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Project: Big Ten Network

Exploring how the Big Ten Network could leverage Rutgers

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Doubt Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's claims that television markets weren't driving Big Ten expansion? You're not alone in that respect. As a matter of course, setting expectations lower usually makes strategic sense, and he's likely also speaking from past experience in waging battles with cable systems around the country to get the network carried. There are definitely many aspects to the Big Ten's decision to expand, but one of the biggest questions regarding adding Rutgers concerns with racking up big subscriber fees from cable customers in New Jersey and the rest of the New York City metropolitan area.

Visual aids are always helpful. New Jersey is roughly split between Cablevision and Comcast for primary cable companies, with a smaller Time Warner presence, and various other companies here and there like Service Electric and Patriot Cable, Comcast is the undisputed king in metro Philly, while New York proper is a mix of Comcast and Time Warner. First things first, do you get the network already?

  • The channel is already available on satellite services DirecTV and Dish Network.
  • Time Warner offers the Big Ten on expanded basic coverage in the Big Ten's current footprint states as opposed to being part of a digital sports tier, although they will undoubtedly be a tough sell for this deal in the physical boundaries of New York City. This is probably where theories about Fox buying a bigger stake in the YES Network as part of plans to bundle it with the BTN come in (Fox already owns 49% of the BTN.) The Rutgers case was never that adding them would mean Time Warner instantly conceding across the Hudson (this was either a strawman or a misunderstanding of the point that NYC metro is bigger than just the five boroughs, and Rutgers has the biggest plurality of any college football program in the area and a respectable overall level of support.)
  • Cablevision currently makes the BTN available as part of its digital sports tier for $6.95 a month. Given Cablevision's strong propensity for disputes with content operators, this is the area that is really worth watching as a barometer for the Rutgers/BTN partnership. The goal is not only to get the channel onto an expanded basic tier, but command a hefty subscriber rights fee for carriage as well. That's one area for debate, with skeptics citing the Big Ten's arduous fights for coverage several years back.
  • Comcast originally had fought the BTN before caving in 2008. They used to be on a sports tier, but as of a few years ago were moved to the digital premier tier. Clearly, the goal moving forward should be to get on preferred if not starter, where all of the other regional sports networks and ESPN are. Google says that Comcast bought Patriot Cable a few years back, if you're wondering about that part of the map.
  • Verizon has the channel on digital basic.
  • Direct TV has it as part of the CHOICE programming tier.
  • Dish Network offers BTN either as part of its sports pack or in the America's Top 120+ package depending on your location.
  • Service Electric reportedly has the network as part of their premier lineup. They are a very small part of the market however.

Beyond the notion of rights fees, those are still more customers to watch advertisements, and New York City metro viewers (CBS recently reported that seven of the ten top college football game ratings in the market this year featured Rutgers) happen to be a lot wealthier than the rest of the country. There are also a lot more of them. That helps, as does having additional inventory for the channel, to sell to ESPN, or just as part of strength in numbers for better bargaining power. It's true that the last point would have been present regardless of which teams joined the conference, but it's a decent counterpoint to the notion that the revenue pie will be cut into smaller slices here without any corresponding overall growth.

Let's also leave the notion as team strength aside, as anyone on the Rutgers side is probably confident about competing in the weakest league according to statistical rankings like Sagarin over an average of the past few years, while mid-westerners largely think Rutgers is bad at sports and will shatter into dust the second they suit up for league play. (It's no wonder so many of these schools always recruit a ton of New Jersey students!) Big Ten basketball is quite good both objectively and compared to conference football, but there's also an argument that the sheer depth in the Big East as of late has made crawling into the middle class exceedingly difficult. Their average BB team was better due to the league being so top heavy, but the BE's median was stronger. Compare West Virginia and Seton Hall last season to Iowa and Northwestern for instance.

That and everything else matter to an extent, but the rights issue continues to tower over all other factors. Sure, it's true that cable customers are increasingly cutting the cord. A frequently-cited LA Times piece illustrates how the growing rights fees for live sports are a big culprit, leading cable companies in turn to create lower-priced packages without access to expensive programming like ESPN. I agree that the concept of ala carte cable is definitely a threat to this model, but have since been convinced that the notion has been overplayed a bit. The bigger issue probably remains the afore-mentioned cord cutting.

For all of his faults, no one has ever accused Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany of being bad at making money. There's the argument, which has some merit, that at a certain point all of this money reaches diminishing marginal utility, and it's coming at a prohibitive rent extraction from fans. Plus, what does it matter if a Wisconsin is just going to cheap out and let Bret Bielema walk to Arkansas? Hooray for having a ton more money to dump on upping the arms race in olympic sports. (For the record, I don't agree with this point - Wisconsin remains a functioning, successful athletic department precisely because they have a good sense of value so as not to overpay fungible commodities.) However, if for the possibility of a YES bundle alone, if not for Rutgers and Maryland not receiving a full share until six years into their membership - the notion that the two additions are going to dilute the financial value of the conference just is not plausible. It will in fact be precisely the opposite.

I mean, come on, have you SEEN your cable bill lately? You are already probably paying for a bunch of stuff you don't care about, and could safely downgrade to a lesser package (and make up the rest through iTunes/Netflix/Hulu/etc... What's the harm in tacking on one more tiny expense? Yes, in the long run everyone is going to cancel cable and stream esoteric micro content on their mobile smartphones, but until that happens, this remains a damn good racket to be in while there are still additional moneys to collect. It's a business, and knowing what has happened in recent Rutgers athletic history decisions were motivated by factors other the financial causes, thank heavens that is now the case. We've seen down the abyss, eaten the figurative ramen and such, and our sterile corporate future quite frankly now looks a lot more appealing than the alternative.