Cus Words: Big Ten Network Vitriol Misguided

The arrival of football season brings with it new weekly features, including a column from BSB staffer Marcus Hartman. He analyzes the Big Ten Network's struggles with the cable companies as well as what to watch this weekend in college football and the Big Ten in this first edition.

What We Learned Last Week:

If you want to make folks mad, mess with their television routine. Maybe this shouldn't have come as a surprise to the Big Ten – and perhaps it did not – but the public relations battle it is losing badly to the country's cable giants has shown picking one's battles is an important skill. How else to explain commissioner Jim Delany and co.'s ability to draw the ire of so many of the conference's fans?

The problem is this is a battle the conference did not seem to need to pick, especially from an Ohio State fan's point of view.

Cable subscribers within the Midwest have had almost no trouble being able to find their Buckeyes on TV every Saturday for the better part of a decade. Those paying for their television outside of the Big Ten region could generally assure their own uninterrupted access for an additional yearly fee tied to pay-per-view. Ideal or not, most people were generally happy.

That most assuredly will not be the case four days from now when Ohio State opens its 118th season of college football and perhaps as many as three-quarters of its fans in the Midwest will not be able to watch from the comforts of their own home.

And why?

On the surface, it seems to be because the Big Ten has made a money grab. Why settle for a reported $11 million per school per year when that number could reach $15 million, $20 million or even more per year?

But there is more to it than that, and as a reminder let me ask that you remember Oct. 21, 2006.

That would be the last time so many Buckeye fans faced the crisis of lacking the option of watching their favorite team when ESPN tried to ride the coattails of the nation's top-ranked team to gain more exposure for its own fledgling channel, ESPNU, as Ohio State played host to Indiana.

I bring this up because – ironically enough – it was a desire to avoid such situations that started the Big Ten down the road it walks alone as summer fades into fall in 2007.

Delany told reporters in Columbus earlier this month that the last time his conference and the self-anointed Worldwide Leader In Sports went to the negotiating table to hammer out a new broadcast agreement, ESPN told the Big Ten in order to maintain the rate of cash flow it was receiving from the previous deal, the conference would have to be open to new broadcasting options. Those included the aforementioned ESPNU – then not available much of anywhere in Ohio and still now not a basic channel – as well as broadband Internet channel ESPN360. On top of that, the conference was asked to move some games to weeknights, an unpopular proposition generally reserved for leagues without the proud tradition of the Big Ten.

Essentially, ESPN was already dictating things anyway, so the Big Ten made a preemptive strike, so they say, to avoid sending its fans to alternative game days and channels not found on basic cable.

Rather than help ESPN fight cable companies for more ways to increase its own revenue, the Big Ten opted to take on the battle itself – with the added plus of getting to keep all of the resulting profits and the power to promote itself how it sees fit.

The conference's claim is that this is its best attempt to protect its existing revenue streams (though an increase is certain if this venture succeeds) and the ability of its fans to find games on Saturdays and (in the Midwest) on the programming level most already are comfortable paying for.

I had misgivings from the start if only because of the problems the NFL Network has had in achieving its desired level of carriage despite the fact it is marketing the country's most popular professional sports league.

However, with the Mountain West, a second-tier league tired of playing on weeknights to appease ESPN, already starting its own network and reports having surfaced that the Southeastern Conference is playing around with the idea of following suit, it would seem this is an idea with some merit.

If you think this is a bad business move by the Big Ten, you'll have to ignore the fact other leagues think it is a good one themselves.

And I can't help but think the revolution that could be coming is an overall positive for the average football junky: Basic cable bringing them as many if not more games from teams within their region than they already get plus, for the optional price of a sports tier, a choice of games from across the country at a cost less than the combination of current pay-per-view options ESPN Game Plan and Full Court.

No one seems to have any problem with the BTN's contentment with being on a digital tier for subscribers from outside its eight-state region, leading me to believe the only major mistake committed is the reported asking price within that region, a fee larger than what the NFL Network supposedly demands or that of other networks that draw similar overall ratings.

The cable companies have done a nice job spinning the issue of carriage with their assertion that all subscribers should not have to pay for content only a fraction will want.

That's an argument that makes sense on the surface, but further inspection reveals that it is patently absurd.

Why? Because it in no way resembles how the cable companies have set up their business. Even among those who have only basic cable, none regularly watches even half the channels available.

Why should the Big Ten and its network be asked to play by different rules?

That's an easy one, too. The cable companies are being at least as greedy as the Big Ten, though I have yet to find a redeeming quality to any of the efforts of Time Warner, Comcast, et al.

The cable companies might claim to have the consumer's best interests in mind when they resist adding the BTN to their basic lineups, but if that really were the case they could appease everyone by bringing on the channel and eating all or some of the added cost they'll pay the BTN.

That might not be great business but it would be fantastic public relations, something that can easily translate into better business down the road.

The guess here is that companies that bring in multiple billions in cash every year could absorb the cost rather than be forced, as they claim they would be, to pass the cost on to the consumer.

