In Classic Switch, ESPNU Graduates On Comcast, DirecTV

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Carriage class was in session for ESPNU last week.

The collegiate network landed deals with Comcast and DirecTV that will dramatically increase its distribution by the time students return for the 2009-10 school year and fans begin watching football.

As part of a comprehensive deal that also calls for the distribution of broadband service ESPN360.com, the potential migration of ESPN Classic and the syndication of Southeastern Conference athletic fare to a regional sports network, ESPNU will launch on Comcast's Digital Classic level of service, according to David Preschlack, executive vice president, Disney and ESPN Media Networks. Digital Classic is Comcast's second most widely penetrated tier that reaches some 10.8 million subscribers.

The Comcast deal, terms of which were not disclosed, plugs two major holes in the comprehensive carriage agreement Disney signed with the top cable operator in November 2006.
A Comcast spokeswoman said it was at its systems' discretion whether to leave ESPN Classic in its current position, switch it now, or swap it out when ESPNU is upgraded, a process that will begin in August and September, extend through fall, and likely conclude early in 2010.

Meanwhile, the DBS leader will widen its distribution of ESPNU to its DirecTV's Choice programming package, beginning July 1, with ESPN Classic being repositioned to its Sports Pack. As part of the agreement, DirecTV will also launch ESPNU HD by the end of the first quarter 2010. Terms were not disclosed.

Together, the deals should add 21 million households to lift ESPNU's roster to 46 million subscribers, giving it a 15 million home-advantage over competitor CBS College Sports Network.

The Comcast and DirecTV pacts represent the first manifestations of an initiative by ESPN to push ESPNU from sports packages to wider digital carriage, in exchange for distributors repositioning ESPN Classic on less widely penetrated tiers.

They don't figure to be the last. ESPN executive vice president, content John Skipper said after the sports giant's upfront presentation to advertisers on May 19 in New York that total  could approach 50 million this fall via other rollouts.

Stating that football season is a good time for ESPNU, Preschlack was more guarded about the network's short-term distribution prospects, saying only that the sports programmer is continuing discussions with distributors about upgrading ESPNU.
The Comcast deal is critical for ESPNU in that the operator's systems map well within the SEC's footprint. The network will kick off a SEC football game of the week this fall, and Skipper said ESPNU is working toward a collegiate-centric SportsCenter-type show that should debut during the upcoming school year. He didn't think it would launch in 2009.
In another facet of the deal, regional sports network Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast gained the rights over the next five years to a bevy of SEC football (a minimum of six games) men's (20) and women's basketball (16) and Olympic sports events (50) from ESPN's syndication arm. ESPN secured comprehensive SEC rights through a 15-year, $2.25 billion deal finalized last August.
On the broadband side of the field, Comcast.net will add ESPN360.com, adding 15 million high-speed customers to a roster that will grow to 41 million, just under two-thirds of the nation's 66 million homes equipped with broadband.
One affiliate source pegged the monthly subscriber fee at five cents, but Preschlak declined to discuss deal points.
During the upfront presentation, Sean Bratches, executive vice president sales and marketing, said ESPN360.com would soon include dynamic ad insertion. Moreover, Preschlak said ESPN is working toward local ad sales components for affiliates to the service, either in the form of banner ads or traditional ad units.
Asked with industry leader Comcast in the fold, if he anticipated others would follow suit with ESPNU and ESPN360.com, Preschlak said: "These are landmark agreements that were a long time coming. We certainly hope so."

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