SBJ/September 11 - 17, 2006/SBJ In Depth

College sports channels plot strategy

CSTV generally covers bigger schools’ smaller
sports and smaller schools’ bigger sports.
These days, viewers can watch just about any college football game being played on one of several TV channels. Take last weekend, for example. Cable viewers had the choice between Howard and Hampton on ESPNU, Texas Tech and UTEP on CSTV or Duquesne and Robert Morris on Fox College Sports Atlantic.

Outside of rabid alums, it would seem that few people would be interested in those games, especially considering that bigger matchups can be found on bigger networks.

ABC will broadcast about 70 games this year, and ESPN plans to show 350 games on its networks this fall. CBS has 19 games scheduled this year, and NBC has seven Notre Dame games. Then there are the offerings from local broadcasters, regional sports networks and national cable channels, such as Fox Sports Net, Versus and TBS, which has a nine-game, Saturday night schedule this fall.

Can this crowded market support all of the channels devoted to covering college sports? When the Big Ten Channel launches next August, it will become the seventh cable channel devoted to college sports: ESPNU, CSTV, The mtn. and Fox College’s three regional channels.

Executives with these networks believe there’s plenty of room for all of these networks, especially given the popularity of college football. ABC, for example, was declaring a near advertising sellout for its 2006 prime-time schedule a week before the college football season opened.

“College football across the board, not only prime [time], but ESPN college football, as well as ABC afternoon college football, are all extremely well sold,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN customer marketing and sales.

Each of the college sports networks believes it has found a niche that will allow it to grow distribution, ratings and, eventually, advertising. Currently, advertisers on the college sports networks typically buy a package deal, with advertising spread across better distributed networks. On occasion, an advertiser will buy a specific event on one of these channels.

The following is a summary of the strategies being employed by channels devoted to college sports:

ESPNU
Launched: March 2005
Subscribers: 7 million

Backed by perhaps the most powerful brand in sports, ESPNU will make its name with more popular schools and bigger conferences than its rivals. ESPNU is filling its schedule with events that get squeezed off of its bigger cousins, ESPN and ESPN2.

This fall ESPNU will provide live coverage of
at least 70 college football games.
“We’re doing more live events flat out than any college sports net out there, in terms of total numbers,” said Burke Magnus, ESPNU’s vice president and general manager.

This fall, ESPNU’s commitment to live games equates to at least 70 football games, ranging in quality from the biggest conferences to Division II games. Later in the winter, it will use the same approach with college basketball.

“For us, the top of the pyramid is college football and basketball,” Magnus said. “Those are the mass appeal sports. That’s what people care about more than anything else.”

ESPNU plans to fill out its fall schedule with men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball. It also plans to cover other second-tier college sports, such as lacrosse, ice hockey, baseball and softball.

Magnus hopes the channel’s focus on football and basketball will boost demand and in turn drive distribution.

CSTV
Launched: April 2003
Subscribers: 15 million

Despite the fact that CBS bought CSTV for $325 million in January, the network still has more of a small-town feel than ESPNU and Fox College Sports. Rather than concentrating on the biggest sports from the biggest conferences, CSTV generally covers the bigger schools’ smaller sports and the smaller schools’ bigger sports.

“We want to superserve all those sports that don’t have a shot,” said Tim Pernetti, CSTV’s senior vice president of programming and talent.

This fall, CSTV’s schedule will include men’s water polo, boxing, volleyball and cheerleading. During basketball season, CSTV will produce more women’s basketball than men’s basketball.

Still, CSTV has 50 college football games on its schedule this fall, including a couple of relatively big ones: Notre Dame-Air Force on Nov. 11 and the NAIA championship on Dec 16.

The problem with CSTV’s strategy is that the presence of small schools and nonrevenue generating sports are not convincing cable and satellite operators to carry the network. “Eyeballs drive so many different things,” Pernetti said.

