- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Millions of Americans will set aside Saturday afternoons this fall to watch college football - an increasing number of them tuning into cable sports channels that a few years ago didn’t exist.

College sports networks like ESPNU, CBS College Sports and the Big Ten Network have gained big traction among sports fans and cable operators, expanding their reach to tens of millions of households in time for this college football season.

Once seen as fledgling, niche networks, they now boast a healthy subscribership and new programming that rivals that of more established broadcasters.

“We’re further along than I thought we’d be,” said Mark Silverman, president of the two-year-old Big Ten Network. “I feel pretty good about our progress.”

The Big Ten Network, a conference-owned channel devoted solely to Big Ten sports, once seemed an unlikely candidate to draw a mass audience.

But the network in the past year boosted its subscribership to more than 40 million homes with the potential to reach as many as 70 million - a significant number of which are located outside of Big Ten country.

The network struck deals for carriage on most major cable providers last year and in June struck a deal to reach more than 3 million Cablevision subscribers. On Tuesday, the network announced a deal with Atlantic Broadband to service more than 100,000 people in central and northern Pennsylvania.

Other college sports networks saw similar growth in the past year.

ESPNU, the four-year-old college sports network owned by ESPN, boosted its availability to more than 46 million households by striking a deal with Comcast that put the network in the carrier’s basic digital tier and by moving onto a more widely available tier on satellite provider DirecTV.

CBS College Sports, formerly known as CSTV, also moved to a wider tier on DirecTV, boosting the channel’s reach to more than 30 million households.

“We’ve had some really nice growth over the last year or so,” said Steve Herbst, executive vice president and general manager of CBS College Sports. “The intensity of the college sports fan never ceased to amaze me - how intense they are, how loyal they are and how fervent they are about the team. I’ve always felt like a college sports network would work beautiful because it services those fans in ways that other networks can’t.”

Industry analysts said most of these networks followed a natural progression of relatively low distribution in the first few years, with most cable and satellite operators taking a cautious approach. In the case of the Big Ten Network, distribution came earlier and faster because 49 percent of the network is owned by News Corp., which once controlled DirecTV.

“Most new networks that are sports networks are going to reach the subscribers they expect to reach within five years,” said John Mansell, owner of a cable industry consultancy in Great Falls. “So it’s getting to that point where they are getting a good saturation level.”

Mansell also said that new networks have gained distribution more easily in recent years because cable and satellite operators have added capacity with the shift from analog to digital service.

The reach of these cable networks also has coincided with an upgrade in programming. In their infancy, the networks broadcast few marquee games and little in the way of news or analysis shows. Now they broadcast more live games, more high-definition content, more studio shows and fewer repeats.

“The first two years you just make sure you’re on the air, you make sure everything’s working, you get distributed,” Silverman said. “This year, we’re trying to do everything better and kind of just take it up a notch.”

The Big Ten Network this summer began airing an 11-part documentary about preseason football practices at every university in the conference. CBS College Sports this week will air seven shows previewing most major football conferences and the Heisman Trophy race. ESPNU, meanwhile, is planning a series of remote shows at college campuses across the country.

The success of these networks so far is a testament to the popularity of college sports. Most mainstream broadcasters already show hundreds of live college games each year, and ESPN has long used college sports as a staple of its fall and winter programming.

Last year, ESPN signed a 15-year, $2.25 billion deal with the SEC for the rights to show basketball, football and other sports. The move was seen as an effort to prevent the SEC from forming a competing league-owned network as the Big Ten did.

“There was a skepticism when ESPN launched, like, ‘Who’s going to watch sports 24 hours a day? Is there enough interest?’ And it was proven that the answer is yes,” said Rosalyn Durant, vice president and general manager for ESPNU. “And it’s the same with college sports. When you think about the magnitude of college sports and the diversity of it, there is something on all the time.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing college sports networks now is the economic recession, which has slowed television advertising to a trickle. Mansell estimated that the networks might suffer a 20 percent decline in ad revenue, though Silverman said sales for the Big Ten Network have risen modestly. Executives said the specialization of the networks may actually come in handy during tough times.

“You can look at it like we can only show things from the conference, or you can look at it as if we’re really targeted and these millions and millions of Big Ten fans and students will know there’s a network just for them,” Silverman said. “When you’re branded like that, you may not have content from other conferences, but I’ll make that trade because the Big Ten’s big enough and appealing enough that the market is sufficient for us to do well.”

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