My latest column for the Chicago Tribune is on the Big Ten Network preparing for its eighth season.
From the column:
If you watch ESPN, you have seen the million or so (estimate might be on low side) promos hyping the new SEC Network, which made its debut last week.
It’s been there, done that for the Big Ten Network (BTN). The network has been around for light years in terms of the new media landscape.
Consider that when the BTN launched in 2007, Twitter barely existed and the idea of watching television on your mobile phone still sounded like a crazy idea.
“Back then, one of our big decisions was whether we would spend the extra money to broadcast in HD,” said BTN president Mark Silverman, laughing at the idea of even asking that question now.
The BTN did go HD in Commissioner Jim Delany’s highly risky venture to launch a network centered on just one conference. Now about to begin its eighth year, the BTN has been a major game-changer in college sports.
The BTN is in 60 million homes and supplies a considerable portion of the $27 million payout the Big Ten made to member schools this year (relative newcomer Nebraska got a bit less under its deal). It is difficult to put a dollar value on the exposure generated for the Big Ten by the network in terms of recruiting and marketing, but let’s just it is considerable.
Little wonder why the BTN is the prototype, if not the envy, for other league-focused networks. Seven years later, the SEC finally is joining the party.
“It’s an ESPN-owned network and I’m sure it will be high quality,” Silverman said. “But there’s always going to be new networks launching. We’re focused on our network and growing our brand.”
Growth comes in the form of Rutgers and Maryland beginning Big Ten competition this year. It was initially speculated that the existence of the BTN triggered the decision to expand. Silverman maintains the BTN aspect was “overstated.” He notes that Fox owns 51 percent of the network. It isn’t as if the conference pockets all the profits.
“Having a network was one of the reasons why the conference to expand,” Silverman said. “It wasn’t like the network was urging the Big Ten to expand.”
Nevertheless, the addition of the two schools helped add upwards of 10 million new BTN subscribers, bringing the Big Ten firmly into the nation’s No. 1 market in New York and into the Washington D.C-Baltimore areas. That means increased revenue in subscriber fees and advertising.