Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Big Ten Network Again

I have received some strange correspondence in the past from sports teams, but the letter I just received from the higher-ups at the University of Wisconsin athletic department takes the cake. Before I go into it, a little background. Well, a lot of background.

I am a season ticket holder for UW football. I got these tickets about three or four years ago in a random drawing when they expanded the stadium.

A couple of weeks ago I received this letter from the UW Athletic Department. It is so long that I don't want to reproduce it here, so please click that link and read it if you are interested in this ongoing fight between the Big Ten Network, the athletic departments of the Big Ten universities, and the cable networks.

Before I dissect the letter, I will provide some more background on what the Big Ten Network (hereafter called the BTN) is, how it began, and its effect on the locals here in Madison.

The Big Ten Network is a creation of the Big Ten Conference and Fox Cable Networks. It launched just before football season this year. It got picked up by both Dish Network and DirectTV. Outside of that, pretty much nobody in the Big Ten conference's states can watch any programming on the BTN. Honestly, I thought that this huge problem would have been solved by now, but it hasn't. The cable networks have successfully told the BTN to "stick it".

ABC and ESPN (ESPN is owned by ABC, and both are owned by Disney) get first choice of games (we are talking football here), then the BTN gets to pick the rest. The games are picked a few weeks in advance. Some total loser games are just given to the BTN before the season starts. These games feature perennial loser Big Ten teams (for instance, Illinois vs. Minnesota) or a Big Ten team vs. a weak non-conference foe (example: Wisconsin vs. Citadel).

So, in essence, the marquis games are supposed to be on networks that people can actually watch, like ABC or ESPN, and the crap games are supposed to be on the BTN - for now. The BTN has a very major problem at this point, and that problem is that large cable networks are not interested in their programming. Why?

For starters, price. The BTN wants more than any other network charges except ESPN. The value? Approximately 12 hours per year of football games, and approximately 25-30 hours of basketball programming - PER YEAR! Of course I am talking men's basketball. Lets just be real and assume that football and men's basketball are the only two true revenue sports - because they are. And that nobody will watch the BTN for anything other than these two sports - because they won't.

Secondly, the BTN insists that every cable network puts them on either basic or extended basic rather than on a sports tier. Neither the major cable networks nor the BTN have been flexible on either the price or the basic/extended basic/tier issue.

The winners so far? Nobody that I can point to. The losers so far? Well, of course, the fans - as always. Also I would have to say at this point that the Big Ten Conference. They are suffering from awful PR all across the country. Don't think for a minute that the SEC or PAC 10 aren't watching this trainwreck unfold and are taking notes on how NOT to do it.

And PR brings me back to the letter I received via email from the UW Athletic Department. This letter is written very poorly, as if they grabbed the nearest seventh grader and sat them down and said "write something about this". There are many grammatical errors and even a spelling error or two and the letter is way too looooong. I am not perfect, but I can do better than this.

It is signed by Barry Alvarez, Athletic Director, John Wiley, the UW Chancellor and Walter Dickey, UW Athletic Board Chair. Lets see what they have to say about this mess.

The development of the Big Ten Network, which launched just 65 days ago, has been in the works for nearly three years, and it included input from conference officials, school presidents, athletic directors, faculty representatives and more. In the opinion of those folks, the establishment of the Big Ten Network was the right thing to do to insure the long-time stability of Big Ten athletics. It is important from a recruiting standpoint, a financial standpoint and a marketing standpoint. It’s a network that will focus on our schools and our student-athletes and the issues of importance to Big Ten fans.

Frankly I don't think the BTN had much input from anyone, other than the people at the Big Ten Conference offices. I still don't understand this point that the BTN keeps making that the BTN will help recruiting. Why? How? The teams were on TV before, and now they are not. How does that help recruiting? How would it affect recruiting at all even if the BTN was on in every home in the Big Ten states? The teams were on TV before after all.

Unfortunately, the two major cable carriers in Wisconsin – Time Warner and Charter -- have chosen to not carry the Big Ten Network. (It’s important to note that our local contacts at both those companies have long been supportive of Badger Athletics. Many of the employees of those companies are Badger fans; many are graduates of UW-Madison or have children, friends and relatives who attend or have attended UW-Madison. They are Badger fans who recognize the importance of carrying the Big Ten Network and who understand the unprecedented demand for television coverage of Badger Athletics in this community. Unfortunately, the decision to not carry the network is being made in places other than Madison and Milwaukee.)

I like how they try to insulate the locals from any local angst. It is, of course, ridiculous and hypocritical that the BTN or UW brings this up. For six months now we have seen ads and heard radio spots begging us to call and harass our LOCAL cable provider to get the BTN. And now we are told that these are all good people and fans of the local team. Huh.

We’ve heard from cable company spokespersons that the Big Ten Network is too expensive. If small cable companies in Wisconsin like Mt. Horeb Telephone Co. or Tech Com in Richland Center or Vernon Telephone Cooperative in Westby can negotiate a price that is acceptable, why can’t Charter and Time Warner do the same?

Why? Because these cable companies that have the Big Ten Network are almost beyond small in comparison to Charter or Comcast. There are a total of approx. 6,000 people in Mount Horeb, and about 5,000 in Richland Center. There are about 2,000 people in Westby. For gods sake they should come up with better examples than these.

