Kick Start for a New Net
Mark Silverman's latest challenge and passion is selling the Big Ten Network
By Ben Grossman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/9/2007 8:00:00 PM
As a lifelong sports fan, Mark Silverman loves seeing two sides duke it out in front of a large audience. But all of a sudden, the president of the Big Ten Network has found himself front and center in a nasty and very public battle of his own—to get his fledgling network on major cable systems around the country.
Much like last year's struggle between the NFL Network and the cable operators over both pricing and whether that network would be placed on digital sports tiers, the Big Ten Network has found itself in the business version of fourth-and–long with some major cable players, including Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator.
The days leading up to the August 30 launch witnessed both sides taking constant shots at each other in the media. The day before the network launched, Silverman sat for 19 television interviews.
“I've been in some very difficult negotiations, but the way this is playing out in the press, nothing like that before,” he acknowledges.
But Fox National Cable Sports Networks president Bob Thompson says Silverman has been more than up to the task since joining the Fox and Big Ten Conference-owned operation late last year.
“It's been a very public and sometimes not pretty debate, and I think he's taken the high road,” Thompson says. “I've been amazed by his energy level and his resiliency.”
Born in Queens, Silverman grew up a rabid sports fan of the local teams such as the New York Mets and Knicks.
The UCLA Bruins were added to that list during his undergraduate studies, and then the Michigan Wolverines during business school.
While in b-school, Silverman helped launch an entertainment media club, and through the new organization was able to land a summer internship back in New York at NBC. While working on business development initiatives surrounding the Olympics and CNBC, he cemented his interest in working in entertainment full time.
After school, he landed a job at Disney out of the company's MBA recruiting program.
Under the Jeffrey Katzenberg regime, Silverman worked on projects such as the company's acquisition of Miramax as well as the strategy surrounding the release of animated library titles via video cassette.
At a 1995 press conference not long after Disney had purchased ABC, Silverman heard Michael Eisner talking up all the initiatives centered on ESPN, including a new series of restaurants called ESPN Zone.
Little did Silverman know that before long the company, knowing his reputation as a big sports fan, would ask him to head up the Zone sports club business.
Launching the first one in Baltimore, Silverman worked on the project as general manager until 1998, when he was asked to move to struggling ABC and work in business development. He became involved in endeavors such as the launch of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and the international expansion of the Disney Channel.
In 1999, Silverman then did what many successful executives did at the time: He took a shot in an Internet company. And that company, Broadband Sports, a startup run by former Disney exec Richard Nanula, had the same results as many Web ventures at that time: It failed.
While the company would grow from 30 to 140 employees, it closed in 2001. Its problem was that not enough consumers had broadband to make the site lucrative.
After a short stint on his own, Disney brought him back to serve as general manager of ABC Family in 2003. A management shakeup soon left him as the network's interim president, but by 2004 he was upped to general manager of the entire ABC Cable Network Group.
In the position, he worked with Disney Channel, ABC Family and SoapNet, while also serving on the boards of A&E, the History Channel and Lifetime.
While Silverman enjoyed the role, he was looking for something different.
“I was looking to run something, I was in more of a corporate role,” he says. “I wanted something to call my own and be responsible for myself.”
It was at that time that he sat down with Fox Networks Group president and CEO Tony Vinciquerra for a casual chat. That led to another meeting, this time to discuss running the startup Big Ten Network.
“As a Michigan grad, as a sports fan and as an entrepreneur at heart, I immediately thought this was going to be something fantastic,” he says.
Silverman officially joined in December 2006, but with his daughters still in school in Los Angeles, he commuted to Big Ten Network headquarters in Chicago every week.
But as bad as Chicago's O'Hare Airport can be in the winter, the rigors of the commute were nothing compared to the battle he undertook with cable operators.
“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was surprised how public and contentious it has been,” he says.
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