- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

ESPN yesterday continued its full-throttle quest to beat all competitors into submission, announcing plans to start a 24-hour TV channel devoted to college sports that will compete with CSTV and Fox Sports’ college service on digital cable.

ESPNU, as it will be called, will debut in March, featuring live action of numerous sports, including Division I football and basketball, studio shows and occasional high school football games. Signature college programs like “College Game Day,” and top-tier college basketball on Monday nights will remain on ESPN and ESPN2. But replays of notable games, including those aired on sister network ABC, are likely on ESPNU.

The announcement arrived on the network’s 25th anniversary and at the end of an over-the-top, summer-long celebration of itself.

“This is not designed to take our signature college programs from ESPN and ESPN2. This is designed to give college fans more of what they want,” said John Wildhack, ESPN senior vice president of programming. “This is a logical extension of what we’re already doing in the college space.”

ESPNU has been in development for months, and company executives hinted at its creation last week while previewing promotional plans for the 25th anniversary. The college venture also will take form in other ESPN ventures such as ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine and ESPN Mobile.

Network officials did not disclose any specific target numbers for distribution of ESPNU, but at least at the outset, ESPN will not demand placement of the channel on any specific tier of cable service. The network, however, has been successful in the past broadening distribution of some of its smaller properties as part of broader carriage negotiations for ESPN and ESPN2.

The ESPNU announcement is a major blow to New York-based CSTV, which started the idea of a college-only network 19 months ago. CSTV is now available in about 52million homes thanks to carriage deals with the likes of Comcast and DirecTV. But the channel is actually seen in less than one-fifth of that and does not offer any top-tier Division I men’s basketball or football.

Rather than publicly retreat, CSTV executives yesterday lashed out at ESPN.

“It is clear that ESPN is using the occasion of their 25th anniversary to officially pass the baton as leader and innovator to us and our entrepreneurial brethren,” said Brian Bedol, CSTV president. “At CSTV, our commitment is to continue to build the connection between college sports and college sports fans as opposed to building another avenue toward branding. My partners and I would like to congratulate ESPN on its 25th anniversary as the new worldwide follower in sports.”

That last line from Bedol took direct aim at ESPN’s slogan, “the worldwide leader in sports.”

Wildhack declined to respond to Bedol’s comments.

ESPN yesterday also announced plans to offer a high-definition version of ESPN2. The network started a HD counterpart of the main ESPN channel last year.

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