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BTN Ready For '08 Season

Buoyed by Comcast deal, net's hoping for more 8/01/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern



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It's August, and for football players that means the grind of two-a-day workouts. For those trying to secure Big Ten Network carriage deals with Time Warner Cable, Mediacom and Charter Communications, it hasn't gotten to that point—yet.

“No, we haven't gotten to that stage yet,” jokes Michael Hopkins, president of affiliate sales and marketing for Fox Cable Networks, during an interview in late July, noting “there's still a month or so to go” before BTN kicks off its first 2008 football games on Aug. 30. “We're negotiating with all of them and remain optimistic there are going to be deals.”

Hopkins and officials at BTN—the service is owned by the conference's 11 member colleges and Fox National Cable Sports Networks—are buoyed by a recent deal with Comcast that will see the nation's largest MSO initially launch the network as part of its expanded basic tier in seven of the eight states in the Big Ten Conference—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia market will launch the promotional service on a broadly distributed digital tier.

“It's a very exciting time for us as we come up on our second season,” said BTN president Mark Silverman. “It's a great opportunity for the network as we launch on Comcast systems on Aug. 15.”

With the Comcast pact, BTN, which also recently inked a deal with Verizon and has carriage contracts with Dish Network, DirecTV, Insight Communications and overbuilders like RCN and WideOpenWest, among many others, will lift its sub base from around 30 million homes to more than 35 million.

If BTN strikes deals with Time Warner, Charter (which has a significant presence in Wisconsin and Minnesota) and Mediacom (the predominant operator in Iowa with more than a half-million customers), it could add another 6.5 million to 7 million subs within the conference's eight-state footprint. However, the three distributors remain on the sideline over pricing (BTN was originally asking for $1 per sub within the region) and positioning issues.

Although neither side would reveal financial terms, sources familiar with the deal say Comcast will pay BTN about 70 cents per subscriber per month. But in the spring of 2009, Comcast may move the network to a broadly distributed digital tier in most of those systems.

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“We've certainly made some changes in the way we look at the outer markets; we've become more flexible,” Hopkins says. “If Comcast is not the No. 1 operator in terms of digital penetration, they have the most digital customers overall. The network is available to the vast majority of them.”

Silverman notes that the main reason for the lengthy negotiations with Comcast was hammering out the new-media aspects of the deal. BTN is producing an HD VOD highlights package for Comcast under the pact.

“It's important that we can offer distributors advanced services that can help grow their other platforms,” Silverman says. “That's an advantage for the network.”

Whether this will trigger three more distribution deals remains to be seen. “We are in negotiations and are hopeful they will result in a positive outcome for our customers,” says Charter spokesman Marty Richman.

Time Warner Cable and Mediacom officials confirmed that they were negotiating with BTN. However, none of the parties would characterize whether the contractual disconnects centered on pricing, advanced services or a combination of the two.

For those who do receive the network, there will be plenty of gridiron action this month, before BTN begins its slate of 40-plus games with the Aug. 30 season openers for Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin. There will be 30-minute previews on each school, and lead studio host Dave Revsine and analysts Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith will take viewers to each campus for 90-minute editions of Big Ten Tonight: Football Practice. Those shows will be marathoned as the season draws nigh, Silverman says.

BTN has also made advertising strides. “There has been a tremendous response to our football this year so far. We've doubled our year-to-year ad revenue,” says BTN Vice President of Ad Sales Roy Seinfeld. “There are a number of returning sponsors; I'd like to think that means we're doing something right.”

To that end, Buffalo Wild Wings returns as halftime sponsor of football games, as does Suzuki ATV for the pre-game reports. Auto-parts chain Advance Auto, which will again have a major schedule for football, is back as the halftime sponsor for hoops.

Nissan, a Big Ten corporate sponsor, will again serve as the presenting sponsor for the Friday Night Tailgate show, which starts Aug. 29. Seinfeld has had conversations with the automaker about segments depicting show host Mike Hall driving to the campus of the week.

BTN has also signed up ConAgra Foods' Rotel brand to sponsor its game-day set. The deal, encompassing TV and Internet inventory and campus sampling, will also feature Rotel's queso dip product on the set.

Seinfeld says that by holding all the rights, BTN offers “an attractive, cost-effective means to reach these audiences.” He adds that none of the ad deals are “based on contingencies” of wider distribution. But clearly that's the priority in the weeks ahead.

Sports analyst John Mansell believes contract game plans will be drawn eventually. “[BTN] is one of the more high-profile conferences in college sports,” he says. “It has become more flexible on the terms, and it's providing VOD highlights and other content. Eventually, the sides will come around.”

The question is whether they will come to terms without two-a-days.



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