The Big Ten will announce the formation of its own satellite TV-based network on Wednesday in a move that could signify a major shift for both the viewer and college athletics.
Beginning in 2007, the conference will place some of its football and basketball (as well as minor sports) content on DirecTV, the satellite service with approximately 15 million subscribers.
The Big Ten is keeping most of its marquee games on current TV partners ABC and ESPN, both owned by Disney. The league will also announce a new deal with their long-standing partners worth a reported $50 million per year after the current deal expires in June 2007.
That means Big Ten fans won't have to rush out to buy a dish to watch Ohio State-Michigan. But the DirecTV deal does gives the league's other sports exposure on what will be called The Big Ten Channel.
Other conferences will be watching closely to see if the league can maximize its profits by taking some of its content off basic cable and broadcast television. The Mountain West Conference is starting its own network this fall in a deal with CSTV, but is having trouble clearing space for programming in major cities in its league.
One key question: How much will subscribers have to pay to get games on The Big Ten Channel. Within DirecTV is a service called "Sports Pack" that features -- for an added fee -- 25 specialty and regional networks, including all the Fox Sports Net, MSG and the Yes Network (Yankees baseball). Sports Pack has only three million subscribers.
Beyond that is another added fee for such networks as NHL Center Ice, NBA League Pass and MLB Extra Innings.
Another key question: Local stations in major Big Ten markets are wondering if this is the end of Big Ten programming on their stations. Will those second-tier football and basketball programs now all be relegated to satellite?
Some of those questions will be answered Wednesday when the conference holds a teleconference with reporters.
Don't be surprised if the network also includes highlights shows -- some of them sports-specific -- ala SportsCenter. Also look for coaches' shows. Commissioner Jim Delany is believed to have approached all the major networks and cable entities CSTV and Comcast while trying to form the network.
Falling production costs in recent years have allowed some sports leagues to take production costs in-house. That also allows those leagues to maximize profits, especially if it is able to sell its own advertising.
In this case, the addition of the Big Ten might tip the argument toward DirecTV being the industry leader in satellite television. It's all about exclusive content. The Big Ten is about as exclusive as it gets in college sports. The conference has the largest demographic reach in the country, counting one-quarter of the nation's population in its "footprint," which extends from the Northeast to the Midwest.
News Corp., Fox's parent company, owns a large part of DirecTV. Fox is still looking for a regular-season college football broadcast partner after acquiring the rights to three of the four BCS bowl games.