Grabbing New Turf

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Cable operators will have four new sports networks to ponder for distribution over the next six months as ESPN, Comcast Corp. and College Sports Television look to expand their portfolios.

The stakes in the college-sports marketplace were raised considerably last week with ESPN’s announcement on Sept. 7, the day it celebrated its 25th anniversary, that it would launch its much-discussed, national college-sports network in March 2005, and add a second HD service in January.

ESPNU will compete directly with independently owned CSTV, which plans several moves of its own in the category, including the 2006 launch of the first-ever National Collegiate Athletic Association conference-based regional sports network and the hiring of former Madison Square Garden executive Dave Checketts to run its regional sports initiatives.

For its part, Comcast Corp. will add another service to a growing lineup of regional sports networks with the launch of a central California-based channel, showcasing the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings.

Tapping into the company’s vast array of NCAA rights, ESPNU will bow next March with a lineup heavy on live events.

ESPN officials said ESPNU would present primarily Division I football, as well as men’s and women’s basketball, during its rookie campaign.

The ESPNU announcement ended months of speculation that ESPN would leverage its college rights and launch a dedicated service. Sources maintain the network was poised to make the announcement at the National Show in New Orleans last May, but pulled its plans at the last minute.

ESPN senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches said ESPNU will seek distribution “on the highest-penetrated digital tier or analog.”

NO DATE CARD YET

He said ESPN has yet to set a rate card for the service, and hadn’t determined whether or not it will be packaged with ESPN or any of its other cable networks.

“ESPNU as a stand-alone proposition will be very compelling in the marketplace,” he said. “That said, we’re going to be working with our affiliates to determine what suits them the best. But my suspicion in that we’ll be discussing ESPNU in the context of a broad array of assets we have in the market today or are planning to introduce going forward.”

Word of ESPNU’s debut comes as the sports giant remains the subject of a Department of Justice inquiry about its control of collegiate sports rights and “warehousing” games that don’t make it onto the air.

But ESPN senior vice president of programming John Wildhack said the programmer had been working on this service in one shape or form for more than 12 months, and it was “absolutely not” motivated by the DOJ inquiry. He declined further comment on the matter.

“This move was born out of strategic motivation not to cede any more sports broadcasting properties,” said Dean Bonham, the principle in the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports consultancy. “It was not made in response to the Department of Justice and CSTV. It’s a very aggressive move on ESPN’s part.”

COMPETITIVE FIELD

The proposed college-sports network comes amid efforts by ESPN’s competitors to step up their games in the college-sports arena.

FSN converted three out-of-market regional networks to college services over Labor Day weekend, while Turner Sports executives have previously expressed interest in adding the football games that TBS airs on Saturday nights in the fall.

CSTV has aggressively gone after high-profile college sports content — it recently wrested away the rights to the Mountain West Conference, previously held by ESPN, through a seven-year, $82 million deal. CSTV will begin airing action from that circuit in 2006.

Bonham, who recently worked with the Atlantic Coast Conference on a football deal with ESPN and a package sports deal for the Western Athletic Conference with the sports kingpin, envisions more bidding for college rights as they become available.

“CSTV and Fox Sports have to think long-term about their position, especially now that ESPN will go with a dedicated college-sports network,” he said. “I think this gives more opportunities for universities and conferences. But it could be bad for the sports networks in terms of added [rights] costs and if there is a saturation of games.”

CSTV president Brian Bedol is already looking to build on the network’s original national game plan, with the creation of a regional network based on programming from the Mountain West Conference in 2006.

SUPER-SERVING FANS

Bedol said the regional will also offer exclusive Mountain West programming, including 40 football games a year and 120 men’s and women’s basketball games. Additionally, the service would present 150 to 200 other Olympic sporting events.

“If you think about the appeal and the power of college sports, we believe that the best and right way to truly super-serve the fans in a market that is focused primarily on the conference,” Bedol said.

The network will be primarily focused on an eight-state region encompassing the Midwest, including Nevada, Utah, California and Arizona, although Bedol did not rule out the possibility of offering the network elsewhere.

Bedol would not say whether the network will be packaged with CSTV or offered on an a la carte basis. He also said it’s too early to discuss a rate card.

CSTV would look to create similar regional sports networks with other conferences in the future, Bedol added, although he said it was “premature” to talk about any potential negotiations with other conference officials.

“We think it’s a hell of a model, and it creates great value for affiliates because you have so much unique product across so many teams,” Bedol said.

Bedol said Checketts will assume the network’s co-chairman position with Stephen Greenberg to oversee its regional sports business.

Checketts will also join billionaire philanthropist George Soros as an investor in the network, although Bedol would not reveal their specific financial contributions. Sources close to the network, though, peg the investment at around a combined $25 million.

As for ESPN’s college-sports network effort, Bedol said it’s an “endorsement” of CSTV’s business strategy and business approach.

VARIETY ON 'U’

In addition to football and hoops, ESPN officials said ESPNU would feature baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse, hockey, wrestling and spring football, plus select high-school football telecasts.

Many events will air exclusively on the network, while other ESPNU telecasts will coexist with events syndicated on other outlets regionally through ESPN Regional Television arrangements.

ESPN plans to promote and integrate ESPNU with its other holdings: bowing an ESPNU site within ESPN.com (espn.go.com); making programming and content available to the ESPN Broadband, ESPN Mobile and ESPN Interactive TV platforms; and including inserts within ESPN the Magazine.

Along with the ESPNU network, ESPN also announced it will offer an HDTV version of ESPN2, which will include more than 100 live telecasts in its first year of operation — college football, men’s and women’s college basketball, the Little League World Series, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League — all of which will be originally produced and distributed in high-definition.

Together, ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD will immediately offer viewers more than 6,000 hours of originally produced HDTV content and more than 2,000 original programs, according to network officials.

Bryan Burns, ESPN’s HD chief, said ESPN has contracts with all major cable operators except Time Warner Cable, and with direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.

NET MADE FOR KINGS

The new Central California-based Comcast regional sports network will feature 58 pre-season and regular-season Kings games, according to spokeswoman Susan Gonzales.

Last year the Kings offered only a handful of games on a local broadcast network after the team’s deal with FSN Bay Area expired.

The yet-to-be named network will also carry select games of the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs, as well as Kings and Monarchs warm-up shows and post-game wrap-up shows, and other sports-related content.

In addition, Gonzales said the service is hoping to secure content deals with several colleges in the region, but would not provide specific details.

The new network will be launched to approximately 700,000 Comcast customers in Sacramento, Chico, Stockton, Modesto and Fresno, Calif. Gonzales would not disclose a rate card, but said the network would also be offered to area MSOs and DBS carriers.

The Kings deal comes on the heels of Comcast’s deal late last month to launch a 24-hour Dallas Cowboys channel.

Mike Reynolds contributed to this story.

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