Delaney Adresses Big Ten Network

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the announcement that his conference would form its own television network, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany held a teleconference to better crystallize what he envisions the undertaking will be.

During the media session, which lasted nearly 90 minutes Thursday afternoon, he also updated the status of negotiations with major cable providers and managed to get in some shots at critics.

Though the rising of temperatures in the Midwest this spring has coincided with rising tensions among fans worried they might not be able to watch their favorite football teams often this fall, the focus of this announcement was to emphasize the broader scope the network plans to encompass.

Rather than using football and men's basketball to concentrate on squeezing as much money as it can from network partners such as ABC, ESPN and CBS, Delany explained the conference's presidents opted more than a year ago to form their own vehicle to market and air the Big Ten's content, a plan that allowed the conference to keep control of it all.

"Content" was a word Delany returned to over and over, explaining the purpose of the network was to take what the conference did best – play championship-level athletics in a variety of sports – and air it across the country.

Thus, the same week the network announced an opening three-week schedule with 17 football games, Delany revealed plans to have women's athletics represent 50 percent of the network's programming by the third year.

"The Big Ten has an incredible history of supporting gender equity and today's announcement signals our continued dedication to women's athletics," Delany said.

He added that 40 percent of programming in the first year is slated to involve women's athletics and told the assembled media the Big Ten has a strong history of supporting gender equity.

Delany said in 1992 the Big Ten was the first conference to initiate a five-year plan for conference members to commit to a 60-40 percent male to female student-athlete participation, a goal that was achieved as a conference in 1997 and by all schools individually by 2000.

He added that over the past five years, the Big Ten has maintained on average a 53-47 percent male to female participation ratio, and since 1992, Big Ten institutions have created in excess of 2,000 new opportunities for women's student-athletes and established 28 new women's teams.

While old broadcasting agreements called for networks to air around 10 Big Ten women's athletics events per year, the Big Ten Network could air as many as 200 per year by 2009-10.

"We consider the female athlete to be an integral part of this network," Delany said.

Ohio State women's basketball coach Jim Foster said he sees the new network as something that could elevate the women's game the way WGN Superstation enhanced the profile of DePaul in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

"What excites me about the Big Ten Network is the opportunity for women's basketball to be treated with a great deal of respect, in terms of how it's marketed and promoted, and how it's talked about," Foster said.

In addition to the gender equality announcement, Delany revealed an alcohol-free advertising policy for the network. That move, like the one to vastly increase the number of hours of women's athletics programming, is one designed to reflect the values of the universities that make up the Big Ten and the eight-state region in which they reside.

"We'd like to be a healthy, holistic network that fits well with universities and that resonates not only with our fan base and alumni but also people in the Midwest and then others who have interest," Delany said.

"I know when our presidents first started considering this idea they said, ‘How can we be in this business?' I said, ‘Well we are in this business. The only difference is we allow other people to massage the brand and create it and use it.' I said, ‘If you own it, you won't be as critical of others because you can just look in the mirror and find out who is responsible for it.' "

The conference's move to create its own channel has certainly drawn out its share of critics already.

Delany took time in the conference call to specifically request an apology from Comcast, one of the cable giants the Big Ten is at odds with over distribution and cost of the network.

Comcast reportedly released a statement referring to the channel's intended programming as "second and third-tier sporting events," and calling the BTN, "a niche sports channel."

However, the part of the statement that really got Delany riled up was the claim, "Indiana basketball fans don't want to watch Iowa volleyball, but the Big Ten wants everyone to pay for their new network."

"I don't know how that goes over on the East Coast, but in the Midwest, when you're talking about a women's sports team, you talk about them with respect," Delany said. "They're not second tier. Certainly, games at Michigan and Penn State and Ohio State – I don't care who the opponent is, those are not second-tier games."

He went on to call for an apology from the company for denigrating Big Ten student-athletes.

Perhaps surprisingly, Delany confirmed the $1.10-per-subscriber asking price the BTN is seeking in the Big Ten's eight home states, and he reiterated that cable companies in those states must include the network in its basic channel lineup in order to carry it at all.

Though he expressed unhappiness that some of the more acrimonious aspects of the negotiations with Comcast had become public, Delany said he does not expect that to happen with any other company.

Despite the lack of deals with many major cable providers, there is no sense the network is behind schedule.

"I was told by all of the experts and all of the advisors not to expect any major distribution deals on June 21 or even July 15," he said. "If anything were to happen, it would happen later in the summer or maybe after the launch."

Finally, the commissioner named August 1 – the first day the Big Ten football coaches, players and media will gather in Chicago for the annual football kickoff luncheon – as a potential date to begin telling fans to pressure their providers into picking up the channel or consider switching to a service that does carry the network.

"If (fans are) inactive, they aren't doing what they can do to show their interest," he said. On August 1, if there are not more deals in place, "I would say, ‘Hey, your option is to switch.' I don't think we should say that now."


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