Torr: Sports Channel Has Hoosiers Hot Under the Collar

Thursday, August 2, 2007 7:00 pm

Start Date:  8/2/2007  All Day  
End Date:  8/2/2007    

As gas prices hit $3 per gallon and property taxes reach new heights, Hoosiers across the state are likely becoming keenly aware of their budgets and spending habits this summer.  But college sports usually provide a welcome respite from all this stress, allowing everyone let go of their problems and cheer together, if only for an hour or two.

And a new sports channel - the Big Ten Network, which shows 24/7 coverage of Big Ten sports - should have all college sports fans excited about the upcoming seasons.  Unfortunately, the channel has caused nothing but controversy, leading many to claim that the BTN is trying to charge impossibly high prices for games that few want to watch, while Big Ten executives have launched a political-style campaign to make everyone pay for the channel by pushing it onto basic cable.

At first glance, the Big Ten Network has great potential.  Its schedule of lesser-watched football and basketball games along with swimming, diving, volleyball and wrestling should attract Big Ten fanatics - the kind that check out early exhibition games to see how teams are shaping up - and give athletes in lower-profile sports much deserved time in the spotlight.  The BTN should also bring in some extra cash for athletic programs, helping pay for more scholarships and better facilities. 

But it seems that, like a child trying to grab too many pickles out of a pickle jar, the Big Ten is discarding the positive potential of the BTN by pursuing an all-or-nothing campaign in order to wring more money out of Indiana cable subscribers, possibly leaving both athletes and fans without the channel come football season.

Big Ten executives are demanding a top shelf price for the BTN that would make it the second most expensive national network in the U.S., just below ESPN.  Of course, many sports columnists have pointed out that the price is hardly justified, since the BTN will only be airing the leftovers from the conference's $100 million long-term media contracts with networks like ABC and ESPN, which will continue to show prime-time match-ups like Indiana vs. Kentucky in basketball. 

Instead, the BTN will be home to Purdue vs. Bowling Green and Indiana vs. Indiana State in football.  Let's be honest: these are not the games that most people want to watch.  But the Big Ten is also demanding that its new channel be carried on expanded basic cable, forcing virtually all Indiana cable subscribers to pay what amounts to a Big Ten sports tax of tens of millions of dollars each year.

As a public official representing Indiana sports fans and non-fans alike - I have serious qualms with publicly-funded universities forcing all cable subscribers to pay for sports coverage that has a very limited demand.  I'm particularly troubled that the Big Ten has unleashed a massive lobbying campaign that seems to rely heavily on exploiting the good names of these public universities to cover up the meager content of the BTN.

Certainly, the Big Ten should be allowed to make money off the BTN.  In fact, college athletic programs must rely on ticket sales, merchandise and other revenue streams in order to pay the enormous staff salaries, equipment and facility costs that taxpayers would never agree to fully fund.  But the Big Ten should not force all cable subscribers - whether college sports fans or not - to pay for a network that even sports columnists say has limited appeal.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has argued extensively that the BTN has exciting programming and wide appeal - he counts the 4 million Big Ten alumni and "millions" more fans among the network's assumed supporters.  If that is true, however, Delany and other Big Ten executives should have no problem making the channel available to fans as part of a separate subscription package.  So far, Delany has refused this reasonable approach.

In the end, Delany and the Big Ten's "my way or the highway" tactics will end up hurting the fans the most - many predict that the Big Ten will block the BTN on cable TV well into football season in an effort to wring a few more dollars out of Indiana cable customers.  With Hoosiers feeling their finances and patience wearing thin in the summer heat, I wouldn't be surprised if this Scrooge-like strategy ends up blowing up in the Big Ten's face.