ESPN files suit against Conference USA

NEW YORK -- ESPN has sued Conference USA, accusing the league of violating a contract with the network when it signed a new deal with Fox.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in New York, seeks either damages of at least $21 million or for the conference to honor the extension the network claims it agreed to.

The suit claims Conference USA did not fulfill its obligations to allow ESPN to consider a final offer from Fox, as mandated by the last contract between the two entities. It also claims ESPN and the conference had an agreement in principle before Conference USA decided to sell its rights to Fox.

"We are very disappointed that ESPN has taken this action," Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said in a statement. "We have had the benefit of legal counsel throughout this process and we disagree with the positions they have taken. We are prepared to vigorously defend any litigation initiated by them. As we said earlier, the idea that they were disadvantaged is incorrect. They had every opportunity to step up and address our concerns, and they simply did not."

The two sides signed a five-year deal in 2005 worth $21.9 million. It included a provision giving ESPN exclusive rights to try to re-negotiate the package in 2010.

"Rights agreements are at the core of our industry," ESPN senior vice president Burke Magnus told the Sports Business Daily. "ESPN and Conference USA reached an agreement on a new extension after a prolonged negotiation. The conference then changed their position out of the blue and reneged on that agreement. At best, they violated our right to be given an opportunity to consider a final offer."

The deal between Conference USA and Fox gives the network a minimum of 20 regular-season college football games, including the football championship game, plus 10 regular-season basketball games.

The suit says the Fox deal is for $43 million, nearly double the amount ESPN contends Conference USA agreed on to stay with the network.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.