A Look at the Big Ten Channel

This morning the Big Ten announced its new television agreement. The conference is continuing its relationship with ABC Sports and ESPN by increasing national coverage for football and men's basketball on the Disney-owned stations. But, the biggest news of the day was the announcement of the launch of the Big Ten's own national channel, the Big Ten Channel.

The big news in the Big Ten today was the announcement of the conference's new television deal. The announcement of the agreement with ABC Sports and ESPN is a ten-year extension on what Big Ten sports fans have been used to, but it includes even more coverage for the conference. While the announcement of the ABC Sports and ESPN extension is a big deal, it is being overshadowed by the launch of the Big Ten Channel, a national cable network for all things Big Ten.

The launch of the Big Ten Channel brings about many questions to fans, specifically: How are we going to watch the games that are not on ABC, ESPN, or espn2 now? Simply put, the Big Ten Channel.

When it came to football and men's basketball, fans from out of region areas were able to watch Big Ten games on ESPN's Pay-Per-View Packages: ESPN Full Court (Men's Basketball) and ESPN Game Plan (Football). For these same games, fans in the local markets were able to watch games through local syndication (ESPN Regional Television, aka ESPN+) on channels like WCIU in Chicago and WCIA in Champaign.

Now, these same games will be available on the Big Ten Channel. Even with the Big Ten Channel, there are still some questions that need to be answered.

Does this cover every game played by a Big Ten team in football and basketball?
No, the Big Ten only owns the television rights for games that are broadcast from their campuses. So, if Illinois travels to California, the television rights would still be owned by the host institution, and this game would not be subject to the Big Ten's agreement with ABC and ESPN or even their own Big Ten Channel. Only home games are covered in this agreement.

What happens for scheduling conflicts, specifically when it comes to basketball games?
Under the new agreement with ESPN, the Big Ten will have a nationally televised basketball game on either ESPN or espn2 on Tuesday and Thursday night. Previously, the other games were then played on a Wednesday night, overlapping and all broadcast locally through the ESPN Regional Television. With the Big Ten Channel, the Big Ten will have the ability to set the schedules to maximize the amount of non-ESPN games on television. So, with this, under the new agreements with both ESPN and the Big Ten Channel, a standard conference during the week schedule will probably look something like this:

Tuesday Night
6:00 PM Central: ESPN / espn2 game

Wednesday Night
6:00 PM Central: Big Ten Channel
8:00 PM Central: Big Ten Channel

Thursday Night
8:00 PM Central: ESPN / espn2 game

With there only being five games per leg of the Big Ten schedule, there is just one game that right now does not fit in with the standard schedule that the Big Ten used in previous seasons. After asking people closer to the situation, this game would probably be broadcast on the Big Ten Channel as a double header on either Tuesday or Thursday night lining up either before or after the game. With this deal, ESPN and espn2 will now air 18 more Big Ten basketball games per season than in previous years.

The games that are played on the weekends will probably remain close to the same with a full day of Big Ten basketball, but now instead of aired on your local ESPN+ station, it will now be aired nationally on the Big Ten Channel with the spattering of national games on ESPN.

If there happens to be a scheduling conflict between two basketball games, there is a secondary satellite feed that the Big Ten Channel will still have. There is already an agreement on DirecTV to show this additional feed if it is necessary, and it will be made available to all other distributors as well. (This would be like Comcast Sports Net Plus in Chicago that is available to users when there is more than one game scheduled for the same time to be aired on Comcast Sports Net).

What about football?
The great deal that the Big Ten has with ABC and ESPN does not leave too many conference games for ESPN+ (normally just two a week). Sometimes (and it normally seemed like it was always the Fighting Illini) there were games that were not televised. An additional 17 games will be available on the Big Ten Channel than were available on ESPN+, for a total of 35 football games per season aired on national television. The addition of games that would be available on the Big Ten Channel do include lower tier games (which sadly at this time includes many of the games the Fighting Illini are playing in).

What the heck will happen to me if I do not get the Big Ten Channel?
First of all, you are lucky that you still have over a year until the Big Ten Channel will be officially launched on DirecTV (there are 437 days until the first football game will be aired on the Big Ten Channel).

