SBJ/Sept. 9-15, 2013/Colleges

American’s digital net is on deck

Mike Aresco, the American Athletic Conference’s commissioner, just wrapped up a six-year media deal with ESPN and now he’s turning his attention to a digital strategy for the new league.

Aresco is bringing on former XOS Digital executive Randy Eccker, who led the creation of the groundbreaking SEC Digital Network in 2009, as a consultant to forge a new digital network for The American.

The league could launch a digital net in the next 30 days or so. The online network would provide a broadcast home for The American’s sporting events that are not carried by ESPN, which agreed to pay $130 million for the league’s TV rights.

Aresco looks ahead to conference's future

“We need to modernize and make sure we’re doing all of the innovative things we can,” said Aresco, who has guided the conference’s rebranding from the Big East to The American. “Randy has a lot of experience in this area.”

Eccker just wrapped up digital projects for two other leagues — the Atlantic 10 and the West Coast Conference. The A10’s schools decided to aggregate their rights and put all of their eligible games on one dedicated digital channel. The West Coast decided to partner with Campus Insiders to create a digital channel for its games and some shoulder programming.

Campus Insiders, a joint venture between Chicago-based Silver Chalice and IMG College, is now the home to digital channels for the West Coast, the Mountain West and the Patriot League.

“The hard part is that everyone now has a different definition of what a digital network is,” Eccker said. “The A10, the Patriot League, the Ivy League, the Mountain West, they’re all different. Depending on what rights you have, that will determine how you define a digital network. At this point, every Division I conference has one or is contemplating one, and no two are the same.”

The Mountain West, for example, recently did a TV deal with ESPN and CBS for its top football and men’s basketball games, but the conference held back about 30 games that will be carried exclusively on CampusInsiders.com, including some football and men’s basketball.

By aggregating those conference digital rights and broadcasting live events on CampusInsiders.com, the sales teams at IMG College and Silver Chalice will have close to 200 live football and men’s basketball games to sell against this academic year, according to Silver Chalice COO Jason Coyle.

That’s one route The American is exploring. But before the conference can move forward it must finalize exactly what live events it has the rights to. ESPN’s platforms, including ESPN3, will carry football, men’s basketball and some women’s basketball. A sublicensing deal will send some of those events to CBS Sports Network beginning next year.

That leaves a handful of women’s basketball games, around 30, plus Olympic sports, available to The American’s digital net. The conference championship events not carried by ESPN also will be included in the digital net’s inventory, representing another 20 to 30 games.

Many of the schools in The American will keep their live Olympic sports to carry on their own school websites, but some events could go to the conference’s digital net.

Working through the web of rights is a joint effort between Aresco, Eccker, ESPN and the schools, but a conference digital network is somewhere on the other side. Aresco also envisions a robust offering of shoulder programming in the form of “SportsCenter”-type highlight shows, pregame and postgame reports, and magazine shows. Eccker wants to eventually take the digital net across all screens, including mobile and tablet.

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