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Signal of change for Big Ten

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Teddy Greenstein
May 14, 2010

The Big Ten Network has evolved from “fledgling” (221 newspaper mentions) to a “cash cow” (PennLive.com) to the driving force behind conference expansion.


All in a span of less than three years.


Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany predicted this would happen. Long before entering a self-imposed “silent” phase, he spelled it out during a 2007 visit to the Des Moines Register’s editorial board.


“With the network, there’s a different element. It changes the dynamics,” he said. “The broader it is distributed, the more value it has. We have eight states. With expansion, you could have nine.”


Or 10 or 11 or 12 …


The BTN collects rights fees (via cable and satellite companies) of 70 cents to 80 cents per month from its subscribers in the eight-state footprint. Those in states such as Nebraska and New York, who get the channel via a sports tier, chip in about 10 cents per month.


Nearly 45 million people get the channel, and advertising revenue is pouring in, up 30 percent last year.


The BTN allows the Big Ten, which owns 51 percent of the channel (Fox holds the other 49 percent), to fill the pockets of its schools with a dual revenue stream.


Last year, schools received roughly $9 million each from the conference’s deal with ABC/ESPN and another $7 million to $8 million from the BTN. Add revenue from bowl games, the NCAA basketball tournament and licensing, and you arrive at the estimated $22 million-a-year distribution figure that’s the envy of every Division I school outside the SEC.


If the Big Ten expands and chooses the right schools, conference officials have seen estimates of television revenues doubling by 2015-16.


If the conference could lock up New York/New Jersey/Connecticut by adding schools such as Rutgers, Syracuse and Connecticut—granted, a big “if”—it could add more than 9 million TV households.


Rutgers is also an hour from Philadelphia and its 2.95 million households.


“That’s a lot of homes,” one TV executive said, “and a lot of money.”


More teams not only would bring wider BTN distribution and the potential for a conference championship game in football (worth upward of $15 million), but also would mean “increased inventory” in TV parlance—from 44 conference football games to 56 (with 14 teams) or 64 (with 16 teams).


Or maybe the Big Ten would shift to a fan-friendly (and TV-friendly) nine-game conference schedule, which is not possible with an 11-team conference.


Those extra games would keep ABC/ESPN happy while allowing the BTN to stage a tripleheader every Saturday.


If the Big Ten really wants to maximize revenues, as one TV executive pointed out, it could alter its philosophy on prime-time weekday games.


The conference already has softened that policy, which is in place because Thursday night games can disrupt campus life and cost players and students class time.


Ohio State and Indiana will host night games on Thursday, Sept. 2. Ohio State is on the quarter system and won’t have class that week, but Indiana’s classes start the previous Monday.


In January, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith pointed to four pluses of moving the Buckeyes’ game against Marshall to Thursday night: more exposure (on BTN), cooler temperatures, breaking up a string of four straight Saturday home games and “it will allow fans to enjoy other events throughout the Labor Day weekend.”


Pretty thoughtful, huh?


Last year Indiana hosted Eastern Kentucky on the Thursday night before Labor Day.


Michigan used to oppose all night games. But given a nudge from coach Rich Rodriguez, the school announced in March it would host Notre Dame on Sept. 10, 2011, a Saturday night special.


ESPN plans to broadcast 15 Thursday night games this season, with every BCS conference but the Big Ten hosting at least two: Big 12 (3), Big East (3), Pac-10 (3), ACC (3), SEC (2) and WAC (1).


Only certain SEC schools, such as South Carolina and Mississippi State, willingly host prime-time weeknight games. The Big Ten also would figure to make it optional.


The Big East also plays Wednesday and Friday night games. If the Big Ten adds Rutgers, Syracuse and Connecticut, Big East football might cease to exist.


And then the networks would seek even more “inventory” from the Big Ten.



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