College Athletic Officials Look To Multiply Multimedia

By Carolyn Braff

A key topic of discussion at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletic Forum, held this week in New York, was how athletic departments plan to multiply their multimedia offerings. Of particular importance was how digital rights fit into the mega television deals that conferences are signing with network and cable television. While some schools’ digital rights have been swallowed as part of those television deals, other schools are working hard to retain in-house control of their digital rights and to leverage them in an ever evolving space.

Looking for Clarity in Digital Deals

“We think at Ohio State it’s particularly important for us to keep control of our brand,” explained Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University. “At the same time, we don’t want to re-create everything. The Big Ten Network complicates everything for us, but that’s a question that we’re asking ourselves right now. For me personally, I want to keep control of my brand.”

Ohio State is one of a few athletic departments that still handles its multimedia rights in-house, although the school currently has an RFP out covering signage, game promotions, license promotions, and naming rights to certain venues. How much of that RFP will tap into digital assets is unclear, since, for Big Ten member schools, the digital details of the Big Ten Network contract are still blurry.

“We’re still learning the details of the Big Ten Network contract,” explained Vince Sweeney, senior associate athletic director for external relations at the University of Wisconsin. “We’re still not totally clear on what we have access to and what we’ve turned over to the Big Ten Network.”

In exchange for the revenue each school receives from the network, Sweeney said, the member schools are expected to give up some content. The line blurs, however, when it comes time to determine what content the conference-controlled network owns and what content he has access to.

“There’s great value to the network in a lot of that digital platform,” he said. “We have less than we had before, but the dust is settling a little bit, and we’re trying to clarify all of what’s available.”

Maintaining Digital Independence

At the other end of the spectrum, in a landmark TV deal with CBS and ESPN, the Southeastern Conference ensured that each of its 12 member schools has the opportunity to protect the local rights to its content — including digital content — and many are taking full advantage.

“There are some limited digital rights as well, but I think the key for us was to have those local television rights,” said Mike Hill, associate athletic director for external affairs at the University of Florida. “For 20-plus years, Gator fans have had the opportunity to see replays of Gator football games on Sunday mornings, and that’s important to our constituents. The digital rights are absolutely important. That’s an element that both the league and institutions themselves are taking a good hard look at as a potential new revenue stream.”

Solutions Outside Streaming

Streaming video, while perhaps the most popular way to utilize digital content today, represents just one of those potential new revenue streams in a space that changes daily.

“The whole video-on-demand system, watching a game on your phone — those things are evolving,” said Ross Bjork, senior associate athletic director for external relations at UCLA. He noted that, by bundling all the athletic department’s digital rights in a single package, the school will be able to charge a higher rights fee for that item, instead of farming out limited digital rights in pieces to separate providers.

“As part of that, we’re trying to figure out archive video,” Bjork explained. “When people want to watch Bill Walton score 40 points in an NCAA tournament game, how do we monetize that, and how do we work with NCAA on that? Those are the things that we’re still getting our arms around.”

Finding New Content Streams

When it comes to live streaming video, athletic departments go into some events knowing that the only subscribers will be the athletes’ parents; other events turn out to be surprising.

“We’ve shown an NCAA volleyball match that had over 2,500 viewers,” said Florida’s Hill. “College baseball is certainly big in the South. I do think that it’s regional in terms of interest per sport.”

Burke Magnus, SVP of college sports programming for ESPN and ABC, pointed to baseball, softball, lacrosse, and women’s volleyball as the most viable television properties, moving forward. Sports with a strong regional presence — such as wrestling in Iowa — present an opportunity to spread that passion to other territories, as long as it can be done inside the wrapping of familiar colors and brands of major conferences and institutions.

“You can capitalize on the passion fans feel for their school and extend it beyond football and basketball to other sports,” Magnus said.

“I think if the content’s there, people will watch it,” UCLA’s Bjork said. “People live by their computers, they live by their PDAs, and, as technology improves, that’s where it’s headed.”

Upside Outside of Revenue

Just as important when it comes to streaming, Sweeney said, is showcasing student athletes in all sports — not just the two or three moneymakers.

“We have 23 sports, two or three of which make money, but we still offer the other 19 or 20 sports,” Sweeney explained. “I think everybody in intercollegiate athletics is very proud of all their sports. If it was just a business, we’d have three sports: the ones that make money. It’s part of the mission of what we do that, even if the numbers aren’t there for fencing or gymnastics, if it’s not costing very much for us to do, it makes sense for all of us to do it.”