SBJ/Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2013/Colleges

Iowa State fights back by starting its own channel

Across the Big 12, Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard saw his fellow schools creating the Longhorn Network and Sooner Sports TV. Within his own state, Iowa had the Big Ten Network.

Pollard felt like he was falling behind and he had to do something to address Iowa State’s growing exposure deficit with its rivals.

His solution will be unveiled this week in the form of a 24/7 television channel that will be carried by the state’s largest cable operator, Mediacom. The network, which will be called Cyclones.TV powered by Mediacom, launches Saturday with Iowa State’s football opener against Northern Iowa, complete with a two-hour pregame show and postgame coverage.

“We needed an answer for what everybody else is doing,” Pollard said. “We had to have a presence. We thought about what we could do that would make us unique.”

The arrangement among the school, its multimedia rights holder, Learfield Sports, and Mediacom creates one of the few channels dedicated to one school. Texas has the distribution-challenged Longhorn Network. BYU has a university-controlled channel whose content is only partially sports-related. Oklahoma has a branded block of programming on Fox regional networks that it shares with other schools and pro teams.

Iowa State’s channel will be all Cyclone sports, all the time, including one live football game, four to six men’s basketball games and all of the home events for volleyball, wrestling, women’s basketball and softball. Other sports will be integrated in a highlight or replay format.

The name of the channel — Cyclones.TV — is an extension of Iowa State’s broadband channel on its website, Cyclones.com. Much of the content that will appear on the TV channel, including live games, press conferences, shoulder programming and features, all produced by the school, already has been running online for the last few years, Pollard said. On TV, the programming will run in four-hour blocks and then repeat itself, unless there’s live programming.

The deal gives Mediacom a competitive advantage in the state. Cyclones.TV won’t be offered to the cable company’s rivals, including DirecTV and Dish Network, giving Mediacom exclusive access to Iowa State sports. It will carry the TV channel in high definition and standard definition formats on an expanded basic tier.

The distribution fee that Mediacom pays to carry the channel — believed to be in the six figures annually — goes to Learfield, which owns Iowa State’s media rights. So the channel won’t be an immediate revenue producer for the school.

But it will help the school achieve its goal in terms of exposure. Mediacom is the state’s largest cable operator with 500,000 households.

“From a brand perspective, and a recruiting perspective, we had to have an answer,” Pollard said. “We can’t be in a league where everybody else is doing it and we don’t have anything. We’re recruiting against [Texas and Oklahoma] and schools in the Big Ten where they have their own networks. Now we have something that allows us to be seen whenever our fans want to see us and we don’t have to share it with the rest of a conference.”

While the other conferences are aggregating their schools’ rights to form the Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Networks and the SEC Network, the Big 12 decided a few years ago to go in the opposite direction.

Led by Texas, which partnered with ESPN on the Longhorn Network, the Big 12 members decided to let the schools keep their third-tier rights — games that aren’t picked up by league partners ESPN and Fox. That freedom not only spawned the Longhorn Network but also Oklahoma’s Sooner Sports TV. Other Big 12 schools made similar linear TV arrangements, either with Fox regionals or, in the case of Kansas and West Virginia, local cable operators.

Iowa State is a ’tweener. The state is not directly served by a Fox regional, but the school was committed to putting its content on TV, not just online behind a pay wall.

“We wanted to capture all of the folks who don’t have the interest or the ability to go to the Internet,” Pollard said.

Plus, the Cyclones are not the kind of national brand that would attract a major partnership like the ones at Texas or Oklahoma.

“They needed a unique solution,” said Joe Ferreira, chief content officer for Learfield Sports.

Learfield owned the rights to the school’s third-tier games. Mediacom, already an Iowa State corporate partner, was the natural distribution partner for an ISU network. Learfield negotiated distribution with Mediacom executives Ed Pardini and Steve Purcell.

As part of the deal with Mediacom, Learfield retains the right to sell all advertising on the channel.

“It’s not just a TV deal,” Pollard said. “They’ve got signage in the arena and other rights. This makes it a very comprehensive relationship between Iowa State and Mediacom.”

The channel will launch at a time when Cyclones athletics are at a peak in popularity. Just five years ago, they could sell only 22,000 season tickets for football. This season, they’ve sold out of season tickets at 43,000. The basketball team is on a roll as well, going 23-12 last season and making the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Its 13,393 fans per home game in 2012-13 ranked 22nd nationally.

“Our success has really helped grow the brand,” Pollard said. “We’re selling out our season tickets in football and that’s with 6-6 records. Something good is happening here.”

Encompass Digital Media was brought on by Learfield to be the broadcast provider. That means Encompass will take the content from ISU and deliver it to the cable company in the form of a channel. There won’t be any additional production costs because the content was already being produced for online use.

“The core challenge for a school channel has been the volume of content that’s required,” Ferreira said. “We’ve put in a lot of work on how to program this and figure out what resources are needed to provide compelling content. A school-branded, stand-alone channel takes everything to a higher level.”



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