
Meanwhile, Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman, the nation’s second-leading scorer at more than 27 points per game, received significantly less exposure. That situation may improve with more games on the CBS Sports Network and as FloSports, which last year hired Lindsey Ross, a former ESPN executive in charge of rights acquisitions, grows and adds more leagues to its lineup.
“We’ve cobbled together a lot of different things to try to meet a lot of different wants and needs,” D’Antonio said. “I think we’ve done a good job in trying to make sure our member institutions are getting what they need out this.”