West Virginia coach Bill Stewart recently made some surprisingly candid comments about the future of the Big East. WVU has as much to lose as any program, having probably the best combination of FB/BB in the entire Big East, but being an unappealing expansion target for off the field reasons. There's nothing too outlandish there on the surface, but usually someone in his position would have stayed with the boring and conventional when out in public. Oh Bill Stewart; between your loose tongue, delightfully charming incompetence, and "aw shucks" country folksiness, what won't you do to make the media love you even more than they already do.
The timing is somewhat curious though, considering some other developments over the past week on the subject of money and markets driving the next round of expansion shuffling. Teddy Greenstein just ruminated on some bad blood between Notre Dame and the Big Ten, and then their athletic director engaged in a hypothetical discussion of superconferences, which was somehow distorted into ND being the latest B10 flavor on the week. That's meaningless, but Big East commission John Marinatto used the opportunity to finally float a proactive step.
"If creating a network is what we need to do in the next several years, we’ll create a network," Marinatto said. "We’re here today because of the leadership the conference had five years ago when the conference had dramatically changed. That leadership is still the same. We will not allow it to not be successful."
The trouble here is that the conference is already dangerously behind the curve in this area, as are basically everyone who's not the B10 and SEC (you know the economy's bad when ESPN appears ready to let the ACC walk). The Big East doesn't have a Texas-level power to stand in the way of a conference network, but the window for another channel may have already passed. That, or Kabletown-Sheinhardt will implement ala carte pricing and destroy this whole sordid mess once and for all.
One weird thing with all this chatter about superconferences, expansion, and cable networks is that they're overshadowing other developments which actually look fairly promising in their own right in terms of generating revenue. When ESPN 360 isn't the exclusive venue to watch games, it's actually a fairly useful service. For instance, anyone can go back and watch every college football game that aired on ESPN over the past season. 360 isn't a charity offering, or even ad-supported like Hulu.com. Internet Service Providers purchase access to that premium service as a bonus feature for their users, so it has the same kind of systemic revenue model as ESPN's more traditional cable offerings, although that isn't the case with many other available content brands.
However limited in scope it may be at the prsent, 360 represents a stalking horse into the lucrative potential of video-on demand, much more so than the various free offerings available at the moment like Hulu. The likes of the Writers Guild, Mark Cuban and Rutgers A.D. Tim Pernetti haven't been talking about V.o.D. a lot merely because it's cool or interesting. No, rather, V.o.D.'s logistical advantages present it as the next great medium for delivering digital video content to consumers. Press a button, play a video. It cuts out brick and mortor overhead, and keys in to instant gratification. DVD revenues are tailing off, and they'll likely have to fall into the abyss before this can really take flight. Only then will key decision makers eye projected billions of revenue growth as sufficient for further cannibalizing physical media sales.
The most confounding thing about V.o.D. is that there's no need for a proof of concept for any grander plans. All of the pieces already exist on a smaller scale. Whether it comes to Hulu, 360, iTunes and related services, or your cable provider's On Demand service, there are functioning setups right now, however crude and limited they may be. Theoretically, there is no reason why you, or anyone else for that matter, can't merely pick up a remote or a mouse and view any visual content ever recorded and published. With so much content not on DVD, it's perplexing why anything with a niche audience wouldn't be thrown on iTunes, Netflix, or Unbox at a discount price. Revenue is revenue.
The technology exists. Bandwidth continues to get cheaper, as is the processing power necessary to house the servers delivering content, and other logistical restraints. What's still working against this utopian dream are rights issues, with a myriad of competitors looming on the horizon. I'm not familiar with the status of ESPN's classic library, although my diligent hope is that an army of interns are scanning and converting old VHS tapes into digital video by the hour.
The NFL, CBS, and NBC Sports have garned more hype, but ESPN/Disney's main competitor in this realm is probably MLB Advanced Media, who have been far ahead of the curve with their lucrative MLB.tv service. My biggest concern is with whether not the scope of their operations could be ultimately limiting without further expansion and branching out into other sports. How does a single sport league operation manage to provide more diverse offerings over time?
360 isn't by any means perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. More importantly, ESPN is finally catching up to MLBAM (even if they're not working fast enough to quell my fantastic impatience). That works in their favor, because any other potential rival may be more inclined to partner with the first major player out of the gate. Leveraging ESPN with Disney's other properties in movies and television as part of a broader offering wouldn't hurt, either. But, hey, what do I know. I'm just some chump who wants to buy everything ala carte.