Thursday, March 13, 2014

College Football's Fierce TV Competition

The fierce competition between college football's major conferences is no longer limited on the playing field. The "Big Five" conferences often fight their battles in boardrooms and bank vaults—and now also in outer space.

As in the television network war, beamed via satellite to a screen (or six) in your own home.

With the launching of the SEC Network this summer, three of the Big Five conferences will have their own TV networks, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 already having been on the air for several years. But it was another, upstart conference that touched off the TV arms race.

The Mtn. begin broadcasting Sept. 1, 2006, a revolutionary idea that was to transform the landscape of college sports. The Mountain West Conference and its partners (CBS and Comcast), though, never were able to resolve lingering distribution issues. Then the conference alignment wave swept in and effectively led to the demise of The Mtn., which went off the air June 1, 2012.

The Big Ten launched its network a year after The Mtn. and had issues of its own. But it's becoming the gold standard of conference networks, now reaching more than 90 million U.S. households. And with the conference's latest expansion, the BTN is hoping to gain greater viewership shares in the huge metropolitan areas of New York City and Baltimore/Washington. In fact, you can say that Rutgers and Maryland are added more for TV eyeballs than for athletic or academic excellence.

College Conference TV Networks
Big Ten NetworkFox, Big TenAug. 200790 millionMost major carriers
Pac-12 NetworkPac-12Aug. 201248 millionNo DirecTV, Verizon FiOS
SEC NetworkESPNAug. 201420 millionDISH, AT&T U-Verse
Longhorn NetworkESPN, UTAug. 201125 millionNo DirecTV, Comcast
BYUtvBYUJan. 200065 millionDirecTV, DISH, some cable

Lately the SEC is very much in the TV news, as its network—a wholly-owned enterprise by ESPN operated out of Charlotte—sets to debut with Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer as its No. 1 team in the booth. ESPN is aggressively going after distributors before it goes on the air in August, trying not to repeat the mistakes made by both the BTN and Pac-12 Network. The BTN spent its first year only sporadically available in Big Ten country, and the Pac-12 is still without a deal with DirecTV after two seasons.

The SEC Network is asking for more money within its footprint ($1.30 per subscriber) than even the BTN ($1), but with ESPN's clout and the rabid nature of SEC fans, it's banking on getting that. It secured a major agreement when it came to terms with DISH Network last week. ESPN also leveraged that into a deal for the Longhorn Network, which it co-owns with the University of Texas.

The big question now is how DirecTV will handle this avalanche of college conference networks.

Under current president and CEO Mike White, the nation's largest satellite carrier has taken an increasing hardline against rising programming costs. It famously dropped The Weather Channel in January and has held its ground against both the Pac-12 and Longhorn networks.

But the SEC could prove to be a different beast. After initially indicating that it "has no current plans to carry the SEC Network," DirecTV was forced to recant that statement a day later after receiving from SEC fans a torrent of complaints and threats to drop the carrier. How this negotiation goes may very well determine DirecTV's future as the leading carrier of sports programming.

DirecTV built that reputation on having the exclusive NFL Sunday Ticket, with its current deal set to expire after the 2014 season. DirecTV is paying $1 billion per season for the rights, which it has owned since Sunday Ticket's inaugural season in 1994. But neither the NFL nor DirecTV is in a rush to reach a new agreement, leaving the door open for other carriers to get in on the package.

If DirecTV does not come to terms with the SEC Network before the season opens in late August, it may be a signal that it's drastically cutting back on sports programming. DirecTV may very well decide there's no more money to be made as a sports carrier if it says no to both the NFL and SEC, the most valuable football properties in this football-mad nation.

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