Beaming Up the Big Ten Channel

As I noted yesterday, the Big Ten has entered into a deal with Fox and DirecTV to launch the Big Ten Channel in August 2007. After reviewing the details of this network coupled with the conference's new agreement with ABC/ESPN (which in and of itself also improved the conference's exposure), I believe the Big Ten has made a great deal both financially for its member institutions and in terms of exposure for its fans across the nation.The key element of this deal, from my perspective, is that DirecTV is going to be carrying the channel nationally on its Total Choice tier (the equivalent of basic cable) as opposed to the premium sports tier (which subscribers need to pay extra for a la HBO or Showtime). That means every DirecTV subscriber in the country will receive the network. Considering that NBA TV, ESPNU, and CSTV are all on the premium sports tier, this new deal is indicative of how powerful the Big Ten Conference is on its own.

How does this change things for the average Big Ten fan? The largest item is that there will no longer be the syndicated ESPN Plus package for football and basketball games on local television stations – all of those games will be moved to the new Big Ten Channel. There are some pluses and minuses to this. On the positive end, all of those previously locally televised games will become national telecasts with, at the very least, respect to DirecTV.

The potential problems stem from the prospect of the Big Ten Channel first, not having those games available to those that do not have cable and second, for those without DirecTV, not being able to get onto basic cable in, at minimum, its home team markets in the Midwest and Northeast. For instance, if the Big Ten Channel isn't able to get onto the basic tier of service on Comcast Cable in Chicago, Illinois fans and other Big Ten alums in the Windy City will be shut out from a significant portion of their teams' telecasts. I'm a DirecTV subscriber (and I absolutely recommend it 110% over Comcast – if at all possible, get the dish) so it won't affect me personally, but it will not be a positive change if the average Big Ten fan either has no access or has to pay extra for access to games that were previously provided for free over-the-air. Getting onto the basic cable systems in the Big Ten home media markets is essential (any carriage outside of that would be gravy).

The network is a significantly positive development for the fans living outside of their favorite team's home market since those that are DirecTV subscribers will get access to games that they previously had to pay extra for on ESPN Full Court. Thus, this won't only benefit the Illini fan living in Florida, but also the Ohio State fan living in the heart of Big Ten Country in Chicago or Indianapolis. This also means that I'll be able to watch every single Big Ten football and basketball game from the comforts of my leather sofa, which means that I'm probably not going to be moving away from my television much from September through March. (Note: my appetite for Big Ten sports is so insatiable that I end up watching most Northwestern games, who play something that vaguely resembles basketball, just to tide me over between Illini games and other big conference matchups).

With all of the hub-bub regarding the new network, it's easy to forget that the Big Ten also significantly improved their deal with ABC/ESPN, with every ABC regional football game being broadcast nationally on one of the ESPN networks in the markets where the ABC affiliate isn't showing the Big Ten game along with more basketball telecasts on ESPN with a new nationally televised Thursday night game that's in addition to Super Tuesday (hooray for more games not involving Duke or UNC). That means that the Big Ten has increased the number of nationally televised football and basketball games on both ABC and, most importantly, the worldwide leader of ESPN.

On top of all that, there's the monetary aspect of the deal. Sources from Iowa and Michigan State report that each school is expected to receive an additional $7.5 million in revenue in the first year for the Big Ten Channel alone. Keep in mind that this figure doesn't even include the Big Ten's separate contracts with ABC/ESPN and CBS for men's basketball games (the old television contracts are expected to give the Big Ten $6.4 million in 2006, which is a number that should go up with the new ABC/ESPN contract). That means the Big Ten is looking at upwards of $14 million per year in television revenue for each school. To put this in perspective, Notre Dame, which is the standard-bearer when it comes to money and college sports, made $6.43 million per year in its deal that ended in 2004 with NBC (figures for the current Notre Dame/NBC deal are unavailable, but the annual rights fees in the contract ending in 2004 were actually lower than the first deal signed between the two entities in the 1990s). (Update: Other reports pegged the amount of the Notre Dame/NBC deal at $9 million per year).

These numbers mean two things: (1) the Big Ten has put itself into position to be the most financially dominant conference in the country, if it wasn't already and (2) expansion of the conference will almost certainly not happen unless that new member is named Notre Dame. I suggested a few months ago that if the Irish continued to balk at the prospect of joining the Big Ten, the conference ought to look at Syracuse as a potential 12th member. With this new deal, however, it will take a new member to provide upwards of $14 million per year in additional revenue just for the current schools to make the same amount of money with 12 teams as they had with 11 teams. Even with additional money from the creation of a Big Ten football championship game, I doubt that anyone other than Notre Dame could possibly provide the additional revenue that would make expansion worth it for the conference.

There are certainly risks from taking content that networks would surely pay a lot of money for in-house, but the Big Ten is the one conference that overcome such negative prospects. The Big Ten's home base of markets that includes Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia is the largest and strongest out of any other conference while its alums are spread widely from the Michigan and Penn State grads on the East Coast to the Illinois and Wisconsin expats in the Sun Belt and West Coast. All in all, this looks to be a great deal for the Big Ten and reaffirms it as the preeminent conference in college sports.

Other thoughts from across the nation on the Big Ten Channel:

1) A Look at the Big Ten Channel (IlliniBoard)

2) Big Ten Network is Set Up with Fox (New York Times)

3) Big Ten Gambles on TV Channel (Chicago Tribune)

4) A Big Ten Channel Would Be A Big Boon (Sporting News)

5) Will Cable Outlets View Big Ten Channel as Must-Carry TV? (Capital Times)

6) Big Ten Creates its Own Network (SportsBiz)

And finally…

7) Big Ten Network Unfortunately to Include Northwestern, Purdue and Minnesota Games (Sports Pickle)