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Mass appeal? (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday June 26, 2007 12:48PM; Updated: Tuesday June 26, 2007 5:09PM
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This isn't the first time a newspaper article has prompted Delany to go on the defensive. Last February, in the wake of embarrassing bowl showings by Ohio State and Michigan and a Chicago Sun-Times article questioning the league's recruiting efforts in comparison to those of the SEC, Delany posted an open letter on the Big Ten's Web site suggesting the SEC's ability to lure speedier athletes could be attributed to its schools' laxer academic standards.

Bloggers and radio hosts had a field day with the letter, which came across as smug, tacky and somewhat "sore-loserish." In the court of public opinion, Delany lost that little battle. But in his ongoing quarrel with Comcast, Time Warner (the parent company of Sports Illustrated) and the rest of the nation's cable providers, the commissioner is counting on the assumption that the public -- particularly in Big Ten country -- will fall on his side.

At first glance, Delany would appear to be fighting an uphill battle. If the all-powerful NFL can't get its own four-year-old network -- one that began showing regular-season games for the first time last season -- onto basic cable lineups in such key NFL markets as New York City, what hope is there for the Big Ten?

However, it's the intensity of that regional appeal that Delany is selling as the network's calling card.

In defending the network's lofty asking price last week, Delany estimated that of those 5.7 million Comcast subscribers in the Midwest, about 2 million (35 percent) are alumni of Big Ten institutions and "as many as three to four million total have an abiding interest in Big Ten sports." Those numbers seem unrealistically high (according to the last Census report, only 27 percent of the nation's adult population hold college degrees, and it's not as if the entire 2 million Delany speaks of follow their alma mater's sports teams), but this much we know: the demand to watch a Buckeyes football game in Columbus, Ohio, or a Hoosiers basketball game in Bloomington, Ind., far supersedes that of the NFL Network, or any other sports channel (besides ESPN), in those cities.

"In most of the Big Ten states, there's certainly an argument to be made that the channel should be universally available," said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, a prominent sports-TV consultant. "The question is, what do you do when you get to some of the outlying markets. Is Philadelphia [home of Comcast headquarters] a home market for a Big Ten team just because it's in Pennsylvania? It's almost a market-by-market, area-by-area discussion."

In the coming months, Delany, who said he "was told by all the experts [a year ago] not to expect any major distribution deals" this far from launch, is counting on all those Buckeyes and Wolverines fans -- upon realizing they won't be able to see their team's opener -- flooding the cable companies with complaints. And if not then, possibly a month later when they realize that meaningful intra-conference games -- ones which previously would have been aired locally through ESPN Plus and on ESPN GamePlan -- are only available on the Big Ten Network.

The longer the cable companies hold out, the more ticked the fans are going to get. And while it's the Big Ten itself that caused the predicament by creating the network, fans are far more likely to direct their frustration at the cable company than they are their favorite conference.

First, however, Delany may need to win over lawmakers. On Monday, Michigan congressman John Dingell, chairman of a House committee that oversees telecommunications, said he sent Delany a letter expressing concern "about the migration of previously free, over-the-air content to a pay-television tier."

The real tell-tale sign of the conference's bargaining power will come if it can actually succeed in hemorrhaging customers away from the cable companies. While Delany didn't come out and say it directly, one could definitely infer that if, come Aug. 1, negotiations are still at an impasse, the conference and its members -- perhaps even the coaches themselves -- will begin urging fans to switch to DirecTV so they don't miss a second of the action.

Is the demand to watch an Ohio State-Youngstown State game enough to cause a significant number of people to go to the trouble of having a dish installed on their roof? That, for Delany, is the multi-million dollar question.

"There's no black-or-white here, no right or wrong," said Pilson. "That's what makes these negotiations so interesting."

Delany better hope enough people deem Penn State-FIU to be equally compelling.

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