Nets Get Their Game On


ESPNU stepped onto the high-definition field last Thursday with four distributors carrying the enhanced college-sports service.

Meanwhile, regional sports network The Mtn. expanded its distribution base with an Aug. 27 launch on DirecTV.

Beginning Aug. 28 at 6 a.m. (ET), Time Warner Cable, Verizon Communications' FiOS TV, Atlantic Broadband and Broadstripe all began offering ESPNU HD. Deal terms were not disclosed.

In its first year with the enhanced signal, ESPNU, which currently counts some 22 million subscribers, is scheduled to offer some 200 events, including all of its live Thursday and Saturday football games, a slate that began with the Aug. 28 matchup that pitted Vanderbilt against Miami (Ohio).

“There were some games on ESPNU last year that originated in HD that were syndicated or were simulcast on other properties,” said ESPN vice president of business strategy Eric Ratchman, who noted that this season marks the first time ESPNU is supplying HD programming to its own viewers.

Noting that research shows that ratings are 50% higher for ESPN in homes that offer the HD version of the flagship network, Ratchman anticipates similar results with ESPNU HD. “The TV sports viewing experience is enhanced significantly in HD,” he said. “The demand is there for it.”

According to network officials, ESPN HD reaches more than 20 million subscribers and is available to more than 96 million homes, while ESPN2 HD reaches more than 19 million subscribers and is available in more than 86 million homes. The launch of ESPNU HD follows the debut of ESPNEWS HD and ESPN HD Australia earlier this year.

Ratchman said negotiations were ongoing with all of the ESPNU affiliates about carrying the HD version of the service.

During an Aug. 25 conference call announcing ESPN's 15-year far-reaching agreement with the Southeastern Conference, senior vice president of college sports programming Burke Magnus, the former general manager for ESPNU, said the programmer was in “active conversations” with Comcast about carrying the service, which also has yet to strike deals with Cablevision and Cable One among the top 10 providers.

Magnus believes the addition of SEC fare, including a primetime college football game, under the contract that begins in 2009, would serve to “accelerate” the negotiations between the parties. Without Comcast, ESPNU has a major hole in its carriage lineup, especially in the nine states that are home to SEC schools.

Speaking of Comcast, it's the operator and co-owner, along with CBS College Sports Network, of the Mtn., Mountain West Sports Network, which launched on DirecTV Aug. 26.

The deal, which was finalized last February after two years of negotiations, gives the regional sports network a presence — channel 616 on the satellite leader's Choice package — within the Mountain West Conference's footprint of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, plus the markets of Dallas/Fort Worth and San Diego. The service is also available outside those areas on DirecTV's Sports Pack.

With the deal, The Mtn. officials expect distribution for the service, which already counted well over 1 million subscribers through a number of cable deals, to approach 6 million over the next few months.

The network's cable affiliates include Cable One in Boise, Idaho; Cox Communications in San Diego and Las Vegas; Bresnan Communications in Wyoming and Colorado; and Baja Broadband in New Mexico, Nevada and St. George Utah. Comcast positions the Mtn, on an expanded basic in Salt Lake City and digital classic in Denver and Albuquerque, among other areas

The Mtn. began its 30-game college football coverage with an Aug. 30 doubleheader, with Ohio visiting Wyoming at noon (MT), followed by Northern Iowa invading BYU at 4 p.m.