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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Big Ten Network officially a cash cow

By Eamonn Brennan

Those of us who can remember the halcyon days of 2007 can remember a time when the Big Ten Network's success didn't always seem guaranteed. Before it launched on Aug. 30, 2007, the network faced the same issues as every other new TV channel in the modern era. It had to organize its model -- whether subscription-based or as an inclusion in regular cable packages. It had to convince cable providers that it was worth plum placement and not banishment to a pay-per-view sports tier. It had to hire talent. And it had to figure out just what a network that focuses on only one conference does to fill its 24 hours-over-365-days' worth of programming time.

Merely three years later, the Big Ten has officially figured it out. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Big Ten Network generates just as much money for its member schools as the conference's deal with larger, traditional networks:
Last year, schools received roughly $9 million each from the conference's deal with ABC/ESPN and another $7 million to $8 million from the BTN. Add revenue from bowl games, the NCAA basketball tournament and licensing, and you arrive at the estimated $22 million-a-year distribution figure that's the envy of every Division I school outside the Southeastern Conference.

First, that's just a ton of money. It's remarkable that a three-year-old, single-conference sports network can generate that much interest and revenue this early in its life span. Never underestimate the loyalties of college football and basketball fans. If their games are on, they'll find your network and watch it.

Second, it's a little ironic that the Big Ten -- a conference known for its traditional leanings, one that plays some of the slowest, plodding-est basketball in the entire country -- could be called an innovator. But it's true. The conference has come up with a whole new media model, and it's paying off. Will the SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, ACC and Big East follow suit?

Third, the Big Ten Network initially struck fans as a cheapo way to get more money from them in cable dollars every month. And, make no mistake, it is. But the upshot is that Big Ten fans now have more games than ever to watch in more markets than they ever did before, not to mention 24 hours a day of programming that, for better or worse, focuses on their favorite teams more than ever before. Believe it or not, fans won with the Big Ten Network. And the Big Ten? Well, yeah, it's doing pretty well, too.