Big Ten Network Cashing in On Football

Sponsors return, more advertisers added for new primetime grid

It’s already a great football season for the Big Ten Network.
Roy Seinfeld, Big Ten Networks VP for advertising, says commercials
during the channel’s football schedule are already sold out. It’s
also making progress with the next item in the playbook: adding sponsors
for programming in other dayparts.

The network scored a touchdown in getting
Discover Financial Services to become presenting
sponsor for its new primetime series Big Ten
, which will profile great players from the
conference’s rich athletic history. Icons is hosted
by legendary announcer Keith Jackson.

Discover has been bulking up its already considerable
support of college football. Last week,
the company became presenting sponsor of the
Orange Bowl.

Other major advertisers joining Big Ten Network’s
roster this year include International House
of Pancakes, Sprint, Home Depot and General
Mills for its Chex Mix brand.

All of the network’s previous key sponsors are
returning, including the Marines, which will present
the network’s football telecasts; Buffalo Wild
Wings, which presents the halftime show; Auto-
Owners Insurance, which has its name on the
pregame show; and State Farm, presenter of the
football wrap-up show. Other returning sponsors
include Conagra, GMC and Nissan.

The Big Ten Network generates about two-thirds of its revenue during football
season. This year, Seinfeld projects that football-season revenue will be
up 25% from a year ago. And last season, when other networks were struggling
with the recession, ad sales were up 30%. Ratings for football were up
22%. “We’re trying to build the network off of that strength,” Seinfeld says.

The network now has about 20 million subscribers in the eight states where
the Big Ten has universities—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota,
Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—and about 23 million subs elsewhere.
Cable operators pay more for the network in the Big Ten states. But while
the net generates most of its distribution revenue in the Big Ten’s Midwest
footprint, 90% of its ad revenue comes from national advertisers and buyers.
“I don’t call myself a regional sports network,” says Seinfeld, adding that he
can’t split copy so that one ad runs in Ohio and another airs in California.

Seinfeld says the Big Ten Network got a boost on Madison Avenue from all
the talk earlier this year about realigning college conferences. The amount of
money the network could generate as new schools joined the conference was
a door-opener. The addition of powerhouse Nebraska, which joins the league
next season, should also help. “It gave a very positive spin to what we were
doing,” he says, and helped reinforce the message that people who attended
Big Ten schools retain ties to their alma maters. For many fans in the Midwest,
after ESPN, the Big Ten Network is the place they turn to for sports.

“We’re reaping some of the seeds we sowed,” says Seinfeld, a Bronx native
who arrived at Big Ten Network in Chicago via a stint in Minneapolis.

Big Play After Slow Start
The Big Ten Network got off to a slow start when its attempt to get cable
carriage was blocked by Comcast and several other major operators during
its first year, 2007. But once Comcast signed on, the channel has been
steadily moving the chains.

Owned 51% by the Big Ten conference and 49% by News Corp.’s Fox
Cable Networks, the network started turning a profit shortly after Comcast
and the other cable operators signed on—a very quick exit from the red zone
for a new cable net. The network paid the conference $72 million in 2009.

As the Big Ten Network kicked off, other conferences weighed launching
their own channels. Despite BTN’s financial success, none have gotten
off the drawing board.

“Partnering with Fox was a good move. There
are rumblings about more launches, but it’s so
tough to get carriage,” says Derek Baine, senior
analyst at SNL Kagan.

As part of its arrangement with the Big Ten, the
network does not accept advertising from marketers
of alcoholic beverages, a key category for most
sports broadcasters. That means that while you
can see a beer ad when, for example, Penn State
plays Iowa on ESPN, you can’t when Ohio State
plays Illinois on the Big Ten Network.

“People like us for having a different environment,”
says Seinfeld, putting the best face on a lost
opportunity. “No alcohol helps us with some companies.”
Without alcohol ads, the Big Ten Network
is more dependent on other categories, notably
cars, insurance and even food, even though most
food products tend to skew female.

Beyond the Gridiron
This week, Big Ten Network launches several new primetime shows. Some
focus on football; others on Big Ten sports in general. In addition to Big Ten
, which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET, the new offerings include:

The Next Level
, Thursdays at 8 p.m., with each episode spending a day
with former Big Ten stars, focusing on their lives after school in professional
sports and society. Among those featured on the show are Lavar
Arrington, Dallas Clark, Joe Girardi and Dhani Jones.

Big Ten Film Vault, airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m., features rarely seen football
footage, including some games never seen on national television. The
show is hosted by Dan Dierdorf, who played at Michigan before becoming
an NFL Hall of Fame player and a broadcaster.

Other shows debuting are Big Ten Pulse, Thursdays at 9 p.m.; Big Ten
Football Report
, Fridays at 8; and Big= Ten Football Saturday: Kickoff, Saturdays
at 10 a.m.

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