That’s why CSTV, more than any other college sports network, is focused on the Internet. It has partnered with many schools, helping to run their Web sites. Late last month, it put together a program that lets colleges and conferences use their broadband rights on their Web sites.

Fox College Sports
Launched: June 2004
Subscribers: 6 million

Just as ESPNU represents an extension of ESPN, Fox College Sports acts as an extension of Fox Sports Net, which consists of three regional networks that focus on college athletics in the Pacific, Central and Atlantic regions.

Fox College Sports is an extension
of Fox Sports Net, which has
three regional nets.
“We have access to a tremendous number of events — events that might not have made air if FSN was the only outlet,” said Bob Thompson, president of Fox Sports Net. “In many cases, we own rights beyond what we can actually clear on those channels.”

College football and basketball are the most popular sports on these networks. But Fox College Sports also carries programming from less popular sports, such as baseball, gymnastics, soccer and lacrosse.

“The idea for these channels is that you don’t have to attract a huge audience in order to be successful,” Thompson said. “If we can have a well-balanced offering, we think it helps the distributors hopefully attract new subscribers to their sports tiers.”

The three Fox College Sports networks are housed on cable and satellite operators’ digital sports tiers; operators have to take all three. Fox launched these channels to help operators drive digital sports tiers.

“Our determining success factor right now is, are the channels continuing to grow in terms of the number of homes that they are in, which implies that distributors see value in what we are offering and what we are charging,” Thompson said.

Big Ten Channel
Launch: August 2007
Distribution: To be determined

Though it will be the second conference channel to launch, most college conferences are looking to the Big Ten Channel as the blueprint for launching a cable channel.

A joint venture between the conference and Fox Cable Networks, the channel will have national distribution at launch next August, thanks to a carriage deal it signed for DirecTV’s Total Choice package (15.4 million homes). “The Big Ten has tremendous appeal within the Big Ten footprint,” Thompson said. “It also has significant appeal outside of the footprint, given the number of Big Ten alums spread around the country.”

The channel will launch with 35 football games, more than 100 men’s basketball and 55 women’s basketball games. It also plans to focus on Olympic sports that typically are not covered on TV. The channel will fill the summer months with classic games.

It also plans to supplement athletic programming with academic offerings, such as lectures and commencements.

Still, the biggest conference games will appear on ABC and ESPN, thanks to a 10-year, $100 million deal signed about the same time. But the channel plans to save some of the biggest games for its schedule.

“You can’t do this if your conference can only put Olympic sports on,” Thompson said. “You need some of the gems from men’s football and basketball.”

The mtn.
Launch: September 2006
Distribution: Not available (Network launched Sept. 1 with distribution on Comcast, Bresnan and MSTAR)

The lightly regarded Mountain West Conference may not be the first conference people consider when looking at launching a conference channel.

But Comcast executives tasked with managing the network say the Mountain West has advantages not found in most other conferences. The network aims to be as important to Western states that don’t have professional teams as ESPN is to the rest of the country.

The biggest challenge for The mtn. has
been to gain wider distribution.
“When you’re in Salt Lake City, and you have Utah and Brigham Young, there is no clutter,” said Jack Williams, president and CEO of Comcast SportsNet. “The Big Ten is great programming with great schools and great teams, but it’s also located in an area where they have a lot of professional teams. Out in this part of the country, there’s not that many of them.”

The network, though, has had some distribution hiccups so far, with several MSOs such as Cox Communications opting not to carry it at launch.

This fall, the channel plans to cover college football heavily, with at least 30 games scheduled. It is running pre- and postgame shows around the games.

“Initially we’re focusing on football, which is primarily on weekends,” Williams said. “The big push early on will be on weekends, and we will expand from there.”

Following football, it’s planning to cover basketball and sports such as volleyball, field hockey, golf and baseball.

Eventually, the network hopes to develop news programming and academic offerings.

“We’ve had preliminary conversations with a number of schools where they all have communications departments and they all are looking for experience in producing some shows,” Williams said.

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