In the summer, I spend 30-40 days on the road, mostly in the Midwest. At night I love to kick back in my hotel room and watch sports. If I’m lucky, BTN will have a classic football game from the previous fall on. In a way, I’m the ideal BTN viewer: a twenty-something male, plenty of disposable income who’ll watch any sports that are on. If only the twenty-something guys in New York and DC watched as many rerun sports as I did.
Jim Delany put his reputation as a brilliant commissioner on the line when he invited Rutgers and Maryland into the Big 10, the later coming without a great football program and backlash from its fans. Delany’s gamble is that he will be able to take his valuable network into DC, Baltimore, and Manhattan, and its value will go up exponentially, all the while upping the offer he will eventually make to Notre Dame. But pondering the subject, one has to ask: are there as many potential BTN viewers in the beltway as BTN gained when they expanded into Nebraska? It may sound absurd, but perhaps Delany should have learned a lesson from how two networks modeled after BTN have struggled.
Catch the Longhorn Network recently?
BTN’s markets made the network as profitable as soon as it did, and the respective markets of the Longhorn and Pac-12 Networks have kept those networks in check. Big 10 country is full of states where people have to stay in in the winter and thus watch a lot of sports, and not just football and basketball but fringe sports. Turn on local sports radio in Lincoln or Cedar Rapids in April, and the announcers are talking Husker or Hawkeye baseball and softball. Factor into that you’ve got a huge market like Chicago, where alumni of rural Big 10 who have migrated to better jobs turn in every night to catch some local flair on their favorite teams, and you’ve got the recipe for a successful network.
On the other hand, both Texas and most of the Pac-12 region are flush with year-round outdoor recreation, and transplants whose favorite teams are in the states they left. Who would want to stay in and watch Texas’ greatest 1980’s win over Oklahoma, a season preview of Utah volleyball, or another profile of Pac-12 legend John Elway when there’s another hike to go in or a a beautiful river to boat in?
So, with that in mind, let’s look at Maryland and New York. Granted, both regions have Penn State alumni, which should increase viewership, and New York has migrants from all over the Midwest. And Big 10 Football, while not the best in the country (certainly not this year), provides some of the greatest scenes in college football, AKA the Big House and the Horseshoe. Remember, we are talking about sports programming, stuff you can put on at least one TV in every bar in the corner. And the region does like quality basketball, so that should do well as long as the Big 10 succeeds in this arena.
But here’s the fundamental problem: the number one thing that the Big 10 sells is football. As we’ve seen in the case of LHN and the Pac-12 Network, you can’t sell a region something it doesn’t want. With all the entertainment options in New York and DC, people aren’t going to want to watch Indiana-Wisconsin games and other third tier games that BTN broadcasts. Yes, occasionally BTN will get an Iowa-Penn State game that interesting, but that’s the exception.
DC and New York may have transplants, but Baltimore is as parochial and unchanging as Boston. (Read an Anne Tyler novel.) Of course, this means they’ll be calling their cable providers to make sure they get Terrapins basketball, but don’t count on them tuning in for every practice report. Whether the region gets excited as a whole about Big 10 basketball remains to be seen. Outside of Indiana and Michigan State, there aren’t a lot of Big 10 schools that are organically passionate about basketball. Michigan and OSU have good programs, but those have piggy backed off of their football revenue.
Yes, there’s an argument that the local profiles of teams will help elevate the Big 10’s profile in the region. It will be easier for Big 10 programs to steal New Jersey, Maryland, and DC area recruits when they can sell them that all their games will be on networks everyone gets.With Syracuse moving to the ACC, travel won’t necessarily be any greater for a New Jersey player deciding between Syracuse, Rutgers, and BC. But while it will help recruiting-wise, it won’t help the rich young adults of DC and New York (AKA, the demo advertisers crave), buy BTN add time.
But maybe Delany realizes that getting into New York and DC won’t automatically increase the payouts he’s making to all of his schools…yet. Maybe he just had to get on in those markets so he could make a bigger offer to Notre Dame. That is what all college football realignment about in theory, landing either Texas or the Fighting Irish, the later who has eluded Delany for years. Maybe now Delany can finally say to Jack Swarbrick, “When you join are league, we’ll be able to triple our ad rates in New York and DC.”
(More Realignment Speculation)