OSU Fans Could Miss IU Game On ESPNU

This Saturday's Big Ten football match-up between No. 1-ranked Ohio State and Indiana from Ohio Stadium figures to be OSU's least distributed game on television in nearly 10 years. The Disney Co., which owns rights to Big Ten home games, has placed the game on its lightly distributed, 2-year-old ESPNU network. Click here for more.

This Saturday's Ohio State-Indiana game will be the first OSU game not widely circulated on live television in central Ohio in nearly 10 years.

The game, set for a noon kickoff, will be televised only by ESPNU – a 2-year-old Disney Co.-owned network that focuses only on college athletics. While its popular sister networks ESPN and ESPN are each seen in more than 80 million homes nationally, Disney has struggled in its efforts to get cable companies to take ESPNU. It is only available in about 8 or 9 million homes, sources indicated.

In central Ohio, there are three main cable companies – Insight, Time Warner and WOW. Insight currently offers ESPNU, while the other two do not. ESPNU is also available to satellite dish owners who subscribe to DirecTV or The Dish Network.

The last time an OSU Big Ten game was not televised live was the OSU-Minnesota game on Nov. 8, 1997. That game, which OSU won 31-3, was shown later the same day on tape delay on WBNS-TV (Ch. 10). The last OSU game that was not broadcast either live or on tape delay was OSU's win over Bowling Green on Sept. 13, 1997.

This OSU-Indiana game is at least being broadcast live on ESPNU. But if most central Ohioans want to see it they need to find a home with a satellite dish or Insight cable that subscribes to ESPNU, go to a local sports bar that carries ESPNU (and some of them still don't) or buy a ticket to see the game in person.

The Big Ten packages the television rights for all of its home games and sells them typically to the highest bidder. The conference is in the final year of a 10-year deal with Disney, which is the parent company for ABC and the ESPN networks. In the course of this deal, Big Ten home games have been televised by ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and on regional syndication by ESPN-Plus. Games on ABC and ESPN-Plus are also typically available on the ESPN Game Plan pay-per-view package.

It has only been in the last year or two that ESPN has developed ESPNU as well as its Internet service, ESPN360, as sources to carry live games. Originally, ESPNU showed Big Ten games that were also carried in the home markets by ESPN-Plus. But this year, ESPNU has been producing its own schedule of games. None of the ESPNU games are being included in the ESPN Game Plan package, either.

The Big Ten and Disney just agreed on a new TV deal for the next 10 years. Plus, the Big Ten and Fox have come to terms on the start of its own Big Ten Network to replace the ESPN-Plus syndication model.

The OSU-Indiana game is not the first Big Ten game that has been relegated to ESPNU. Penn State's opener with Youngstown State was also put on ESPNU, prompting howls of complaints from PSU fans. But Mark Rudner, an assistant commissioner for the Big Ten, said the conference empathizes with fans who feel they are being shut out when their favorite team plays on ESPNU. But Rudner said the Big Ten's hands are tied on the matter.

"Our existing contract with ESPN and ABC is in its last year," said Big Ten assistant commissioner Mark Rudner. "They have the contractual right to put the games on any platform they chose, whether it's ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN-Plus regional. We have seen a number of games on ESPNU since they launched that network.

"They also have a platform, ESPN 360, which is primarily for broadband distribution."

For instances, Illinois' home game with Ohio U. this past weekend was broadcast on ESPN360.

Rudner said the Big Ten has enjoyed a fine relationship with the Disney Co. networks through the years.

It is unfortunate, though, that Disney is using the Big Ten's football product to leverage ESPNU on to various cable outlets across the Midwest and the nation. This was the same tactic ESPN used after launching ESPN2 in 1995, placing key basketball games like Duke-North Carolina on the network to get cable companies to pick it up.

"We have benefited greatly because of the relationship with ABC and ESPN," Rudner said. "We support 100 percent their right to distribute the games in whatever platforms they deem appropriate."

According to reports, roughly 40 percent of Insight's 216,000 central Ohio customers receive ESPNU.

Time Warner has more than 600,000 customers in central Ohio and surrounding areas. The cable giant has been in ongoing negotiations with Disney to include ESPNU programming. But, Judy Barbao, a spokeswoman for Time Warner, told The Columbus Dispatch last week she does not see a solution in the works in time for this Saturday's game.

Disney, she said, "has a lot of other issues on the table that they are tying to ESPNU," Barbao told The Dispatch.

