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Mass appeal?

Big Ten Network fighting hard for cable viewership

Posted: Tuesday June 26, 2007 12:48PM; Updated: Tuesday June 26, 2007 5:09PM
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Adrian Arrington
Michigan fans who do not have DirecTV may not be able to see the Wolverines' opener against Appalachian State.
AP
Big Ten
Network Schedule
The Big Ten Network recently announced it would be showing the following football games on the first three Saturdays of the season. Games airing at the same time will be divided regionally.
 
September 1
Appalachian State at Michigan
Youngstown State at Ohio State
Fla. International at Penn State
Northeastern at Northwestern
Bowling Green at Minnesota
Indiana State at Indiana
 
September 8
Akron at Ohio State
Nevada at Northwestern
Bowling Green at Michigan State
Miami (Ohio) at Minnesota
Eastern Illinois at Purdue
Western Illinois at Illinois
Syracuse at Iowa
 
September 15
The Citadel at Wisconsin
Buffalo at Penn State
Akron at Indiana
Duke at Northwestern
 

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Over the past two decades, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has established himself as the shrewdest executive in college sports. From spearheading the addition of Penn State as the conference's 11th member to brokering the Rose Bowl's integration into the BCS to continually landing the nation's most lucrative television and bowl lineups, Delany has made sure his 111-year-old conference is consistently at the front of the pack when it comes to changes in the collegiate landscape.

However, as the launch date draws near for Delany's latest and boldest venture to date -- a national cable network devoted exclusively to Big Ten sports -- some bizarre, recent comments by the 58-year-old commissioner have brought up an obvious question: Has Delany lost his marbles?

Or is this just another display of his astute negotiating tactics?

A little over a year ago, Delany's conference announced the formation of a 24-hour cable channel, The Big Ten Network, to launch this August. The start-up will air nearly 400 conference events in its first year, headlined by 35 football and 105 men's basketball games that previously would have fallen to regional syndicate ESPN Plus or gone un-televised. (The conference also agreed to a 10-year football/basketball deal with longtime partners ABC and ESPN, reported to be worth nearly $100 million annually.) The network sunk a reported $18 million into the construction of studios and headquarters in the former Montgomery Ward building in downtown Chicago and will spend a reported $50 million in programming rights fees.

As has been the case many times over the past 18 years, many believe Delany is starting a trend that other conferences will soon follow. But first, his counterparts will wait to see if this one succeeds.

Like CSTV, ESPNU, the NFL Network and any number of other recent all-sports start-ups, the Big Ten Network now finds itself in an ongoing and somewhat contentious battle to get the nation's cable providers to offer the channel. Two months before its expected launch, the network has lined up one significant carrier in DirecTV, which boasts 16 million subscribers (putting the network well ahead of the Mountain West's year-old start-up, "The Mtn.," which is available in just 1.2 million homes), but has yet to reach an agreement with any of the major cable carriers.

Unlike network television channels, which make their money almost entirely off advertising, cable channels rely heavily on a per-head subscriber fee paid by the cable companies. Those fees are tied directly to the perceived demand for said channel -- i.e. ESPN and CNN can get away with charging a lot more than Spike TV or the Sci-Fi Channel -- and a start-up channel's often inflated self-assessment of its expected demand is usually the primary source of dispute.

According to the New York Times, the Big Ten is seeking a staggering $1.10 per subscriber in the conference's eight states (by comparison, the NFL Network as of last year was seeking 70 cents per head nationally) and 10 cents elsewhere. The league is also steadfast that the channel be placed on providers' expanded digital-basic lineups alongside ESPN and Fox Sports Net, not packaged as part of a premium "sports tier" to which customers can subscribe for an additional cost. (Though if a cable company did put the channel on basic, it would undoubtedly raise customers' cable bills by $1.10 to compensate).

"Millions of Big Ten fans who already pay their basic cable bill would expect this to be included," said Delany. "If they choose to put it on a sports tier -- I call that a tax."

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