How, I might add, is the multitude of small-time cable providers able to foot the bill if Time Warner and Comcast can't or won't?

The fact is, while basic lineup carriage nets the cable companies little to no extra money, putting the BTN on a digital tier steers customers to TW and Comcast's best sources of added revenue in a saturated market.

The math is simple: lose a dollar or so per customer with basic carriage (nothing if they passed the cost on to the consumer) or make anywhere from $5-10 per subscriber who adds a sports tier they were previously happy without.

Now who looks greedy?

And two more points should be made.

While I hate to see the further migration of sports from broadcast TV, it's an unfortunate fact this ship sailed long ago. I was in the vast minority of people to grow up without cable or satellite, so my tales of using our rooftop antennae to pull in local channels from Dayton and occasionally (if the weather was right) Cincinnati or Columbus are not relatable to any appreciable number of people. The BTN, ESPN and TV executives in general assume people who didn't care enough about their Buckeyes to pay to watch their every move before will not be swayed by much of anything else, and even if they were, the sample size isn't worth losing sleep over.

I understand that, but second I'll say that no matter the size of the audience, the Olympic sports deserve the expanded exposure they will get with the launch of the Big Ten Network. Most folks either believe this or they don't, so I won't belabor this point.

I will conclude with this: Ohio State fans likely will suffer more than the rest of those around the conference because the Buckeyes' overall popularity and success assure them of being on TV every week with or without the Big Ten Network, a luxury not afforded fans of other schools before. Ohio State will benefit the same as every other school from any revenue bump the BTN brings (and there is one guaranteed from the deal with Fox), and even if OSU is taking one for the team, that only goes along with the philosophy Gene Smith has pointed his entire department toward.

The Buckeye football team does not enjoy all its spoils because the lacrosse teams need the best equipment money can buy in order to compete. Likewise, the rest of the conference will now share in the largesse created by Ohio State and Michigan.

And all will be stronger in the end.


What We're Looking To Learn This Week:

You know as well as I do a Division I-AA opponent does not provide much of a learning opportunity from a competitive standpoint, but there will be a few things to look for this week when the Buckeyes tangle with the Penguins.

While the blowout I anticipate taking place will make it difficult to discern what type of rotations the coaching staff will use at a contentious position such as linebacker or an injury-riddled one like wide receiver, we should get a pretty good idea about which members of this latest recruiting class will avoid a redshirt.

If the Buckeyes get ahead by more than a half-dozen touchdowns and Boom Herron has not made an appearance, don't look for him before 2008.

And with the certain talent disparity, it is fair to alter expectations. Perhaps anything less than domination in the trenches is reason to worry about the new-look offensive line. If Todd Boeckman has trouble fitting balls into spaces against the YSU secondary, how might he fair against one with more speed and agility?

Nit-picking? Probably. But the 20 percent of folks in Big Ten country with the Big Ten Network need something to latch on to.


On My DVR This Weekend

This Saturday is a no-brainer: the only game featuring two ranked teams is No. 15 Tennessee's visit to No. 12 California. Both of these teams – the Golden Bears, in particular – could be darkhorses in the national title chase… at least until one loses this game and is thus eliminated before Labor Day. Regardless, both will have roles in the how the rest of the race pans out.

With the rest of the pickings pretty slim, Washington State at Wisconsin and Oklahoma State at Georgia could also merit a glance.


Big Ten Power Rankings

As you may have seen in our latest print edition, I like the Buckeyes to make it back-to-back outright Big Ten titles, edging out co-runners-up Penn State and Wisconsin.

But while that's my best guess as to how the whole race will conclude, it does not necessarily reflect how strong I think each team is at the start of the season. Predictions for final standings have to take into account schedule, but that's not the case in the power poll. This is about how good a team is on the hook: the best mix of talent and experience versus what has been accomplished thus far on the field.

With no games played yet, we'll stick with the latter for the first Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll.


1. Wisconsin (More established talent than anyone else)
2. Ohio State (A fair share of stars, and I get to cheat here by watching those youngsters come along behind the scenes)
3. Michigan (Offense was good but not great in '06; Ditto the D. How will they stop anyone this year?)
4. Penn State (The receivers are fantastic and Morelli could step up; Need to find a running back and improve in trenches.)
5. Purdue (A poor man's Michigan – able to score with the best, but who will they stop?)
6. Illinois (Jimmys and the Joes over X's and O's? Skill is there, but can they break through?)
7. Iowa (Went from underrated to underrated to off the radar – this might be too high for team with no quarterback or secondary.)
8. Michigan State (Lots of skill on offense and Dantonio should craft sounder defense. Schedule is killer.)
9. Indiana (Like the offense – how will they respond to adversity?)
10. Northwestern (Defense is better than you think; Sutton is a star when healthy)
11. Minnesota (Untalented squad built for a totally different system)

Marcus Hartman is a staff writer for BuckeyeSports.com and Buckeye Sports Bulletin. He can be reached for comment, cursing or questions via email at mhartman@buckeyesports.com.


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