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ESPNU Gets Off to a Small Start

2/27/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

The latest ESPN offshoot — ESPNU — will launch on the eve of college basketball’s annual “March Madness,” but carriage for the college sports-oriented network has thus far not been a slam dunk for ESPN.

ESPNU, which will offer live college-sports events from existing ESPN football, basketball and other National Collegiate Athletic Association rights agreements, will debut March 4 in front of a modest 3 million subscribers on Adelphia Communications Corp.’s digital-basic tier and on DirecTV Inc.’s “Sports Pack” premium-programming tier, ESPNU vice president and general manager Burke Magnus said.

He said ESPNU is talking with cable companies about digital-basic carriage. A spokesman for top MSO Comcast Corp. said the MSO has “no carriage plans” for the channel at this time. A Cox Communications Inc. spokesman said the MSO has not entered into carriage negotiations with ESPN for ESPNU.

CROWDED FIELD

Even bearing the powerful ESPN brand, Magnus’s network will launch to fewer subscribers than are served by its biggest competitor, two-year-old College Sports Television (CSTV), now in about 7 million households, mostly on sports tiers. ESPNU will also face competition from Fox College Sports, a trio of regional services that also reaches about 3 million households.

Still, Magnus is confident ESPNU will expand its distribution reach — and not on ghettoized sports tiers — as operators become more familiar with the channel.

“The response [from operators] has been terrific, and we’re thrilled to have DirecTV and Adelphia on board at launch,” Magnus said. “Our goal is digital basic, and to package it in the highest-penetrated digital level that is offered by any operator.”

ESPNU was not part of the comprehensive carriage deals ESPN reached last year with most cable and satellite-TV distributors.

Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell doesn’t believe the market will sustain all three college sports-targeted networks long term, although in the short run all three should be able to survive.

“They’ll all be fine short-term, because the programming doesn’t cost them much,” he said.

CSTV, an independent that last week changed its name to CSTV Networks, isn’t concerned about competition from ESPNU. “ESPN is clearly late to the game and in the catch up position,” CSTV CEO Brian Bedol said. “We have wonderful relationships and agreements with the five largest MSOs, and they’ve been terrific partners in rolling us out around the country, so I think that we certainly have no reason to be concerned that we aren’t going to get agreements done because of this.”

Bedol co-founded Classic Sports Network, which sold out to ESPN and became ESPN Classic.

U SETS LINEUP

During its first month, ESPNU will offer 14 live NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament games; more than 25 “Championship Week” basketball-tournament games; the NCAA Wrestling Championship and NCAA Hockey Championship coverage.

“There will be more opportunity for the teams to be seen and more opportunities for college-sports fans to tune in and hear analysis and discussion,” Magnus said.

During the summer months, ESPNU will devise “creative” programming stunts featuring games from the previous season. It might devote a full day to replaying games involving a particular school or conference.

“We’ll also follow the recruiting game as closely as we can during the summer and try to find live events wherever we can,” Magnus added. “Once we get to August and September, when football starts up again, we’ll be firing on all cylinders.”

Magnus said ESPNU won’t siphon events from ESPN or ESPN2, but rather will provide additional coverage of high-profile college sports. “If anything, it’s totally incremental to ESPN and ESPN2,” he added. “College sports is woven into the fabric of ESPN, and is one of the most significant categories of what we do, whether it’s number of hours or ratings points.”

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