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With a week still remaining in its coverage of rugby’s World Cup, U.S. rights holder Universal Sports has raked in more than $750,000 on digital subscriptions for the event, making it one of the most profitable programming ventures in the young cable channel’s history.
Universal Sports, which is owned by InterMedia Partners, has sold close to 5,000 broadband, pay-per-view packages for $150 each, which have delivered the bulk of the revenue from the World Cup. It also has broadcast games on its network and shown two games on NBC. The combination of the broadband sales and advertising sales for telecasts has turned the World Cup into a profitable venture for the network, said David Sternberg, Universal Sports president.
Universal Sports acquired the rights to rugby’s World Cup in June 2010. The tournament, which began in New Zealand in early September and ends Sunday, featured 48 matches that were streamed online and 38 matches that were sold to bars and homes on pay-per-view. Universal Sports showed the opening ceremony and seven matches live and used the rights to drive its best month of Web traffic since 2009, delivering 926,000 unique visitors and 1.7 million video streams.
The matches are held from midnight to 4 a.m. ET, and Sternberg expects those numbers will rise considerably when the rugby World Cup is held in 2015 in England, which has a more favorable time zone. He hopes that by then Universal Sports has more distribution and can offer more live games on its network.
Universal Sports recently changed its distribution strategy. It previously used an over-the-air strategy that allowed it to provide the channel to consumers free of charge. It’s now converting to a traditional cable channel that seeks subscriber fees from cable and satellite operators.
It struck its first distribution deal with DirecTV last summer and is available in 40 million homes. It’s running an “I Want Universal Sports” marketing campaign to help it increase its distribution.
Universal Sports has also put its digital video behind a pay wall and cut about 10 percent of its costs.
After all, this is the conference that virtually was created by the media when it launched in 1979. From its start, it was the most media-friendly college conference, almost immediately starting a relationship with ESPN that has lasted more than three decades. Its media deals and media centers up and down the Eastern Seaboard’s biggest markets defined the conference.
The conference’s rich media history is why the Big East’s precarious position has to sting so much now. Some conference insiders are asking how the Big East’s leadership was surprised by the moves of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC (and more media money) and TCU to the Big 12 (and more media money).
The loss of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, in particular, came as a shock to conference leadership, according to several sources.
Did Big East Commissioner John Marinatto fail to see conference realignment coming?
The conference shuffle already has cost one commissioner his job: the Big 12’s Dan Beebe. I’d be surprised if the Big East hasn’t started searching for new leadership to help see it through this next round of conference realignment. A powerful segment believes the conference needs to make a statement to re-establish credibility. It’s easy to see why. The Big East has been reacting to events for the past month; it needs to start becoming more proactive to remain relevant.
Two names keep popping up in Big East circles as potential commissioners, and they both have Georgetown connections. One is former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who played basketball for the Hoyas in the 1960s. Tagliabue, who has been a special adviser to the Big East since April 2010, seems like a long shot. The other is Tim Brosnan, who is MLB’s executive vice president of business handling the league’s TV negotiations. More importantly, he was playing baseball for Georgetown as the conference was formed.
Some Big East insiders blame ESPN for their predicament. Nobody will go on record with these complaints, but several executives privately wonder whether the Big East still would be intact if the conference had accepted ESPN’s offer to extend its media deal by 10 years for a reported $130 million to $150 million per year. Big East Conference presidents rejected that deal in May.
That view seems farfetched. It seems like realignment was going to happen regardless of whether the Big East cut that deal or not. After all, Pittsburgh was one of the vocal critics of the ESPN extension. Even if the Big East signed that deal, it still seems likely that Pittsburgh would have left the conference.
But the perception of ESPN as a puppet master engineering these moves is pervasive throughout college sports. Several high-profile college officials privately have voiced these concerns. They believe ESPN, the college space’s biggest media partner by far, is pushing to create four 16-team football conferences that it could better control.
That view picked up momentum last week when Boston College Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo told the Boston Globe, “ESPN is the one who told us what to do,” on expansion.
DeFilippo later apologized for that statement, calling it erroneous. ESPN has denied any involvement in brokering the move of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC. Each time it’s asked about the college space, the company says: “The driving force on realignment lies with the conference and universities.”
Still, it’s hard to envision ESPN as a wallflower, impassively watching all of these changes taking place. ESPN became involved in saving the Big 12 last year, when it looked like that conference was going to lose its marquee teams. It’s a fair question to ask why ESPN wouldn’t do the same for the Big East.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.