Free TV Losing Bowl Games to ESPN

ESPN is calling it “an exceptional day” for college football fans. But a new deal between the cable network and the college football authorities means millions of viewers will be unable to watch big-time college bowl games on free broadcast TV.

Tuesday, ESPN and the Bowl Champion Series announced that ESPN would have exclusive rights to the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls from 2011 to 2014, as well as the BCS National Championship Game from 2011 to 2013.

In a conference call with reporters, ESPN President George Bodenheimer said most serious college football fans already have subscription TV. For last year’s championship game, 95 percent of viewers were connected to cable or satellite, he said.

“[The].relatively small differential between broadcast and cable is only going to continue to dissipate,” he said.

Pressed by reporters how he could explain to over-the-air viewers that removing the games was a good deal for them, he repeated that the number of over-the-air-only viewers is decreasing, and noted that the current trend is for high-profile sports to migrate to cable.

ESPN’s parent corporation, Disney, is also the owner of the ABC broadcast network.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.