College Sports Television may not have completed its sophomore season yet. But the scrappy independent network is looking more and more like an MVP.
CSTV, founded by Classic Sports Network veterans Brian Bedol and Stephen Greenberg, has already made a name for itself among emerging digital networks. Launched in spring 2003, it has snagged distribution deals with the five largest MSOs and DirecTV Inc., making it available in 35 million cable and satellite homes, and giving it a base of 10 million digital-tier subscribers. If all goes as planned, the subscriber count will jump to 15 million to 20 million by year’s end.
What’s more, the network’s mix of college sports action, magazine programs, talk shows and original series has led it to score highly in independent surveys of cable operators. In a study released by Beta Research Corp. late last month, CSTV tied for fourth with Discovery Home Channel on the list of emerging networks that operators of all sizes most want to carry. Only Do It Yourself, NFL Network and Hallmark Movie Channel ranked higher.
“We always knew there was no manifest destiny,” says Bedol, CSTV president and CEO. “Nobody is obliged to carry us. We’ve been out there proving the value.”
While it’s still too small to qualify for Nielsen Media Research’s national ratings, CSTV has shown early indications of strong local viewership. In a Nielsen study commissioned by CSTV and conducted in November, a primetime college hockey game on CSTV generated a 0.8 rating among sports-tier subscribers in the Boston market, topping such other networks as ESPN Classic, Outdoor Life, Golf Channel, ESPNews, NBA Network and NFL Network.
CSTV has rounded up fresh financing, securing $62 million in capital from JP Morgan Partners, Soros Private Equity and others. Plus, it has expanded aggressively into other media, starting a nationwide radio network with Sirius Satellite Radio. It has also taken over CollegeSports.com, with 8 million unique users monthly, the network says.
Sports TV stalwart ESPN is stepping up to the plate to meet CSTV’s challenge. Returning to its roots, ESPN plans to launch its own college sports network, ESPNU, with similar types of programming on March 4.
Yet Bedol, who sold off his earlier sports network to ESPN, insists that he’s not too worried about ESPN knocking CSTV out of the box. Although his network doesn’t have a powerful parent behind it, he thinks that CSTV can hold its own by “superserving” college sports and building multiple business lines. He and other CSTV executives expect that will help boost distribution to 15 million to 20 million homes by the end of the year.
“We’re as different from ESPN as Starbucks is from Dunkin’ Donuts,” Bedol says. “We believe there’s a huge difference between being a digital multiplex brand and a core network.”