We’ve heard cable spokespersons say that you don’t need to get the Big Ten Network because all the good games are on ABC, ESPN and other stations already on their expanded basic. We would suggest that Badger fans don’t need to be told by the cable companies what games are “the good games.” Most Badger fans would agree that the good games are those in which the Badgers play. Saturday’s game against Ohio State is a perfect example of that.

This is probably made up, and a talking point rammed down the throat of the UW by the BTN. It is stupid, and condescending to boot.

We’ve also heard that there’s really no good reason to have the Big Ten Network and that the Big Ten and all of its schools should have kept things the way they were. First of all, many of us have been around here long enough to remember when it was a struggle to get ANY game on television, much less an entire season of broadcasts. Also, don’t forget that last year, three of our football games were broadcast on either ESPNU or ESPN360, with significantly limited distribution. And in men’s basketball last year, four games were limited to ESPN360, one game was on CSTV and six other Badger games were not televised at all.

Here is a whole bushel full of red herrings. Ever since I have been alive, and even when I attended the U of I in Champaign, we never got to see EVERY basketball game that the Illini were playing in, just as the Badger fans did not get to see every game their team was playing in. Or football game for that matter. ESPNU and CSTV are on Charter here, on the PAY SPORTS TIER, just where the cable companies want the BTN. So that point is one made AGAINST the BTN, in UW's OWN LETTER! ESPN 360 is not available around here.

Please understand that the role of our athletic department, much like the local folks at Charter and Time Warner -- is limited. We believe strongly that we are doing all that we can to assist the Big Ten Network staff in their negotiations. But, simply put, until the major cable companies are willing to negotiate, our role in the process will remain extremely limited.

Don't call us, we can't do anything.

We’ve been asked often if there is anything you as Badger fans can do to help us work our way through this. Here are a few suggestions to consider:
First, when in discussion about this issue, please share the information in this letter. There are always two sides to a story, and we think the information in this letter can help counter some of the misinformation being put forth in the marketplace by those who don’t want the Big Ten Network to succeed. Second, if you are comfortable in doing so, we ask that you continue to try and contact your local cable provider and let them know that you want the Big Ten Network on your expanded basic lineup, and that even though you may have not made the switch to satellite, that doesn’t mean you don’t have an interest in the Big Ten Network and you want them to carry it. It really doesn’t matter how you make that contact -- phone, e-mail or letter. Let them know that you’re a Badger fan; remind them that they are the temporary holders of a municipally regulated cable franchise in your area and are obligated to respond to your community and its programming mandates.

Ridiculous. "Obligated" to respond to programming mandates? This is a business, first and foremost. If the cable company thought that is was a good deal for them, they would have the BTN in a heartbeat. On the other hand, for 12 hours (max) of football programming worth of crap games, and 25-30 hours of hoops, maybe, just maybe the cable companies are right - maybe there isn't proper value there. One other thing - a while ago we were begged and pleaded with to call, call, call the cable companies. Now we are told to contact the cable networks if we are "comfortable in doing so". Well then.

In summary, we feel strongly that a successful Big Ten Network is good for Wisconsin Athletics. It provides unprecedented marketing opportunities; a distinct recruiting advantage and a steady, guaranteed stream of incremental revenue over a 20-year period that will help Wisconsin remain a nationally competitive athletic department. It’s a network about your student-athletes, your teams and your school.

Well, I don't see how the BTN is good for any athletic program as it stands. They have deals with virtually none of the major cable networks. Charter locally says that the calls they have been receiving requesting it have been "immeasurably low". Most Badger fans (and I am right in the middle of it) report to me that they have just said "fuck it" and are going to listen to the games on the radio, or do what they have done for DECADES and watch the game at a bar.

As far as I am concerned, the BTN is a huge black eye on the schools and the conference and will do nothing but HURT the athletic departments of these programs until they get with it and start to really do two things.

1) Realize that their product isn't worth jack shit outside of their football and men's basketball games

2) Lower the price (relates to 1) and drop the demand that the product be shown on Basic or Extended Basic.

ADDED: I would like to welcome everyone from the ESPN offices in Bristol, Connecticut reading this as well as the many others that are interested from all over the country.


Snakeye said...

Hey, Big 10 Network is coming through pretty good down here in GA! And being from Ohio, it gives me Ohio State as well as Michigan and Illinois!

Dan from Madison said...

Exactly my point Snake - nice to see the very people in the heart of SEC country can see all of our Big Ten games.

johnnyj said...

Good lord! I've seen plenty of big-eleven games here on the west coast this year! You should just move, Dan.

Dan from Madison said...

Every winter I think about it. But I couldn't live in Uganda like you jj.

Snakeye said...

DFM: I hear you... that would piss me off if the same thing happened. I was just giving you shit... Uganda, I hear, is nice this time of year though...

Dan from Madison said...

Yea, but Uganda only has power about three hours a day, couldn't do the Saturday Football Update from there, unacceptable.

gerry from valpo said...

BTN is the answer to a question that nobody asked.

Anonymous said...

A new marketing Slogan... I love it!

BTN - You're not interested, and we responded.

Dan from Madison said...

Good one Anon.