CSVS 2012: The Rapidly Changing Face of College Sports Programming

Ask a panel of industry heavyweights what they foresee as the single biggest issue in college sports programming over the next year, and you will get answers ranging from “conference expansion” and “football playoff” to “personal and social” and “authentication.” But one thing was made clear during the opening panel at SVG’s College Sports Video Summit in Atlanta on Wednesday: the college-sports-programming landscape is changing, and it’s changing fast.

From left: ESPN3’s Phillips, the Big East’s Tom Odjakjian, and NBC Sports Group’s Mike Sheehey address trends in college sports programming.

“Sports television has changed dramatically over the years, and nothing has changed more than college sports when it comes to television,” said Tom Odjakjian, associate commissioner, Big East Conference. “I think we are absolutely going to see that continue.”

The Conference Network as Insurance Policy
Anyone with an eye on the college-sports landscape over the past two years knows that conference networks are the hottest trend around. The Mtn. (which closed shop last week after six seasons) and the Big Ten Network laid the groundwork for the conference-network model in the mid 2000s, but the game has really heated up recently with the launch of the Longhorn Network in 2011, the anticipated launch of the Pac-12 Network and its six affiliates this fall, and the rumored SEC Network, which may or may not be in the conference’s near-term plans.

While these networks promise valuable revenue, branding, and recruiting opportunities, they also put colleges and conferences in charge of their own destinies by bringing rights to second-tier (and sometimes top-tier) sports in-house.

Rutgers University’s Tim Pernetti (left) and ESPN3’s Damon Phillips discuss the growth of conference networks.

“For anyone who doesn’t understand why there are networks popping up everywhere, it’s because, at some point, the bubble will burst,” said Tim Pernetti, director of intercollegiate of athletics, Rutgers University. “When that’s going to be I have no idea, but these networks are insurance policies against the market fallout. For instance, if ESPN or another major network were to close up shop on college sports, you still [have other options]. So I think those are as much insurance policies as they are about distribution, branding, and exposure.”

À la Carte for College Sports?
As more college cable networks hit the market (not to mention RSNs and national sports networks), the pricey subscription fees for cable, satellite, and telco providers have begun to add up. As a result, these providers have passed on the costs to consumers, most of whom don’t even watch college sports. This has reinvigorated a concept long debated in the cable community: à la carte channel options.

Fox Sports Media Group’s Karen Brodkin speaks on à la carte and college sports.

“We don’t know [the future of à la carte channel options],” said Karen Brodkin, EVP, business and legal affairs, Fox Sports Media Group, “but I can tell you we spend a lot of time worrying about it and a fair amount to time negotiating about it in our contract negotiations. That is something that everyone in this business should be aligned together on because that would not necessarily be a positive development for any one of us working in this space. … I would be remiss if I said it wasn’t in the back of our minds.”

College on Cable: Production Costs vs. Demand
With the explosion of cable sports channels and RSNs, the average fan now expects that every game he or she wants to see will be available somewhere — on television or streamed online. However, while many sports networks have begun to delve into secondary and Olympic college sports, the pricey production costs involved with a full TV production have relegated most of these events to broadband.

“At the end of the day, capitalism is a great thing,” said Michael Sheehey, SVP, sports content and college sports, NBC Sports Group. “If people want to see softball, soccer, and lacrosse games, then that is what is going to be provided. But it’s still not cheap to produce those games. So, if the demand is there, then there will be more of those games, and, if there isn’t, then it simply isn’t worth the [production costs].”

The Rise of the Broadband Network
For all the talk about college sports networks recently, the greatest growth in college-sports content over the past five years has been online. Athletics Websites and live-streaming platforms like ESPN3 have gone from fledgling outfits with mediocre production quality to full-blown video destinations that many college-sports fans visit on a daily basis to watch live events.

However, while the breadth and quality of this content has improved dramatically, it still comes down to producing and streaming games as cheaply as possible.

“Frankly, it is expensive to produce events,” said ESPN3 VP Damon Phillips. “But there is also a certain quality you want for those events. We want to make sure that, if you’re watching ESPN3, you can’t tell the difference from ESPNU or ESPN2. But there are also challenges to produce content at a low production cost that makes sense financially. So we’ve been working with a number of schools and conferences … to produce that content at low costs and often with student-run productions.”

Authentication Presents Key to Future
The key to the future of live college-sports streaming remains authentication. ESPN3 dubs itself a broadband network, and it is exactly that: a network that viewers can gain access to by subscribing to a cable, satellite, or telco provider that has inked an ESPN3-carriage agreement with ESPN.

As a result, ESPN3 can leverage the same dual-revenue stream of subscription fee and advertising that has made the mothership the most successful network in all of cable. In addition, by requiring potential “cord cutters” to have a cable subscription in order to access streaming content, broadband networks ensure that viewers will not be discontinuing their subscriptions anytime soon, regardless of how much TV they actually watch.

“Cord cutting is more common among young people that are more likely to use mobile devices,” noted Odjakjian. “A lot of young people living in dorms don’t have cable subscriptions; they are just going to use their iPhones or iPads. So one way to make those individuals sign up for cable, satellite, or telco is to force them to have a subscription to watch [the live sports content] they want to watch.”

This same dual-revenue-stream model for broadband could eventually present a game-changer for colleges and conferences around the country as fans become more willing to pay for online streaming of subscriptions to their school’s athletics rather than expect the service for free.

CLICK HERE for SVG’s comprehensive coverage of the College Sports Video Summit.