There were also reports that two local stations, WSYX-TV (Ch. 6) and WBNS-TV (Ch. 10), had at least inquired about the right to purchase this one game. But if such requests were made, Disney has apparently refused those overtures and is sticking to its strategy to use this marquee game with the nation's No. 1-ranked team to force cable companies to come to the bargaining table.

As any college football fan knows, television coverage has evolved through the years. OSU's first televised games were in 1949. Only a handful of OSU's games – typically one to three a year – were televised each season up through 1983. But when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the NCAA's television restrictions as unconstitutional, it was open season for schools and conferences to negotiate their best TV deal.

But even up through 1989, only about six or seven of OSU's games were televised in a given year. That changed in the early 1990s, when ABC and ESPN took over the Big Ten contract. By 1993, as many as nine regular season games per year were being televised. The addition of ESPN2 and the Big Ten's regional syndication package (originally known as Creative and later as ESPN-Plus) meant that popular schools like Ohio State would have nearly every game covered.

As noted, OSU's current live television string extends some 109 games to that Minnesota game in 1997.

"Over the last 10 years, we have almost doubled the number of TV games in the Big Ten," Rudner said. "We have gone from 30 to 40 telecasts to, this year, having over 70 TV games.

"It's just the simple fact that not every game can be shown on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2. There are a lot of games still that people expect to be on TV that aren't because there just isn't enough space."

That is where the Big Ten Network will hopefully fill a void, Rudner said. Two weeks ago, OSU's game with Bowling Green was syndicated by ESPN-Plus. But it was not available in the Cincinnati market – just 100 miles from the Columbus campus – because there was not a local station there willing to preempt games from broadcast networks like ABC and CBS to show the OSU-BGSU game.

Rudner said the Big Ten Network, once it gains clearance on cable companies throughout the Midwest region, will solve the issue of the faltering syndication networks.

"Next year we begin a new agreement," Rudner said. "We will still have a robust package of games on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. One of the reasons we looked at the Big Ten Network was so we could control the migration of our games to lesser distribution platforms."

The Big Ten Network will show a schedule of 35 football games per year.

"This year is really the end of a television era," Rudner said. "We viewed the future of syndication as not being as strong as it's been. That's not just in Ohio, but in our other markets as well. Because of their network affiliations, some local stations have not been able to take our package."

While OSU fans this week may turn their wrath on the cable companies and/or ESPNU for not coming to an agreement, the Big Ten is probably facing a battle of its own in the coming months to get its new network on cable television in time for the start of the 2007 football season.

"The success of the Big Ten Network is dependent on the distribution it gets," Rudner said. "Our challenge will be communication. There is nothing like this out there. We need to use the next nine or 10 months before the launch to communicate with our fans and constituents."

But, as cable companies in Columbus – and, really, in both Ohio and Indiana -- will find out in the next several days, Big Ten football television coverage is not something to be trifled with.

"We feel our college football brand is the strongest in the country," Rudner said. "Fans from all over the country have an insatiable appetite to watch our teams. The thing that differentiates the Big Ten is we have integrated rivalries. Therein lies the strength of the Big Ten. The whole thing is tied in together."

Voice Your Concerns

The only way Big Ten football fans are going to get satisfaction is to voice their concerns through letters, e-mails and telephone calls to the various cable companies and also to ESPN.

Here are some numbers:

Time Warner, (614) 481-5320 or (800) 934-4181 or check their web site at www.twcmidohio.com to send them feedback.

WOW cable, (866) 496-9669 or check their web site at www.wowway.com.

Here is a link to send a message to ESPN:

ESPN contact page

No Michigan Move

With Ohio State and Michigan now the top two teams in the Associated Press poll, there had been some sentiment that ABC could pursue moving their Nov. 18 showdown in Columbus – which could decide the outright Big Ten championship and essentially be a national semifinal game as a play-in game for the national championship game – to a prime time start at 8 p.m. Eastern.

The OSU-Michigan game has been a fixture in either the noon or 1 p.m. time slot on ABC since at least 1985. But this year's game was moved to a 3:30 p.m. slot, presumably so it could be a true national broadcast involving the West Coast as well.

ABC has already slated an attractive Pac-10 match-up with No. 3 USC against current No. 11 Cal at 8 p.m. on Nov. 18. Rudner said there was no chance the OSU-Michigan game would trade time slots with the USC-Cal game, as had been rumored in and around Columbus in recent weeks.

"That is not possible," Rudner said. "That is 100 percent not possible. Whatever people are saying about that (move), that is something that has simply been conjured up."


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