SBJ/July 11-17, 2011/Colleges

SoCon adds households with public TV deal

Like many smaller NCAA Division I leagues, the Southern Conference can’t command a rights fee for its football games, so it’s going after greater exposure on public television.

ICON SMI
Southern Conference football is moving to public television from Fox SportSouth.
The conference, which plays in the FCS (formerly Division I-AA), has agreed to a three-year deal with public over-the-air networks in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina that will put the league’s football games in nearly 11 million households, about 20 percent more than what the conference is used to having.

Fox SportSouth, which is in just under 9 million households, had been the longtime home for the conference’s football games. Those Southern Conference games traditionally had been broadcast on Saturday afternoons at 3 p.m. But as Fox has acquired more college content through new agreements with the Pac-12, Big 12 and Conference USA to go with what it had already, there wasn’t as much room for the Southern Conference.

“We just weren’t going to be able to get the consistent start times, so we started looking at alternatives,” said John Iamarino, the league’s commissioner.

In the spring, Iamarino began discussions with Atlanta-based sports marketing firm CSE, which agreed to manage the conference’s multimedia and marketing rights. Part of those initial discussions revolved around where to put the conference’s football games.

“The Southern is not a conference where people are lining up to pay them a big rights fee, but they can still monetize their assets and get the exposure they need, as opposed to being at the end of the line for RSNs,” said Ned Simon, CSE’s senior vice president, programming and media services. “This new model will allow the conference to control its content and get the exposure they want.”

Simon said the decision to pursue a deal with over-the-air public television networks came as CSE brainstormed alternative methods of distribution for smaller conferences. CSE included the idea about public TV as an option during its pitch to the Southern Conference.

“With all of the games out there, from noon through the day, where can you find a place that will give you that reach,” Simon said. “Public TV struck us as an untapped area with a very broad reach. We thought it offered more possibilities than syndication.”

Sports on public TV networks has mostly been limited to high school football and basketball championships. Syndication would have required CSE to market in the conference’s footprint, which includes the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, to find broadcast homes for the games.

By striking the deal with Georgia Public Broadcasting, UNC-TV in North Carolina and ETV in South Carolina, CSE offers the Southern Conference blanket coverage in those states. CSE still is working on deals in Alabama and Tennessee, although the Chattanooga, Tenn., market receives Georgia Public Broadcasting.

“This is a real breakthrough moment for public television,” said Teya Ryan, president of Georgia Public Broadcasting, who helped initiate discussions with networks in the other states. “This is a new direction for public television and the right direction. It’s a great way to bring together the educational process and college athletics for our constituents.”

Public TV networks also gave the conference a consistent weekly start time of 3 p.m. on eight fall Saturdays, meaning the conference won’t have to move games to weekdays.

While the exposure of playing during the week has been good for some midmajor football conferences, that wasn’t the route the Southern Conference wanted to take. Iamarino said athletic directors were worried about midweek games hurting their ticket revenue.

The public TV route also lets the Southern Conference retain the rights to stream these televised games live on SoConSports.com, something it didn’t have the right to do in past years with Fox.

“It’s extremely important to our athletic directors that we play on Saturday because our institutions rely heavily on the gate from football games,” Iamarino said. “Playing on other days during the week is problematic for our schools. It’d be different if we were getting a huge rights fee to do that, but we’re not.”

In the past, the Southern Conference split the production costs 50/50 with Fox to broadcast the games. Now, the league will pay to cover all of the production costs.

The conference and the public TV networks have agreed to share ad units in the broadcasts, but those breaks will be limited to two during each quarter. The networks can either sell those spots to advertisers or use them for fundraising messages. CSE will sell the inventory for the conference.

Costs for the conference will increase as part of this arrangement, but revenue is expected to increase as well. It’s a trade-off the conference was willing to make to acquire the added exposure.

“It’s a different step for us, but when you look at all of the public TV affiliates and how much of our footprint we’re covering now, it’s an impressive list,” Iamarino said. “And for public TV, it’s fresh, new programming that they think will draw new viewers for them.”

Iamarino also is interested in using some of the time during halftime to run pre-produced academic programming for the Southern Conference’s schools, a trend the Big Ten Network helped spawn and the Longhorn Network and the Pac-12’s new channel intend to promote as well.

“This has not traditionally been our business and we don’t really have a plan to enter the collegiate multimedia rights space, but we did see an opportunity to take the things we do well from production, content and sales and provide value to the conference,” said Phil McCarn, CSE’s director of property consulting. “There will be things we can do from a content standpoint that will raise viewership.”
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