Friday, September 14, 2012

Millions at Stake for USC-Stanford

When USC visits Stanford on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX), there will be plenty of interested observers aside from those in the camps of California's two finest private universities.

The suits representing DirecTV and Pac-12 Network will have lots to chew on as well, as their sides are engaged in one of the nastiest TV spats since, oh, DirecTV stared down Viacom in August.

To be sure, the Pac-12 honchos want a USC victory to keep its ranking high and on track to play in the BCS championship game (even if they won't admit it to their Stanford hosts). DirecTV, on the other hand, wouldn't mind a Cardinal upset that would render the following week's USC-Cal game - the Trojans' first on the Pac-12 Network - much less meaningful and therefore making it less urgent to cut a deal.

Of the nation's top five satellite/cable TV providers, DirecTV is the lone holdout on the Pac-12 Network, which began broadcasting about a month ago. The negotiations broke down in late August and the sides are involved in a less-than-friendly PR war, particularly from the Pac-12.

Conference commissioner Larry Scott fired a missive imploring Pac-12 fans to dump DirecTV for cable outfits that carry the new network(s). Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour then went public with her switch to Comcast, putting it on YouTube for all to see.

But for all of the Pac-12's machinations, it's losing leverage by the week. The most crucial conference games will be shown on FOX, ABC and ESPN's networks, as part of the stipulations of the TV deals. And USC, the Pac-12's most important and arguably its only national brand, will make few appearances (if any, as none is scheduled as of now) on the Pac-12 Network after the Cal game.

Why does DirecTV matter so much? Because it has the NFL Sunday Ticket (through at least the 2014 season) and therefore it owns the sports TV market. Full disclosure: I used to own a restaurant/sports bar and we did not dare not have DirecTV if we wanted to stay in business - even though we had to pay an exorbitant amount for the commercial fees of the package.

So far, the Pac-12 Network has broadcast 11 games, with three more this week and two next week. Oregon cannot like the fact that two of its first three games were basically rumors to the national audience, damaging running back Kenjon Barner's Heisman prospects. Three of Cal's first four games - other than this week's trip to Ohio State - would be on the Pac-12 Network (no wonder Barbour was so eager to switch).

A USC victory over Stanford puts more pressure on DirecTV to make a deal ahead of the Trojans' conference home opener. But a USC loss gives the satellite giant much more breathing room as it would feel less inclined to compromise. It can then conceivably snub the Pac-12 for the entire football season without getting huge blowbacks from its subscribers. If the Pac-12 Network doesn't hop on DirecTV this football season, it could be next August before talks heat up again.

OK, enough about the TV wars, back to the field ...


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