CHICAGO -- Columnist Tim Cronin on the Big Ten TV network.
Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten, would like you to believe the conference’s new cable television network is something no fan should be without.
Delany and those in charge at the Big Ten Network would also like you to believe that the channel, set to debut Aug. 30, is the league’s gift to its alumni.
Don’t believe it.
This is a money grab.
This is a way to make college sports, which long ago rescinded any rightful title to the concept of amateurism, that much more commercial and professional. For the conference, via its new commercial television arm, to get its hand in your pocket and keep it there.
The touted virtues of the 24-hour channel include everything from live football and men’s basketball games to the full panoply of lesser sports, to which only fellow classmates and the parents of athletes pay attention, along with a nightly recap of conference news and, eventually, educational programs from all 11 Big Ten schools. (Perhaps one will be on the New Math.)
What neither Delany nor network brass mention is this: The package of syndicated football games that usually ran at 11 a.m. Saturday on Channel 2? Gone. The package of syndicated basketball games that channels 26 and 56 carried? Gone.
Those games are off free television, moving to the Big Ten Network. For a price yet to be determined.
The price the Big Ten wants from cable systems in Big Ten states is $1.10 per subscriber per month. Every month, even in June, July and August, when school is out. (Outside the area, the outlet will accept 10 cents a month per subscriber.)
The league also wants the network to be carried on basic expanded cable, the same spot where ESPN, CNN and The Weather Channel reside, all the better to haul in the dough from subscribers and higher commercial rates.
For the most part, cable bosses in the Midwest have said “no” to the price and “no” to that spot on the dial.
While some small outlets have signed on, the big ones, including Comcast, RCN and Wide Open West, which account for the majority of cable accounts in the Chicago area, are holding off. So is Time Warner, a powerhouse elsewhere.
Cable executives generally want to pay less and put the channel on a digital tier, where specialty channels such as Speed Channel, CSTV and the Tennis Channel are placed.
Negotiating such as this goes on in business all the time, and usually, things get settled. Comcast, for instance, has had Channel 33 open since Fox Sports Net Chicago signed off. Given that Fox Sports Net is the 49 percent owner of the Big Ten Network (the league owns a 51 percent controlling interest), Channel 33 would be a logical place for it to land.
However, the Big Ten has been so ham-handed in its pronouncements, starting with Delany, whose strong-arm tactics behind the scenes are legendary, the league is getting nowhere in talks with the major cable players.
Earlier in the summer, Delany flew off the handle, insisting the prospect of watching Iowa’s women’s volleyball team was an example of first-class programming. That was in response to a classification of the team as “third rate” Delany said had been printed in The New York Times. It hadn’t been. A Comcast fact sheet noted, correctly, that “fans of teams in other cities don’t want to pay to watch the University of Iowa’s volleyball games.”
There was no mention of third-rate, but that didn’t stop Delany from blasting the notion that everything about the Big Ten isn’t of compelling interest.
Fine. He can defend his conference. But he can’t defend the reality that games are being taken off free TV and put on a cable network that is overpriced, perhaps at any price.
Delany notes that Versus and The Golf Channel are on expanded basic on Comcast because the cable firm owns the channels. His channel has a similar advantage with DirecTV placing the Big Ten Network on its basic package, “Total Choice,” available to 16 million homes. Fox Sports Net and DirecTV are both owned by News Corp.
The channel’s PR staff has recently been e-mailing news releases to reporters insisting that the network should be on expanded basic, as if it’s a birthright for Midwesterners.
“Big Ten sports are often a touchstone for the citizens of our states,” went part of a recent communiqué. “If you live in one of the eight states and receive 50 to 60 channels as part of your expanded basic package, the Big Ten Network should be one of them.”
Hardly. This isn’t a channel vital to every viewer. This is sports, not a tornado warning. This is second- and third- and fourth-choice football games (after ABC, plus ESPN and/or ESPN2, depending on the week), such as Illinois-Northwestern, Minnesota-Iowa and, on the opening weekend, Appalachian State-Michigan.
The men’s basketball package might be worthwhile, but how many great regular-season games from last season stick in the mind? One? None? As for everything else, well, it’s not as if ABC and CBS have been clamoring to televise baseball and field hockey.
This is a niche network, no matter how much Delany bleats otherwise, right there with NBA TV and the NFL Network. Both of which, incidentally, are on tiers. If the NFL can’t get on expanded basic, why should the Big Ten Network be so fortunate?
Last week, Delany said the league would look into expansion to 12 teams, which would allow a conference title game, partly because that would make the network more attractive.
Once upon a time, the Big Ten stood for something other than money and a television package. The way things are going, that era will soon be a distant memory.
Tim Cronin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-5948.