The Rose Bowl, a game historically set apart as one of the most prestigious in all of college football and televised since 1952 on free over-the-air networks, may be going cable.
ESPN, the network that broadcasts everything from log-rolling contests to "Monday Night Football," is poised to add the shiniest trophy of college football, the Bowl Championship Series, with sources saying that an announcement could come as early as today.
Those sources, who have been granted anonymity because they do not have permission to speak for attribution on the contract negotiations, said ESPN has offered the BCS $500 million for the rights to broadcast the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl from 2011 through 2014. Also included would be rights to the national championship game, which rotates among those three plus the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl has its own broadcast rights deal -- worth $31 million a year through 2014 -- with ABC, which like ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Co. However, sources involved in the negotiations say that there is a clause in the BCS and Rose Bowl broadcast contracts that allows for the Rose Bowl to be moved to cable if the BCS signs a contract with a cable network.
All of this became public Monday when over-the-air Fox Sports, which has the current BCS contract, announced it had broken off negotiations. Fox is in the middle of a four-year, $320-million contract and, sources said, had offered the BCS $400 million for the next four years.
Mitch Dorger, chief executive of the Rose Bowl, said the relationship with ABC is highly valued, saying, "If you move to a cable network, you do lose viewership."
He would neither confirm nor deny that there is any contract clause that would allow for the Rose Bowl to be moved to cable.
"I will say that while we haven't had specific discussions about moving to ESPN, I would not be surprised to hear from them," Dorger admitted.
Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and current television consultant, said that a decade ago, the loss of a major sporting event from so-called free TV to a cable network would have been "earth-shattering news." Not any longer.
"ESPN is in 98 million homes out of 112," he said. "They are the dominant sports carrier, they have 'Monday Night Football' now, transitioned over from ABC. Probably a few events will remain on broadcast television such as the Super Bowl and the World Series, but we're seeing a gradual transition of many sports properties to cable."
What the pending BCS deal doesn't do is offer the hopes of a college football playoff series, even though President-elect Barack Obama has been lobbying for one.
On Sunday's "60 Minutes," Obama said, "If you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear decisive winner. We should be creating a playoff system."
But that seems less likely if ESPN gets the broadcast rights.
Pilson said that playoff talk from a soon-to-be president isn't enough to get the government involved in legislating sports TV contracts or playoffs.
"Washington wouldn't get involved," he said. "I think in the industry -- the consumers, the advertisers, the sponsors -- this move doesn't come as a surprise. With their long history on broadcast television I think only the Super Bowl and World Series moving to cable could raise some political issues in Washington."
David Carter, director of the USC Sports Business Institute, agreed.
"A decade ago a move like this would have met with a lot of head scratching, a lot of concern around the country that a valuable sports property would move 'further down the dial,' so to speak," Carter said.
"Now where you are on the dial doesn't matter. This generation of sports fans watches what they want on TBS, ESPN, the Golf Channel, the Tennis Channel, they're going to get their sports wherever the sports are. To people under a certain age, ESPN is no different than an over-the-air channel. Look how 'Monday Night Football' was swapped from ABC to ESPN. ESPN has outflanked everybody.
"I have this argument with students who say ESPN is free because it's on basic cable," Carter said. "I ask them if they pay for basic cable, but to them ESPN is no different because they get all their TV from cable."