CSVS 2010: Should a Conference Have Its Own Network?

The question of whether a collegiate athletic conference should start its own network is immensely complicated, but, before a conference can begin to form an answer, it must first define what sort of network it wants. At the second-annual College Sports Video Summit, held June 8-9 in Atlanta, the conference and network executives who took the stage for a panel discussion on conference-specific networks began by doing just that.

“I think I know what most people are thinking now when they say network,” said Tom Odjakjian, associate commissioner of the Big East Conference. “They mean a conference-owned network like the Big Ten or Mountain West have. The Big East network existed when the Big East started, but it was just a syndicated network. It meant you sold the advertising and you produced it, but [the conference] didn’t own a network as the Big Ten does.”

Content Control
Networks, Odjakjian explained, can be regional, national, syndicated, or digital, among other formats. A network can be essentially a programming package or, as with the Big Ten or Mountain West, conference-owned and –operated 24-hour channel. Those two conferences started their networks to have more control over their content, including the start times of their games.

At Mountain West, when prospective TV partners proposed that the conference play more midweek games, the board reviewing the proposal told its TV committee to find another way to showcase the conference. That way was a network of its own.

“Our presidents liked the option to be the first conference to form our own 24-hour network,” said Dan Butterly, associate commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, “but it also meant a lot for us to play 98% of our football games on Saturdays and to give us control over our scheduling process.”

Said Mark Rudner, associate commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, “For us, it was important to be able to maximize the emerging technologies that we saw at various levels of the industry. The genesis of our network is really controlling content. That’s the underlying theme: to have more control over your content.”

Widening Exposure
The Southeastern Conference cited that same desire to control content as a factor in deciding whether to form an SEC network, but the need for immediate wide distribution and the member institutions’ individual rights deals outweighed that factor.

“Most of the member institutions in our conference had very significant multimedia-rights deals of their own, and that was an element that we felt we needed to protect moving forward,” explained Mark Womack, executive associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. “A big factor for us was allowing our institutions to control their multimedia rights. We gave a network very strong consideration, but we opted to try to distribute our content as widely as possible.”

Increasing regional exposure was the determining factor in the Sun Belt Conference’s network decision.

“We needed to increase our regional exposure; that is our meat-and-potatoes of television,” said Travis Llewellyn, assistant commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference. “We started a marketing and syndication partnership with Comcast Sports South and Cox Sports Television. With our syndicated Sun Belt Network, we now reach nine of the 12 markets that we have, and we are able to reach individual agreements with over-the-air carriers to reach those other three markets.”

Adding Students to the Mix
The conference executives discussed the importance of student involvement in their productions not only to increase the amount of content coming out of their member institutions but also for recruitment purposes and brand exposure.

“Part of our agreement with ESPN was to expand their Campus Connection program to include several telecasts in our league across the various sports,” Womack said. “We want to improve that experience for our students. We also have a very significant internship program now with ESPN. All 12 of our institutions will have an intern at ESPN, which has provided an opportunity for our students to be involved with ESPN at a very high level.”

Added Butterly, “It’s fascinating to see the quality of productions that they can do at the student level. That’s one thing that we keep encouraging our institutions to do. If you’re broadcasting in some fashion, take that feed, increase it just a little bit more, and it can be broadcast-capable.”

Of all of the conferences, the Big Ten has been most aggressive when it comes to student involvement in its network. As part of its StudentU initiative, every institution is given a flypack of equipment to produce games, in HD quality, that will air online as well as on the linear network. Last year, the Big Ten Network televised more than 150 StudentU events.

“We are teaching the next group of camera people, technicians, and play-by-play analysts and giving them real-world experience in college,” said Mark Hulsey, VP of production/executive producer for the Big Ten Network. “I wish I had that when I was in college.”

Objectivity Required
When a conference owns its own network, it can be difficult to be self-critical. However, in the eyes of the fan, such critiques are vital to the success of a sports network, especially if it is conference-specific.

“That was a critical element of our discussions: how you would handle reporting the news,” Womack said. “You have to report the facts without shying away from them. Any league that would start its own network has a responsibility to report the news.”

However, there is a difference between reporting and sensationalizing, and networks must be sensitive to that as well.

“We leverage our access and our relationships to accurately report what goes on without sensationalizing,” Hulsey said. “The worst thing that can happen is when you lose your credibility, so we’ve made a commitment to get people in place to do that reporting.”

Said Rudner, “When there is news that comes out of the Big Ten that is not favorable, we turn it over to the journalists who are at the network. We don’t shy away from it. From time to time, we have coaches who don’t like how some of the analysts treat them on the air, and that’s a great tribute to the network. They need to have that ability to be critical.”

The critical angle also helps with programming, as analysts need fuel for their studio-show discussions.

“You’ve got to have talent that know how to respect the institutions and also tell the stories that are going on around the issues that are unfolding,” Butterly said. “There are times when you’ve got to be an independent network.”

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