University of Louisville football fans almost got stiff-armed by ESPN on Saturday. The ninth-ranked Cardinals were scheduled to play the University of South Florida Bulls in Tampa, but they weren’t scheduled to be on almost anyone’s TV in Louisville—until wrangling between cable operator Insight Communications and the sports behemoth was resolved at the last minute.
ESPN holds the rights to games in the Big East Conference, where Louisville plays. ESPN, which can be a tad undiplomatic in its dealings with cable operators, also is interested in expanding distribution of its new college sports channel, ESPNU. Insight didn’t used to carry ESPNU. Now it does.A couple of weeks ago, Louisville fans thought the game was going to be broadcast by Belo-owned ABC affiliate WHAS, the local rights holder. But under its TV deal, ESPN has until 12 days before a game to exercise its broadcast option and, last Monday, grabbed the game for sparsely distributed ESPNU (it’s in about 7 million homes, via DirecTV, EchoStar, and Adelphia Communications). Since Insight does not carry the network, the game wouldn’t be available to the company’s 275,000 area subscribers—or to anyone, other than satellite customers.Initially, Insight wouldn’t budge. “ESPNU is a relatively new network. It was not a big priority,” Gregg Graff, Insight’s senior VP of regional video services, said early last week. ESPN, he said, was using Louisville fans as “pawns.”But on Thursday night, the two sides hammered out an interim deal. Insight added ESPNU to its digital basic tier immediately; the game would be carried the game on a local analog cable channel. The two sides also agreed to negotiate a long-term deal for all Insight systems.As football season heats up, ESPNU no doubt will pluck other marquee games from the schedule, and cable operators across the country can expect similar run-ins.“We will never be ashamed to put quality content on our networks,” says ESPN distribution chief Sean Bratches. “There is great demand for this content. These are passionate, loyal audiences.” Attention, pawns: Checkmate.