Hoops Package Clears Blackout Hurdle

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College basketball fans looking for access to every minute of "March Madness" will finally get their wish, thanks to a new pay-per-view distribution deal between the National Collegiate Athletic Association and DirecTV Inc.

DirecTV last week signed a third one-year extension allowing it to distribute out-of-market games from the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, supplementing CBS's national broadcast-TV coverage, said DirecTV senior vice president of programming acquisitions Michael Thornton.

The exclusive agreement for "Mega March Madness" provides DirecTV subscribers with access to as many as 37 first-, second- and third-round NCAA tournament tilts.

DirecTV, which will pick up CBS's feed for each game, must still black out the games featured on the broadcast network's regional telecasts. But unlike in previous years, DirecTV will now be able to offer coverage of the blacked out game if CBS decides to permanently switch its primary telecast to another contest.

In the past, if CBS cut away permanently from its local game to air a more exciting contest, blackout rules prevented DirecTV from showing the remainder of the first game. That policy had drawn criticism from some fans and sportswriters.

Thornton believes CBS's decision to lift the local blackouts will enhance the value of the package.

"It wasn't a significant problem, but it was a difficult marketing message for us and a number of sportswriters picked up on it last year," Thornton said. "Now if a local CBS station decides to cut away from a game that was scheduled, we're now able to pick up the rest of that game."

Said CBS Sports senior vice president of programming Mike Aresco in a statement: "We are extremely pleased to continue our relationship with DirecTV. They have done a great job enhancing CBS' overall coverage of the tournament by providing fans the opportunity to purchase those games not available in their respective TV markets."

Though it hasn't been as successful as the out-of-market professional sports packages, Thornton said subscriptions to Mega March Madness have steadily increased each year, although he would not reveal specific figures.

The Carmel Group estimated that the package garnered about $11 million in 2001 and is estimated to pull in $14 million in 2002.

The package is also a major brand builder for DirecTV, since it's not offered on cable. As In Demand has secured rights to out-of-market Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League packages, only Mega March Madness and the National Football League's "NFL Sunday Ticket" remain exclusive to the direct-broadcast satellite service.

"Much like NFL Sunday Ticket has become synonymous with the DirecTV brand, the March Mega Madness package is closely identified with DirecTV," Thornton said. "The opportunity to air these select games from the NCAA Tournament over the past three years has been important to DirecTV maintaining its position as the premiere distributor of sports programming."

The future of the tournament and the NFL packages remained unclear in light of EchoStar Communications Corp.'s $25.8 billion proposal to purchase DirecTV from General Motors Corp.-owned Hughes Electronics Corp.

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