Through ESPNU, ESPN Expands Big West Deal

By Carolyn Braff
With each broadcast agreement that ESPN brokers on the college level, the ESPNU network has started to receive a larger slice of the content cake, and this week was no different. Announcing a new five-year broadcast agreement with the Big West Conference, ESPN highlighted the additional content that ESPNU will receive, marking a significant geographical step for the growing college-sports network.
“We’re trying to expose as many of the collegiate geographies as we can,” explains Dan Margulis, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPNU. “We’re pretty strong in the Mid-Atlantic and the East Coast, and this helps us further expand out to the West Coast with a conference that has a strong basketball history but, in addition, is extremely strong in some of the Olympic sports, like volleyball, baseball, and softball.”
The expanded contract with the Big West Conference, which comprises nine schools throughout
California and
Oregon, runs through 2013-14. The deal covers a minimum of five annual men’s regular-season conference basketball games, four on ESPNU; the men’s basketball tournament semifinals on ESPNU (and the championship game on ESPN2); and at least four additional Olympic-sports events on ESPNU. Those Olympic sports, Margulis says, provide the support that a college-sports network needs to survive.
“Basketball and football are the spinal column of a network that’s college-sports–based, but that only takes you through March,” Margulis explains. “You’ve got to fill in the spring with strong college sports, and this is a conference that’s strong in baseball and softball. Within the basketball and football season, other sports happen, and in every region, something else resonates: in Boston and Wisconsin, hockey might be it; in
Iowa, wrestling might be it. We’re building our entire content portfolio, and this is a great conference to do that.”
In addition, three games from the 76 Classic, an annual eight-team men’s basketball tournament hosted by the conference, will air on either ESPN2 or ESPNU. Additional exposure is available through ESPNU Bracket Busters, a two-day men’s basketball tournament of NCAA Tournament hopefuls that will air on ESPN2, ESPNU, or ESPN360.com.
Currently, ESPNU is well distributed throughout the East Coast but is a bit less widespread on the West Coast.
“It certainly helps you with distribution if you have content that’s more far-reaching and resonates locally,” Margulis says. “If you focus on only one area, it doesn’t really incentivize people in another area to carry you. Distribution is certainly a factor that goes into it, but they’re also a conference that deserves the exposure.”
Although digital rights were not explicitly outlined in the deal, they are included, should ESPN choose to exercise them.
“They have opportunities [for streaming applications and mobile content], but, at this point, it looks like we’re limiting to just the ESPNU and ESPN2 televised games,” says Dennis Farrell, commissioner of the Big West Conference, who led the negotiation of the new agreement from the conference side. “But they have the rights in the future to those digital assets.”
Margulis says of the embedded digital rights, “That’s something that we will exploit around the events that we have. The rights are a little bit broader, but it’s certainly something that goes hand in hand with the deal that we have.”
The Big West has worked in partnership with ESPN since 1987-88, the year the Pacific Coast Athletic Association became known as the Big West Conference, so the nine member schools are no strangers to television productions.
“A couple of arenas might need to have a camera platform or two constructed,” Farrell says, “but, for the most part, our facilities are equipped to handle television.”

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