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Thursday, June 21, 2007
Big Ten, Comcast battle over new network's costs

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said cable TV giant Comcast should apologize for remarks that he claimed were "intended to denigrate institutions and teams" in his conference.

And the company responded emphatically: Forget it.

The conference and Comcast are at odds over the price of the new Big Ten Network and whether it should be offered on basic cable. And they're also feuding over the wording of a press release in which Comcast said the Big Ten network will show "second and third-tier sporting events," called it "a niche sports channel" and added: "Indiana basketball fans don't want to watch Iowa volleyball, but the Big Ten wants everyone to pay for their new network."

Delany took exception during a conference call with reporters on Thursday -- the one-year anniversary of the day the Big Ten announced plans to form the network.

"In the Midwest, when you're talking about a women's sports team, you talk about them with respect," Delany said. "They're not second tier. Certainly, games at Michigan and Penn State and Ohio State -- I don't care who the opponent is, those are not second-tier games. To the extent that those remarks were intended to denigrate institutions or teams or, in particular the women's volleyball team at Iowa, I think they ought to be rethought. I think if clarifications are necessary, that's fine. And really, if they were intended to denigrate, there ought to be an apology."

Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen then sent a letter to Delany in which he blasted the commissioner for insinuating the company is against women's sports.

"Commissioner, you are a representative of an athletic conference made up of some of the finest academic institutions in the country," Cohen wrote. "Those institutions -- and the students they seek to educate -- should expect all of their representatives to maintain basic standards of integrity. Your mischaracterizations and overstatements are not consistent with such standards. Our hope is that we can keep our differing opinions regarding this carriage issue from resulting in any further personal attacks."

Cohen reiterated that the top games would go to ABC and ESPN and the Big Ten Network would simply serve a niche market. He said the cable company would like to carry the network, but not if it means sticking customers with "a burdensome Big Ten tax."

The Big Ten Network, which is set to launch sometime in August, has agreements with about 40 smaller cable companies and DirecTV. But not Comcast, which has 5.7 million subscribers in the eight states with Big Ten schools.

Delany is adamant that companies in Big Ten markets carry the network on basic cable. Comcast says the cost is too high and it should only be offered on its digital tier or as part of a subscription package.

"We'd like to make the network available to those who want to watch it and not force customers who have no interest in the content to have to pay for it," Cohen told The New York Times this week.

Delany, a Comcast subscriber, remains hopeful a deal can be reached.

"But if I read again about the second-rate, second-tier women's volleyball team from Iowa as the centerpiece of our programming, I'm going to say the same thing I'm saying now," Delany said. "That is, I think it's inappropriate."

The Chicago-based network, which is co-owned by the conference and Fox Sports, plans to show all the conference's football games that aren't broadcast elsewhere. It also plans to broadcast at least 105 regular-season men's basketball games, 55 regular-season women's games, 170 other events from sports such as softball and track, and Big Ten championships.

The network owns the rights to tapes of Big Ten football and basketball back to 1960, allowing it to produce shows similar to those featured on ESPN Classic.

Delany also said half the programming will be devoted to women's sports by the network's third year.