Control the message.
That philosophy is the essence of the new Big Ten Channel. College athletics' most powerful conference announced last week it would launch its own channel beginning next year.
|If you want to see Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes, it's going to cost you a little more. (Getty Images)|
The conference is betting pressure from its 4 million alumni will force local cable operators to add the channel. Originally, it will be available on the basic tier of DirecTV, the Fox-owned satellite service.
But the only way it really works is for cable operators in the league's three biggest markets -- Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia -- to take the channel.
"Ultimately," Delany said, "people get what they ask for."
Will they ask for the Big Ten? Comcast Sports Net Chicago -- a key to the Big Ten's penetration in the area -- previously would not carry Big Ten or Big East games on ESPN Regional. Those games eventually went to over-the-air stations.
When the Minnesota Twins attempted to launch their channel, it could not get on cable systems in the Twin Cities. Will the Big Ten?
"Other conference are looking to see how successful the Big Ten is," said Mike Sheehey, Comcast's senior vice president of sports content. "It will be interesting to see whether they can get the clearance."
Two months before the start of the season, the Mountain West Conference's new network isn't on cable systems in its two biggest markets -- Las Vegas and San Diego. The Big Ten has 14 months of time to hawk its product.
Industry speculation is that Fox, a Big Ten partner in the launch, will leverage cable systems with its existing content to take the new channel.
"Distribution is a critical issue," Delany said. "It sort of has to be dealt with market by market."
Imagine the recruiting implications alone: A smart coach will tell his/her recruits that their exploits will be spread across satellite, cell phone, Internet and cable platforms.
Delany says the conference won't conduct tutorials for coaches to help them realize the recruiting impact. But it will be made known.
The league is sensitive enough to do it all without accepting advertising from alcohol or gambling sources. It is also rich enough to turn down those lucrative ad dollars.
The Mountain West got $82 million from CSTV for a seven-year deal for its network. Indiana AD Rick Greenspan said the ESPN/ABC/Big Ten Channel combo could mean an additional $7.5 million per year, per school.
That might be optimistic. Still, Delany and his presidents are counting on the new money lessening the reliance on university subsidies. ADs, already feeling tapped out financially, endorsed the addition of a 12th regular-season game nationwide beginning this season.
With the Big Ten Channel, the nation's most powerful conference will get more powerful. Armed with gobs of new money, there will be even less reason in football to consider the seven-letter word it already dreads.
Key questions (and answers) about the Big Ten Channel:
Question: What is it?
Answer: The Big Ten Channel is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week national channel to begin in August 2007.
The league and Fox are partners, and the product will at least initially be shown on DirecTV's basic tier. DirecTV has approximately 15 million subscribers. Long-range plans are for the channel to be carried on cable systems.
Approximately 35 second-tier football games and 100 men's basketball games will be shown on the channel.
The league also will develop Internet, wireless and cell phone platforms for content. The partners have plenty of time to develop that content. Fox and the Big Ten have a 20-year deal.
The channel supplements existing, bigger deals with ABC, ESPN and CBS.
League presidents also love the fact that the channel will broadcast 660 hours of non-sports programming. The Big Ten is controlling the message by trumpeting its greatness.
Q: Why should the man on the street care?
A: He (or she) is going to pay. In several of the biggest Big Ten markets, games will no longer be available on broadcast television. The hope is that viewers will be driven to buy the DirecTV dish or, later, watch on cable. Either way, the consumer will be paying for what used to be free.
If the channel succeeds, fans will be subjected to more pay content. The SEC already has preliminary plans to launch its own channel.
Q: What was the reason for launching the channel?
A: Major-college programs are running out of funds, for one. Reportedly, at least four Big Ten athletic departments are losing money.
The addition of a 12th regular-season football game this year took care of some of the shortfall, but look at your own budget. Gas, travel and food cost more. The money has to come from somewhere.
Q: Why is Fox the partner?
A: Its ability to launch networks. Remember in 1990, folks barely knew Bart Simpson. Now there is a Fox empire -- from Fox Sports Net to Fox News Network.
Fox has launched four cable networks with viewership of 20 million each -- National Geographic, Fox News, Fuel and Speed.
Delany was intrigued by the National Geographic Channel, part of the Fox Cable Networks Group. He called John Fahey, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society.
"He told me what good people they (Fox) were," Delany said. "That was a piece of credibility with our people."
The National Geographic Channel is seen in 40-45 million homes. If the Big Ten Channel eventually reaches that many homes, Delany will personally turn a cartwheel in your front yard.
Q: Is it a recruiting advantage?
A: Yes. It should be a huge recruiting advantage if coaches understand how to use it.
Start with this scenario: Kirk Ferentz, Thad Matta and Red Berenson can tell a recruit that the kid can be seen on every wireless-capable cell phone and PDA in the country.
That's a pretty big advantage when a player can whip out his phone, dial up Saturday's highlights and show friends how he caught the winning touchdown pass.
Don't underestimate this aspect.
Q:Why a 20-year deal?
A: Why not? The Big Ten, Fox and DirecTV are betting on the come line. Who knows where technology will be even a few years from now?
We might be watching holograms of Lloyd Carr in our living rooms one day.
You've been warned.