Image: Ohio State player
Matt Sullivan  /  Reuters file
It promises to be an epic Big 10 matchup: 9-0 Ohio State, No. 1 in the BCS rankings, against 7-2 Wisconsin. But if you don't have the Big Ten Network on your cable box, you better have a ticket if you want to watch.
By
NBCSports.com contributor
updated 10/31/2007 3:58:09 PM ET 2007-10-31T19:58:09

It promises to be an epic Big 10 matchup: 9-0 Ohio State, No. 1 in the BCS rankings, playing host to 7-2 Wisconsin on Saturday.

Rabid fans from Madison to Columbus will congregate on their couches and turn on their television sets to ABC. Problem is, they won’t find the game there — it will be on the Big Ten Network, a channel many of them don’t have. 

The rookie Big Ten Network is, at the moment, being snubbed by cable distributors including Comcast, Time Warner and others. None of the top eight have struck a pact with the network, which is 49 percent owned by Fox. The battles have become public and nasty, with cable providers demanding that the games and other fare be placed on an optional sports tier, while Chicago-based BTN insists it deserves to be on basic cable at about $1.10 per subscriber (at least in the eight states that comprise Big Ten territory).

Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman concedes no agreement is likely before football season ends but believes something can be worked out within a year. And he’s not surprised by the initial cold shoulder.

”Many new nets come on the air and have distribution issues,” he said. “Unfortunately, this one has played out very publicly.”

Despite the rebuff from cable giants since the net debuted Aug. 30, there are plenty of bright spots. Silverman said BTN entered more than 30 million homes in its first month, which he describes as “the largest launch in TV history” in such a short time. The main key: Satellite has jumped in as DirectTV and Dish Network both offer the new network. He believes in a few years the network can break even (while pooh-poohing one analysis saying BTN will make more than $100 million a year by 2012). Silverman said BTN is quite pleased to already be pulling in millions of dollars from advertisers, such as Suzuki and Buffalo Wild Wings.  

”We have a unique branded appeal to fans and advertisers,” said the former ABC executive, who was hired in December as BTN’s first employee. “And we can stream games on the Internet, on phones, on iPods. We have all those rights.”

Because of its ties to major public universities, though, the for-profit network is hindered in some respects. BTN refuses to accept alcohol or gambling advertising. Said Silverman: “I want to make sure we’re representing these schools appropriately.”

The only other big college conference attempting to run its own network is the Mountain West Conference, which launched its version last year. Distribution bumps have hurt it as well. Other conferences, from the SEC to the Pacific-10, are in no rush to follow the lead of their two brethren.

Considering that other major conferences have happily accepted tens of millions of dollars in TV money from CBS, ABC and others while letting them deal with the headaches of broadcasting games and recruiting advertisers, why did the Big Ten decide to go its own way and show 400 live events a year, including a number of sports with no broad appeal? A few years back, Silverman said Big Ten negotiators were unhappy with the way ESPN and ABC painted the future, with more games on the second-tier ESPNU network, the possibility of Thursday night football contests and the like.

Though more than three dozen of the most important Big Ten football games will still be shown by the Disney-owned channels this season, the Big Ten Network is pleased to control scores of others, where no one can tell the universities a game must start at a time upsetting to students and alumni. Each university must let at least one football game a year be broadcast on BTN, and this week’s is the Ohio State game.

In a strange twist, the University of Michigan’s jaw-dropping loss to Appalachian State in the season opener was a boon to the Big Ten Network: It helped drive home its importance, since the game was unavailable on ABC.

”We felt sorry for Michigan for the loss, but it brought a significant amount of attention to the network,” said Silverman, whose crew quickly offered a two-hour replay of the game to viewers on Fox Sports Network. Silverman said phones were ringing off the hook that following Monday at the Big Ten Network from interested advertisers, and the historic upset put a burr under football fans who angrily wondered why it was unavailable on their cable system.

In fact, the passion of college sports fans could save or destroy BTN’s cause. For example, thousands of Badger diehards were fuming when they couldn’t find the Sept. 15 Citadel-Wisconsin game, available only on BTN.

That number will soar Saturday. The big question: Will they blame the Big Ten Network or their cable provider?

Stay tuned.

Last, but not least …
Who would ever guess the clothes of a gruff, monosyllabic coach accused of cheating would travel well?

At the Patriots Pro Shop online, coach Bill Belichick's hooded sweatshirt has been a No. 1 seller this season. Considered a bargain by fans at $74.95, the sweatshirt designed by Reebok is available in four sizes. Maybe the nearby promotion is the key to sales success:

“Wear what the Coach wears! The ‘Belichick’ long sleeve hooded sweatshirt not only looks good, but it's also really comfortable!”   

Msbnc.com contributor David Sweet can be reached at dafsweet@aol.com

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