Call it a distant cousin to Texas' Longhorn Network -- without the negative connotation.
The best, brightest college sports property available was quietly snapped up in the last week. Kansas sold its third-tier rights to Time Warner Cable Sports, Comcast and ESPN3 in separate deals negotiated by IMG.
Though it's only six basketball games (four non-conference, two exhibitions) and one football game, those are six very valuable basketball games. We're talking Kansas. Think if Kentucky did this how many fans would switch services to catch a meaningless non-conference game. Lots, but Kentucky can't do it. Like the rest of the SEC schools, it sold its third-tier rights to the conference. That's pretty much the same situation in each of the other four BCS conferences.
Third-tier rights are basically those owned by the school -- or a marketer like IMG -- usually highlighted by a collection of non-conference football and basketball games. Example: The SEC bought back those rights from each school individually in order to make it possible to launch the SEC Network.
And although much is being made of carrying at least 70 Kansas games in multiple sports, these sorts of ventures are only as successful as the number of men's basketball and football games being shown. (As of now, LHN is scheduled to show two non-conference football games in 2013.)
This KU deal is similar to the Longhorn Network except, in this case, there is no mewling about availability, distribution or clearance. It can be argued at this moment that those six Kansas men's basketball games and one football game are the most valuable pieces of college programming available until the Big Ten's current contract runs out in 2016.
That's the year the Big Ten probably sets a new bar and becomes No. 1 in revenue. Until then, everyone else's TV rights are basically spoken for. Schools in the Pac-12, ACC, SEC and Big Ten have turned over those third-tier rights to their conferences in part to provide content for conference networks. (The ACC is still considering a network.)
There is no such deal in the Big 12 because of the LHN. Remember the controversy caused by Texas wanting to monetize those rights? That also meant the rest of the conference could do the same. Kansas State has a digital network. Oklahoma has a deal with Fox regional sports networks. That left those Kansas basketball games as the most valuable college property left until the Big Ten comes to market.
“Our fans outside of the region are ecstatic,” said Jason Booker, general manager of Jayhawk IMG Sports Marketing.
Outside the footprint of Kansas City and state of Kansas, KU's non-game programming will be available to Time Warner subscribers via video on demand. Within the footprint, Metro Sports of Kansas City will televise the games and produce “shoulder” content -- pre- and postgame shows.
Will you have to pay more? Somewhere down the line on your cable bill, of course. That's kind of the point. But the partners are figuring those rabid KU fans will pay to see those precious six games that otherwise would have been available elsewhere.
“I live in Olathe with DirecTV,” Booker said, referring to a Kansas City suburb. “I called yesterday and switched to Comcast. One of the things I've heard is that it is a huge inconvenience. It took me 28 minutes on the phone, and I saved $60 per month.”
Meanwhile, ESPN3 is available to 85 million subscribers. You can access it on your computer, tablet, phone or Smart TV through your provider. Kansas City is being used as a test market for Google Fiber. The service claims to provide speeds 100 times faster than normal. Imagine that service in HD. Jeremy Fowler wrote Tuesday about the other future possibilities in regards to the KU deal.
Time Warner has another 12 million subscribers, which means, “We're going to be in more households in Austin than the Longhorn programming with all our shoulder programming,” according to Booker.
Imagine that. More folks might be able to watch Weekly Jayhawk Insider in Austin than the Mack Brown Show on LHN.
The Big 12 is an outlier nationally in this instance because conference schools retained those third-tier rights when the Longhorn Network debuted. LHN is still struggling for distribution. For example, it is not on Time Warner in Austin.
Like Booker, Kansas hoops fans who have, say, Dish or DirecTV, will have to figure out a way to see those KU games.
“College programming has gotten crazy,” one industry source said. “This is just the next iteration.”