Big Ten Network trades controversy for success

March 30, 2009
For sure, I'm not to the point where I'm setting my DVR to record Northwestern-Minnesota field hockey.

In fact, I'll never be to that point.

But increasingly, my itchy remote control finger is punching up the Big Ten Network.

Its programming includes more than 400 live broadcasts, virtually all in high definition. Each campus has its own studio.

And viewers in those homes are finding their way to the BTN, especially in the fall and winter when the network relies heavily on telecasts of football and men's basketball games. Ratings, in some cases, have rivaled that of ESPN and ESPN2.

Now the BTN is being hailed by industry insiders as one of the most successful cable launches in history. Who knew?

Well, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany for one. But beyond the commish's influence, it was the commitment of all 11 institutions, their presidents and the athletic department hierarchies that paved the way for this ground-breaking network.

"These universities banded and stuck together with us through a very difficult [first] year and they're able to now realize the rights fees and benefits," BTN President Mark Silverman said during the recent Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Even in a very difficult economic climate, Silverman said, the BTN will show a profit at the conclusion of its second fiscal year. Advertisers, too, have been attracted to the niche audience of Big Ten fans.

"We've exceeded our plan and exceeded our budget [for advertising revenue]," Silverman said. "Advertisers... understand the unique relationship Big Ten fans have with their schools and the ability to put their brand in an environment like that."

Newscorp, which owns Fox Cable Networks—owner of 49 percent of the BTN, said the new network contributed to a 27-percent increase in the cable networks' operating income.

Yes, it was a rocky start. Comcast and the BTN waged a highly publicized and contentious public relations war as they battled over "carriage" fees. In several instances locally, that meant no accessible television coverage of IU and Purdue games.

Ever since they settled, it's been like everyone holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" around the campfire.

"We have a great partnership with Comcast," Silverman said.

Silverman, a former ABC and Disney executive, doesn't think the early success will drive other conferences to begin their own networks. Timing is everything.

"We were very fortunate we were able to get our distribution deals done before the hard economic conditions," he said. "A lot of leagues might look at it but the Big Ten had a unique advantage given its size, the success of its programs, and a partner in Fox willing to invest significant sums and pay the conference rights fees. It's a hefty investment and you need a collaboration of all the schools in the conference. It'll be very difficult for anyone else to pull off."

By the way, those rights fees have generated an estimated $70 million for the 11 schools.

Silverman said the BTN focus now is on acquiring better talent, having better production and getting viewers to tune in for something other than games. The BTN signed former Ohio State University Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George to do a weekly talk show called "The Quad." A game show is planned for fall.

I'm drawn to the BTN's classic lineup that features memorable football and basketball games and seasons from the past. Silverman, however, emphasizes that the so-called "Olympic" sports and women's sports must have their place as well.

"Our Olympic programming helps our brand and it shows that the universities are about more than just football and basketball," he said.

There's another thing on his wish list: a return to prominence of Indiana University basketball.

"We see how incredibly high we rate in Indianapolis for a team that won one game in the conference," Silverman said. "Imagine what the ratings will be when they go back to the norm? Ohio State and Michigan in football and Indiana in basketball have magnitude in the market."


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com. 
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