“We had issues with the days of the week and with the start times,” said Craig Thompson, the conference’s commissioner. “We played at 10 a.m. a few times to stay in certain broadcast windows.”
So Thompson made a bold decision: The Mountain West bid farewell to ESPN and formed its own regional sports network. The conference this year partnered with CSTV, a college-only sports network owned by CBS, to create a channel devoted entirely to the Mountain West.
The national exposure of an ESPN broadcast was lost, but the conference gained something else: control.
“I have great respect for ESPN,” said Mr. Thompson, who still is working to get wide distribution of his new channel. “They were our partners for seven years, and we had a great relationship. We just felt it was time for a new business model.”
A mass exodus from ESPN is unlikely, but the Mountain West just may have started something.
The Big Ten conference earlier this year announced a deal with Fox Sports to form its own regional network, with plans to distribute it to every home in the country with basic cable. The Southeastern Conference also is considering its own network.
However, discontent with ESPN in the college ranks is hardly rampant.
On the day the Big Ten announced the creation of its network, it also announced a new 10-year deal with ESPN and ABC.
ESPN has enough confidence in the college market that it is working hard to distribute ESPNU, its own colleges-only station introduced last year.
But the emergence of conference-owned networks, as well as the solid growth of CSTV on television and online, means more entities are competing for the rights to show the top college events.
“There’s always tremendous competition out there,” Mr. Wildhack said. “It introduces a new dynamic, but we feel we’re in a leadership position in terms of our overall college distribution strategy.”
Appearance of conflict
As ESPN grew, it became a go-to place not only to watch games but also for information about sports.
That can create conflicts of interest, as the network reports on organizations that also happen to be its largest business partners.