Chris Bevilacqua can't remember exactly when he caught his raging case of college sports fever. It may have been as an undergraduate at Penn State, when he watched Joe Paterno lead the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel to a deafening roar from 85,000 Happy Valley partisans. Or perhaps it was at a wrestling match against Iowa at Penn State's Recreation Hall, when Bevilacqua, an All-America in the 150-pound class in 1984 and '85, stared across the mat at his opponent and experienced the electricity of the home crowd. "I felt what it meant to me and my teammates," says Bevilacqua, "but you could also tell what wrestling meant to our fans." That passion prompted the 38-year-old Bevilacqua, a former NBC Sports producer and Nike marketing executive, to team with cable sports veterans Brian Bedol and Steve Greenberg, who launched the Classic Sports Network in 1995, to form a 24-hour cable channel devoted to college sports.
Due to launch early next year, the National College Sports Network (NCSN) is the latest in a line of sports specialty channels to find its way onto cable systems. The success of networks such as the Golf Channel, Speed Channel and Outdoor Life Network, and the upcoming launch of the Tennis Channel—to say nothing of Classic Sports, which ESPN bought for $175 million in 1997 and renamed ESPN Classic—proves that sports fans will support such niche programming. Bedol, Bevilacqua and Greenberg see a huge market of fans and alumni who want to watch events that the major networks don't or won't present. "When you look at what has worked in cable programming, it's networks that tap into preexisting passions," says Bedol. "Tens of millions of people define themselves as being college sports fans."
Bevilacqua first approached Bedol and Greenberg with his idea for the network in 1999, but it wasn't until last July that Bevilacqua began visiting universities and conference headquarters to lay the ground-work for rights agreements. (That was familiar turf for Bevilacqua; while working for Nike from 1995 through '99, he spearheaded the company's move into licensing contracts with schools.) Earlier this month NCSN announced a multiyear agreement with the Big Ten to cover sports for which rights deals didn't already exist. Bevilacqua says that NCSN now has contracts in place with more than a dozen other conferences and has several more agreements nearing completion. In the meantime Bedol and Greenberg are hammering out deals with cable operating giants like Comcast and Time Warner Cable (owned by SI's parent, AOL Time Warner).
Unable to procure rights to top-shelf men's football and basketball events (they are locked up by the major broadcast and cable sports networks), NCSN aims to show everything else. Expect to see the best available lacrosse game each weekend in the spring, plus Big Ten swimming, Pac-10 gymnastics and a cornucopia of college hockey. Bevilacqua also might go after Division II and III football and basketball, and his old sport, wrestling. The network plans to produce news and interview shows and is looking into televising events such as coaches' clinics.
NCSN also wants to be the TV home of NCAA championships in nonmajor sports, but first it must acquire the rights. In 1999 CBS locked up the NCAA men's basketball tournament with an 11-year, $6 billion contract (running through 2013) that also gives it the rights to all sports championships in every division not already under contract. While some of this programming has been sold to ESPN, two thirds of it never makes it to the air, and the NCSN team believes that its network would be the ideal place for these compelling events.
Many movers and shakers in college sports concur. "So many great stories go unnoticed each year because there isn't enough space," says Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White. "This network can be a great vehicle for the promotion of college athletics at all levels."