Big Ten Goes Wide

6/23/2006 8:03 PM Eastern

Ohio State Buckeyes fans and alumni around the country will soon have a way to watch their alma mater’s sports teams battle Big Ten Conference rivals 24-hours a day.

The 11-team conference will play ball in a national cable arena with Fox Cable Networks. The partners plan to launch a national channel in 2007 that will feature live conference basketball, football and Olympic-related sports events, as well as 660 hours per year of academic programming.

The 20-year deal to create the Big Ten Channel Wednesday all but overshadowed ESPN’s 10-year renewal deal with the conference. That deal allows The Walt Disney Co.-owned entities to distribute live Big Ten football and basketball games over 10 domestic and international platforms, according to ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer.

Big Ten Channel Lineup
What Fans Will Be Able to Watch
SOURCE: Fox Sports
Each year:
35 live football games
100 live basketball games
175 to 200 events from Olympics-based sports such as tennis, wrestling, field hockey, track and field
60 hours of educational programming a year from each of 11 member schools

The Big Ten Channel is the first standalone college conference network to launch on a national level. The College Sports TV-distributed Mountain West Conference service will launch this fall, but only in California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.

The Big Ten’s service most likely won’t be the last national network launch, however. Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive told the Associated Press last week that its 12 members would seek to establish a conference-based network when its league television rights with CBS and ESPN expire in 2009.

LBH Sports Entertainment and Media principal Lee Berke says major college conferences such as the Big Ten, SEC and the Atlantic Coast Conference could become successful national services even though all are regional in nature.

“I think the conferences that’ll be successful are the ones that are in predominately large markets, are geographically strong, where tradition is longstanding, and that have such a substantial alumni and fan following,” he said.

The Big Ten certainly meets those criteria. Conference commissioner Jim Delaney says there are 4 million Big Ten alumni scattered around the country, giving the network appeal beyond the conference’s eight state region which includes Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois. Also, conference teams rich in sports tradition like Ohio State, Purdue University, the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois are perennially among the nation’s top college basketball and football teams.

Fox Sports Net president Bob Thompson says the Big Ten Channel will seek expanded basic carriage from cable operators. The channel has already secured a distribution deal with News Corp.-owned DirecTV Inc. for carriage on the satellite service’s highly-penetrated “Total Choice” tier.

Thompson would not disclose advertising rates for the channel. But he said licensing fees would fall more in line with national cable services, which generally charge operators less than $1 per subscriber per month, than with the $1.50 to $3 fees regional sports networks charge.

Thompson said each school is allotted 60 hours of content per year that can be devoted toward educational or entertainment programming.

Despite the additional exposure for Big Ten content through the national service, Bodenheimer does not believe that the deal will hurt ratings for its ESPN and ABC telecasts.

“We’ve never overestimated the consumer demand for sport product, so [viewer fatigue] never really entered our mind,” Bodenheimer said.

As part of its new 10-year deal with the conference, which published reports estimate is worth $90 million to $100 million a year, ESPN will deliver more than 110 Big Ten events each year — including football, men’s and women’s basketball and more — across numerous platforms in what Bodenheimer called ESPN’s most “wide-ranging” agreement it’s 26-year history.

ESPN and ESPN2 will carry up to 25 college football and 40 college basketball telecasts, according to the network. In addition, ESPN’s broadband service ESPN360 will offer select college basketball and college football games.

Various other ESPN outlets including Mobile ESPN, ESPN VOD and ESPN Classic will offer conference highlights, replays of vintage games, and other conference-based content.

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