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Volume 20 No. 42
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Upset at Michigan delivers BTN ‘instant credibility’

Highlights of App State’s upset of No. 5 Michigan, BTN’s first football game, were in great demand by other networks.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
In the closing minutes of college football’s greatest upset, about 30 executives gathered in a Big Ten Network production studio to watch Michigan attempt a game-winning field goal on the new channel’s first football broadcast.

By now you know what happened. Corey Lynch blocked the field goal as time expired and Appalachian State shocked the fifth-ranked Wolverines, and the world, 34-32, on Sept. 1, 2007.

This was exactly the kind of game that cable operators cited when they said they wouldn’t pay for Big Ten Network. BTN’s programming — lower-rung, low-interest football and Olympic sports — was one of the reasons cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner vigorously fought against the new network in its first year.

And then Appalachian State happened.

As the Wolverines lined up for the potential game-winner, BTN President Mark Silverman looked to Leon Schweir, the network’s executive producer.

“This is great,” Silverman said to Schweir. “Michigan can kick a game-winning field goal and we can get a Michigan win on BTN.”

Schweir, a Purdue graduate, then flipped the script by responding: “Wouldn’t it be better if he misses? Think about it. Isn’t it a much bigger story if he misses it?”

“That’s your Purdue speaking,” Silverman said with a laugh.

After Appalachian State blocked the kick and won the game, BTN interviewed winning coach Jerry Moore. But first, Bob Lanning, BTN’s coordinating producer for the game, called Silverman to make sure it was OK to talk to the opposing coach on the Big Ten’s new channel.

“We were kind of in a weird place where no one had ever done this,” Silverman said. “No one had ever had a network like this before. How do you handle something like this?”

BTN was the only network with the game, so when Appalachian State pulled the upset, every other channel in the country, including ESPN, needed highlights. At the time, BTN had very limited distribution on a few cable systems in Iowa and DirecTV.

The only place to get video was from BTN, which provided the new network with instant credibility.

“All of a sudden, the phones started ringing in our office,” Silverman said. “TV stations from all over the country are calling us, saying, ‘We don’t have any video of the game. We need some video for our nightly news tonight. How do you get clips?’ Their cable company didn’t carry the game. The game was only on cable companies in Iowa and DirecTV. If you didn’t have that, you didn’t have any video of the game. We put somebody on this — just taking a list of TV stations that we needed to get video clips to for their nightly news.

“ESPN is running on ‘SportsCenter’ over and over and over clips from the Michigan-App State game with a Big Ten Net logo. ESPN calls us and says, ‘We’ve exceeded the amount of time that we’re allowed to show your highlights. Do you mind if we go over?’ We’re not distributed. Our logo is on the largest network there is. I said, ‘No problem! Air it as much as you want. As long as you keep our logo up, you can keep doing it as much as you want.’”

In the booth at Michigan Stadium, Thom Brennaman and Charles Davis called the game. Nine months earlier, they worked the Fiesta Bowl in which Boise State beat Oklahoma, so they knew what an upset looked like. But even they didn’t anticipate mighty Michigan might go down to an Appalachian State team that played in a lower division with 22 fewer scholarships.

“To be talking about this 10 years later, that proves that it was probably the best thing that could have happened to the network,” Brennaman said. “Of all the games I’ve announced, no one has asked me more about a game than that game.”