Big Ten reaps the benefits of TV network; is the SEC next?
Big Ten fans received a jolt of good news last week when the conference's co-owned television venture, the Big Ten Network, announced a long-awaited agreement with the nation's largest cable provider, Comcast. Starting Aug. 15, nearly 25 million new customers will have access to the channel, most notably 6.5 million households in seven of the eight states with Big Ten schools.
"With the Comcast deal now in place, the Big Ten Network will be available to more than two-thirds of all homes in Big Ten Country," said network president Mark Silverman.
If you're a Michigan, Penn State or Illinois fan, the news most obviously impacts you. However, all you Florida, Georgia and Tennessee fans should take notice as well.
The SEC -- the reigning darling of the college football world and proven ratings machine -- is currently in the process of entertaining suitors for its various television properties, all of which expire next summer. At the league's spring meetings in Destin, Fla., last month, conference athletic directors listened to presentations from current partners CBS, ESPN, Raycom and Comcast.
Over the past year, however, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, along with an advisory panel of athletic directors, has also been exploring the possibility of starting an SEC cable network. As such, he's been "watching closely the progress, or, in some cases, lack of progress" made by the Big Ten Network as well as other recent start-ups like the NFL Network and The Mtn. (the Mountain West's venture).
"[An SEC network] remains a very viable option," said Slive. "The decision would be whether to launch an SEC Network or retain our traditional way of rights. Our goal is to reach a decision sometime later this summer or early fall."
Launched in August 2007, the Big Ten Network endured a turbulent first year in which frustrated cable customers found themselves unable to watch key games involving their favorite teams, prompting Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo to dub the new channel a "p.r. nightmare." Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany traded public barbs with Comcast executives, one of whom ribbed the channel for offering "second and third-tier" games.
Those who did get to watch the channel, however (mostly DirecTV and Dish Network subscribers), were pleasantly surprised by the quality of both its studio shows and game broadcasts (nearly all of them in HD), and most analysts believe the conference fared well in last week's Comcast deal.
Though the BTN did not get its initial monthly asking price of $1.10 per subscriber (reports place the number at either 60 or 70 cents), its most important wish -- that the channel be placed on Comcast's expanded-basic lineup rather than a premium, digital sports tier in the conference's home-turf states -- was granted, at least for a year. (Starting next spring, Comcast can move the channel to a "broadly available" digital tier.)
Conference officials are hopeful the Comcast deal will touch off a domino of similar truces with Time Warner (the parent company of Sports Illustrated), Charter and other providers in Big Ten markets.
"There was a certain inevitability to the fact Big Ten would eventually get [cable] carriage, but the real question was what kind of carriage they'd get," said TV sports consultant Kevin O'Malley, a former CBS Sports executive who's since worked with most of the BCS conferences. "Starting out on expanded basic is a real plus for them. Considering everything it went through, I think the Big Ten ended up in a very good place."
At the same time the Big Ten announced its new venture in 2006, it also signed a reported 10-year, $1 billion extension with ABC/ESPN. The SEC, which last year earned $63.6 million from football and basketball television revenue, is expected to reap a far bigger windfall from its current negotiations. Rarely has a conference sat at a bargaining table from such a position of power.