- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

The placement of certain college football games on ESPN’s fledgling Internet service has earned mixed receptions from officials at some athletic departments, many of whom say their teams’ games deserve wider and more traditional distribution.

ESPN360, which allows fans to watch games live through broadband connections on their computers, is being presented by ESPN as an extension of its television coverage, and a way to offer more games to fans.

Some schools have welcomed the new service as a way to show games that might otherwise have received no coverage. But it has drawn the ire of other institutions, who don’t see the service as a viable alternative to television.

ESPN360 is available to about 7 million people, all of whom get the service through Internet providers that pay ESPN to carry it. The ESPN and ESPN2 cable channels, meanwhile, are available in more than 90 million cable television homes.

Officials at Maryland cried foul when the Terrapins’ Oct. 14 game against rival Virginia was shown on ESPN360, while ESPN and ESPN2 did not show football games.

“We all let them know we were very unhappy with that arrangement,” said Maryland associate athletic director Brian Ullmann, who said the school received a flurry of complaints from fans. “It’s a rivalry game. We don’t think that ESPN360 is an appropriate venue for our football games. The Maryland football team deserves to be on traditional television broadcasts. People just aren’t ready to sit and watch a football game on their computer. It’s not an acceptable substitute.”

ESPN spokesman Paul Melvin said the rules governing the airing of sporting events are often complex, and that the Maryland-Virginia game likely would not have been available to fans anywhere else. He acknowledged that ESPN360 is still unavailable to most fans, but said there are talks with several Internet providers about carrying the service.

“It’s understandable [that] people might react this way, but most of the games that end up on ESPN360 are games that would not have been on at all,” Melvin said. “That’s not true in all cases, but most cases. ESPN360 allows us to show more games than we could previously.”

In addition to college games, ESPN360 has shown live Indy Racing League races and World Cup matches, and also offers online games. Its lack of reach, however, is particularly noticeable in the Washington area. Comcast, the region’s largest cable Internet provider, has no plans to begin carrying the service. Cox Cable, which has thousands of subscribers in Northern Virginia, also has refused to sign on. The service is available to subscribers of Verizon’s FiOS and DSL services.

For the most part, ESPN360’s lineup of games is heavy on non-BCS conferences, like the Mid-American and Western Athletic, along with some matchups between big conference teams and much weaker opponents. This week’s matchups include a game between MAC rivals Toledo and Akron and lowly Buffalo’s visit to 18th-ranked Boston College.

Schools generally have little say over whether their games appear on ESPN360; the contracts between ESPN and college conferences allow the company to place games as it sees fit.

Many schools, even some who are accustomed to playing before a large national audience, are accepting of ESPN360 as an occasional place for their games.

“It hasn’t been a negative for us at all,” said Chris Cameron, associate athletic director at Boston College, whose opening game against Maine was also shown on ESPN360. “We look at this as additional exposure. The challenge we’ve had is explaining to people what it is. People see the ESPN brand and associate it with television, so they think they should be able to just watch the games on TV.”

In the Boston area, most fans have been unable to get ESPN360 because the two largest Internet providers in the area, Comcast and RCN, do not carry it. But the lack of distribution has not resulted in backlash against the school, Cameron said.

Officials at Texas Christian University offered praise of ESPN360, which showed last week’s game between the Horned Frogs and Army. Few of TCU’s games are on nationally, a problem made worse by the relatively small reach of the Mountain West’s own regional sports network.

Last year, TCU organized a viewing party for the team’s game against San Diego State. More than 300 students watched the game, which aired only on ESPN360.

“Any avenue you can have for exposure is great,” said Mark Cohen, TCU’s director of athletic media relations. “The bottom line is that if it’s no TV or ESPN360, then what’s to complain about?”

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