SBJ/20090914/This Week's News

Pac-10 blocks launch of Arizona net

IMG College’s now-defunct statewide network for select University of Arizona football and basketball games unraveled late last month when Pac-10 Conference officials said the school’s network did not have rights to carry live game programming.

The conference’s media contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports Net prohibit individual schools from broadcasting their own games across multiple channels in the same window as other Pac-10 games on those networks. The rule is in place to protect the league’s TV partners, said Jim Muldoon, a Pac-10 associate commissioner.

“It would be very difficult to air a game that was not going up against something on the conference package,” Muldoon said.

That decision, which Pac-10 officials conveyed to Arizona and IMG College executives toward the end of August, immediately had the university and its rights holder backpedaling. IMG College officials would not comment on the decision because of the sensitive nature of talks between the school, the rights holder and FSN.

It all started on July 13 when IMG announced that it had formed a statewide network of over-the-air stations — the Arizona Wildcats Sports Network — to carry what’s known as “institutional games.” Those are the less-desirable TV games, typically two to three football and six to eight basketball games a season, that are not picked up by the top two conference broadcast partners, ABC/ESPN or FSN.

The Arizona Wildcats Sports Network planned
by IMG College intended to show basketball
and football games.

FSN Arizona had been the home for those institutional games for the past 10 years, but when the network and IMG College could not arrive at a rights agreement last summer, IMG College announced its own statewide network and called it AWSN.

One problem: Apparently no one checked with the conference to see if it could create this network of over-the-air channels. After IMG College’s original announcement on July 13 and a follow-up agreement for wider distribution on Comcast SportsNet and other outlets on Aug. 12, Brent Seebohm, AWSN’s executive producer, abruptly quit on Aug. 13.

Sources say that AWSN jumped the gun on both of the announcements and spent the three weeks leading up to the football season scrambling to re-establish a deal with FSN Arizona, which was finalized Sept. 4, the day before the season opener against Central Michigan.

This essentially returned the Wildcats to the same distribution of about 2.8 million households across Arizona and New Mexico that it had before creating its own network.

But the business model will look significantly different than it did. In the past, FSN Arizona paid IMG College a rights fee and kept all of the ad inventory while producing the games. Under the hastily arranged new deal, there was no rights fee. In fact, IMG College agreed to pay FSN Arizona a distribution fee to have the RSN carry those institutional games. IMG College also will take a majority of the ad inventory. Industry insiders describe the arrangement as a greater risk for the rights holder, given the shaky ad market, but with greater upside if sales go well.

IMG College also takes on the costly duty of producing the games. Before his departure, Seebohm reportedly said AWSN would spend $800,000 to $1.2 million producing content.

Arizona’s institutional games are expected to be broadcast over the air on one of two Tucson stations, although those details are still evolving. Pac-10 schools are allowed to have one flagship station in their market.

Meanwhile, the AWSN brand is dying a quiet death, with no plans to bring it back.

While the Arizona network never got off the ground, several IMG client schools have third-tier networks that broadcast those institutional games, such as Tennessee’s Vol Network and Kentucky’s Big Blue Network.

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