Secondly, FOX Networks (the Big Ten's partner) is immediately beginning to work to get the Big Ten Channel carried on your local cable system (and not just in the Big Ten states, but nationally), and they have a year to get it done. But how easy is that going to be? Just a quick look at the top Big Ten television markets will show you how important this channel could be to your local cable operator. A quick glance of the Nielsen Designated Market Areas shows six regions within the Top 25. (Chicago (3), Detroit (11), Minneapolis – St. Paul (15), Cleveland (16), St. Louis (21), and Indianapolis (25)). This quantity of eyes hopefully is good news to get the cable channel picked up by your local cable company, and maybe even beyond the confines of the eight Big Ten states. In today's press conference, it was stated that "they fully expect to be on Comcast expanded basic in Chicago."

Unfortunately, if your cable company does not pick up the Big Ten Channel, you will be pretty much SOL when it comes to watching the Big Ten games. There will no longer be an opportunity to pick up Big Ten basketball or football games with a pay-per-view package.

The good news, though, is with the carriage already on DirecTV's Total Choice package, your local sports bar will already get the channel, so you will be able to see it there.

Right now, FOX is trying to not make a projection on how widely distributed the channel will be when it is launched, but they feel like they can have a significant percentage of the subscribers in the Big Ten's footprint, while still having a wide installation base across the country.

Will there be any relationship with new media distributions? (i.e. OnDemand and Internet)
Simply put, yes. These plans are not laid out quite yet, but there is Video OnDemand and Online Content distribution included in the deal.

Who controls the channel?
The Big Ten will own 51% of the channel, and FOX Networks will own 49% of the channel. On the Board of Directors, there will be fix seats: three members from the Big Ten and two members from FOX. Basically, the Big Ten controls the channel, and the advertising that will be allowed on it. In today's press conference, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany mentioned that the channel would go on without advertising from beer companies and gambling companies.

Will the Big Ten Channel be available in High Definition?
The Big Ten's press release states that they will be trying to produce as much content as possible in high definition and make it available to viewers in high definition. Like with ESPN-HD and espn2-HD, not all programs will be in high definition, but hopefully many of the basketball and football games will be available.

What the heck will be aired during the summers?
Right now, this is not completely defined, but there are plans to air Big Ten Classic games and programming that is generated by the schools themselves during these times. Other options that were discussed could be things like the Goodwill Games, the University Games, and then other USA Basketball games.

How does this help in recruiting?
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany hopes that this channel will help when it comes to recruiting, and he even made a mention to the Notre Dame agreement with NBC in terms of having their own channel. Outside of that, the Big Ten Channel will be the only national television cable channel devoted solely to collegiate athletics, and specifically a conference, and they could be for the foreseeable future as most major conferences have already renegotiated their television contracts for the near-term future. (The Mountain West Conference and CSTV announced in 2004 that they would create the first regional channel devoted solely to Mountain West Conference athletics) Though I would not be surprised to see other conferences attempt to create channels like this after their current television contracts expire in the next four to five years.

In my time following the Fighting Illini on TV, this is the largest deal the conference has had on ABC, ESPN, and its properties. This means more Big Ten football and basketball on ESPN, so no matter what this new deal is a big deal. The other thing that George Bodenheimer of ESPN discussed was that the Big Ten was going to be a key part of the primetime football telecasts that are going to be made available on Saturday nights on both ABC and ESPN. The more exposure for the conference, especially in a place they normally have not been available like Saturday night football games is a good thing.

The Big Ten Channel is either going to succeed amazingly, or it is going to alienate a large collection of fans and be a disaster. As someone that used to live in Big XII country, and was forced to pay for the pay-per-view just to watch the Fighting Illini in basketball and football, I know how important it is for fans out of the region to watch their games. Many fans relied on ESPN Full Court and Game Plan to watch the Fighting Illini on TV across the country. Now, they will not have this option. Their cable (or satellite) company will need to carry the channel, or they will not get the games on TV.

I admit to be initially skeptical on whether or not the Big Ten Channel would be a success, but after listening to Jim Delany discuss the plans for the channel, I think they are going about this the right way. But even the best laid plans of mice and mine often go awry.

Fans in Minneapolis may remember that the Minnesota Twins attempted to create their own cable channel, and the Twins were basically not on television in Minneapolis, and it was considered a disaster. When the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks switched to Comcast Sports Net Chicago, there were also many people that did not receive Comcast Sports Net, and were without the ability to watch their favorite teams. If this happens with the Big Ten Network, it will be an unmitigated disaster.

The good news is if you want to guarantee yourself the Big Ten Channel, you can go out and get DirecTV (of course that means you don't live in an apartment or condo that does not have a southward facing window to install your satellite dish).

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