Thursday, November 10, 2011

Is BTN Enough?

Has the Big Ten already fallen behind in the college hockey arms race?

At first blush, the question seems a little ridiculous. And, to be perfectly honest, it's not one that even crossed my mind before last week. That's when Versus (soon to become NBC Sports Network) unveiled their initial college hockey broadcast schedule, consisting of sixteen games this season, including four from this year's Hockey East tournament. Hockey East and Versus/NBC Sports also announced a multi-year deal to keep the conference prominently on the network beyond this season.

That news, in and of itself, didn't lead to the question. We've known that something like this was coming since August and Notre Dame had already announced, via press conference last month, that Versus/NBC Sports would broadcast all Irish home games beginning with the 2013-2014 season. My reaction at the time was along the lines of "Notre Dame won big, the Big Ten won big, but we'll have to go down the road a couple years before a final verdict."

Two things caused me to more closely examine that position. The first was the fact that future Big Ten schools are represented only twice in this year's "national" schedule, compared with seven appearances each for future NCHC schools (most of which are in the WCHA at the moment) and the 2013 version of Hockey East (not including the conference tournament, which obviously adds to that total).

The other was this thought-provoking blog post from freelance sports reporter Rachel Lenzi (by the way, the blog as a whole is outstanding, give it a read).
NBC/VERSUS coverage of college hockey is a good thing – again, sheerly for EXPOSURE. How many times have you turned on your basic cable sports stations and seen a nationally televised college hockey game?

ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3 (the four-letter network’s Internet outlet) and ESPNU have typically broadcast the NCAA Tournament and the Frozen Four. In a way, it seems as if ESPN has monopolized the NCAA hockey tournament. Otherwise, college hockey has been confined to regional and local networks – some that weren’t easily accessible nationwide, unless you had DirecTV or the digital sports tier on your local cable provider.

For example – there are a few regional networks:
  • Big Ten Network
  • New England Sports Network
  • Fox Sports North
  • Root Sports
Even though I like watching the regional feeds – watching Maine-North Dakota a few weeks ago, I got a kick out of some of the commercials from the Grand Forks area – regionalization of the sport hinders the growth and exposure of college hockey.
When I first noticed her inclusion of Big Ten Network in the "regional" category I protested, mindful of the usual drumbeat from BTN brass, including "73 million households in the U.S. and Canada" and "on cable in 19 of the 20 largest markets in the U.S." But as I invested more thought, I realized that she's right.

See, while BTN does have a national footprint to an extent, one rather large hindrance exists: it only insists on basic (or extended basic) carriage in Big Ten states. Elsewhere, it's buried somewhere on a sports tier, along with present college hockey broadcasters CBS Sports, Fox College Sports, and those other regional sports networks that most people barely recognize, largely ignore, and perhaps don't even realize are out there.

There's no doubt whatsoever that despite this limiting characteristic, BTN has been a financial boon to the conference - it paid out an estimated $6.5 million to each member school for the 2009-2010 season. And yeah, I'm a fan of the product, enough so that I've complained to you about not getting it before. But neither of those things are the point to me. How many households will the BTN add because of hockey? How many more ads will they sell because of hockey? How many more buyers for streaming packages will step forward because of hockey? How much exposure will the conference's hockey product get beyond each school's already-entrenched following? I remain unconvinced that the answer to any of these questions is anything of substance.

Meanwhile, Hockey East (and possibly the NCHC later on) is bringing in television revenue that simply would not exist without hockey. Perhaps even more importantly in the long run, they're in with a channel that's quickly becoming the outlet of record for hockey, thanks to their position as the lead national broadcaster for the NHL. The Big Ten's involvement with Versus/NBC Sports at this early stage seems to be that of schools which merely happen to be playing Notre Dame and Denver.

That's vital, and college football may prove instructive in that regard. While the Big Ten pulled games off of ESPN networks in favor of BTN starting in 2007, the SEC enhanced their relationship with ESPN - a savvy move in part because, like it or not, ESPN is the primary distributor of reputation points (and perhaps more) in college football. Arguably, reputation fuels recruiting, which fuels on-field success, making the whole thing a self-fulfilling prophecy. And guess what? They're doing it all while still getting paid to the tune of $2 billion over 15 years.

Ultimately, I still believe that we have to wait a couple years to properly identify winners and losers. The Big Ten could still come out ahead for a few reasons (not the least of which is the fact that BTN is "stuck" with the Big Ten, regardless of the number of eyeballs on the product, while Versus/NBC Sports will eventually drop college hockey if it's not profitable). But as of right now, the conference that started this new era may be getting passed by a less insular competitor.

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