ESPN Inquiry Could Resonate

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The U.S Justice Department's reported inquiry into ESPN's use and distribution of college-sports programming could eventually open the door to more product becoming available to various cable networks.

According to a June 27 story in The New York Times, a pair of unidentified television executives said the DOJ's antitrust division may be looking into how ESPN inks deals with various college conferences, and then only airs a small percentage of those contests. In turn, the conferences are precluded from making deals with other networks, the Times reported.

ESPN executives would not comment on the matter. Representatives from the Justice Department also declined comment.

College-sports TV rights have certainly drawn their share of headlines in recent weeks. Multichannel News reported May 10 that ESPN had been evaluating whether to create a new channel — possibly named “ESPN U.” At one point, the sports network was preparing to announce it at the National Show in New Orleans, but decided not to.

Also last month, College Sports Television and Fox Sports Net offered differing views on the impetus behind the latter's decision to covert its three Fox Sports Digital out-of-market services into college-sports channels.

ESPN holds exclusive national rights to most of the major college sports conferences, including the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Conference USA, Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference, as well as college-basketball rights to more than one-dozen conferences, but can only air a small portion of those games on its national cable channels.

Cable networks seeking to gain additional college sports product could benefit should the reported investigation turn against ESPN. If additional college games are made available to the marketplace, CSTV, Fox Sports' recently renamed College Sports Network, Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc.'s various channels and USA Network — now part of NBC Universal Cable — could make plays for additional games.

A package of live college-football games from premiere conferences could help boost awareness for the one-year-old CSTV service, currently in 7 million homes. The fledgling network currently runs live events from Olympic sports like lacrosse and gymnastics, but doesn't have any agreements with top conferences for marquee sports events like Division 1 college football and basketball.

LIFT FOR FOX?

Fox, which recently converted its three regional digital sports services into college sports-targeted services, also could increase the appeal of the package, now in front of 3 million homes. Along with programming from the more than 20 Fox owned, operated or affiliated regional sports networks, the channels airs Pac-10 football and basketball games, as well as Big 12 football contests that parent Fox Sports Net holds national rights to.

Turner has made noise recently that it would like to add to its current Pac 10 and Big-12 college-football game package that airs on TBS Saturday nights.

Representatives from Fox Sports Net, TBS and CSTV would not comment on the matter.

Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell speculated that a case could be made on both sides regarding the issue. “I assume it may have something to do with some restrictions in the agreement relating to the number of games that can be televised by the conferences that they have deal with, and ESPN isn't televising those games but instead warehousing them,” Mansell said.

“But on the other hand you could argue that there is a valid business purpose [for those deals]. ESPN could argue that we'd televise all the games, but rather up to X number. You took our money and signed the contracts with your eyes wide open,” he added.

ESPN broadcast brethren ABC, CBS and NBC also hold national rights to college basketball and football.

ESPN'S OUTLETS

ESPN holds syndicated, regional rights to many games through its ESPN Regional TV arm. And games are offered on a subscription basis through ESPN's college-football and college-basketball out-of-market sports packages.

It's unclear who tipped off the DOJ investigation, but small and mid-size conferences, who want greater exposure for their teams could benefit from a dismantling of ESPN's exclusive deals. “It could be that the Justice Department is hearing an earful from some of these other conferences,” said Mansell.

At the same time, making more product available could serve to raise rights fees for college sports overall.

It's also uncertain whether the reported DOJ investigation was the impetus behind ESPN backing out of plans to create ESPN U.

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