ESPN Snaps Up Gator Bowl

ESPN on Thursday put a bow on its stewardship of college football’s postseason, reaching a new multiyear agreement that returns the Gator Bowl to the ABC-Disney family.

Per terms of the deal, ESPN will have the exclusive rights to broadcast the Gator Bowl through 2014. The sports net originally carried the Gator Bowl from 1988-91, whereupon the rights to the game bounced from TBS to NBC to CBS. Last year’s Florida State-West Virginia contest drew 6.41 million viewers to CBS.

Beginning with the Jan. 1, 2011 game, the Gator Bowl will match a representative from the SEC with a Big Ten school. It will air on ESPN2.

ESPN also extended its existing deals with the Capital One Bowl and the Outback Bowl. While corporate sibling ABC has broadcast every Capital One Bowl going back to 1987, ESPN will be keeping it in the family through 2018. Meanwhile, the Outback Bowl is staying put, as ESPN has secured the rights to that game through 2014. (The cable net has been home to the Outback Bowl since 1993––the last season the game was marketed as the Hall of Fame Bowl.)

All three games will air on Jan. 1, in an early window. Like the Gator Bowl, Capital One and Outback feature SEC-Big Ten match-ups.

ABC’s New Year’s Day coverage of the 2010 Capital One Bowl (Penn State-LSU) drew 11.6 million viewers in the 1 p.m. time slot. Over at ESPN, the Auburn-Northwestern Outback OT thriller delivered 5.69 million viewers at 11 a.m.

The migration of the post-season slate was locked in a year ago, when ABC announced it was moving the Rose Bowl to ESPN, beginning with the 2011 game. ABC has played host to the Granddaddy of Them All since 1989. This year’s Ohio State-Oregon game delivered 24 million viewers, making it the second most-watched Bowl game of the 2009-10 campaign. Top draw was ABC’s presentation of the Citi BCS National Championship (Alabama-Texas), which served up 30.8 million viewers on Jan. 7.

ABC secured the rights to the BCS Championship Game in November 2008, bidding $125 per year for four years. But for a three-year period in which Fox hosted the broadcast, ABC has carried the National Championship game since its inception in 1998. As soon as ABC was made aware that it had won the contract––Fox bowed out with a $100 million offer––the network announced it would move the title contest to ESPN as of January 2011.

This year will mark the first season in which ESPN will televise all five BCS bowls, a roster that includes the Orange Bowl and Allstate Sugar Bowl. Of the 34 Bowl games scheduled for 2010-11, ESPN owns the rights to 31, lacking only the Cotton (Fox, through 2013), Sun (CBS) and Insight Bowl (NFL Network).

ESPN averaged 4.31 million viewers for its slate of 22 2009-10 bowl games, marking its most-viewed bowl season ever.