Big Ten Network is gaining ground (and profit)

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Posted by on February 16, 2009 at 09:03:55:

Big Ten Network is gaining ground

Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
February 13, 2009

Worried about layoffs? A bad economy got you down? Try starting up your own cable TV network.

It has worked so far for the Big Ten Network. The cable channel that broadcasts Big Ten games began operating at the start of the 2007 college football season and is already one of News Corp.'s few bright spots, according to multiple reports.

The BTN had its first profitable quarter, which ended at the conclusion of the last year, and has plans to expand in a variety of areas with more Internet streaming of sports such as women's basketball and baseball.

That means more money for the Big Ten, which already received a $70 million -- and growing -- rights fee from Fox, partial owners of the Big Ten Network, and has a profit-sharing arrangement with the schools in the conference.

"I know there was a lot of talk about the financial viability of the network," said Mark Silverman, president of BTN. "Just some concerns whether or not we're going to be able to make it. I can tell you we have long-term deals with cable operators, we have long-term deals between Fox and the conference. We're going to be significantly profitable this year. ... We're in really good shape, in spite of a tough economy."

The Big Ten Network's parent company, News Corp., lost billions of dollars last year and has been cutting jobs left and right. But BTN officials said they are hiring this year in some departments.

When I read the news about the channel's success, I was surprised. ESPN and CBS get the majority of the conference's premier games. BTN pays popular, probably costly, on-air talents such as longtime CBS play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson, and I'm always trying to figure out how they make any money when so many commercials during games are university promos.

Last year's long-disputed resolutions with cable providers -- including Minnesota's top two, Comcast and Charter -- boosted the Big Ten Network's prospects. Money from those deals makes up the vast majority of the BTN's revenue.

But "because the league is so competitive" in men's basketball this season, more viewers are turning in, said BTN spokeswoman Elizabeth Conlisk. "I think it's the increase in awareness that so many games are on the Big Ten Network," she said.

The Gophers have been involved in three of the four top-rated men's basketball games this season -- at Indiana on Jan. 25, at Ohio State on Feb. 7 and vs. Illinois on Jan. 29. Only Ohio State-Michigan received higher ratings than those three games.

Gophers coach Tubby Smith said he believes the reason that Minnesota and the rest of the teams in the league have been touted as the surprise conference in college basketball is because the network has given more people an opportunity to watch Big Ten teams play this season. It's also a good recruiting tool, he said.

"When you have a network that can put it in millions of homes around the country, and they're hearing Big Ten, Big Ten, Big Ten ... I think it's been a big help now," Smith said. "People are going, 'Hey, they might be the best conference in the country,' because we're being seen."

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