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Monday, September 03, 2007

Big Ten Network gets dramatic game in first weekend -- but who saw it?

By RACHEL COHEN, AP Sports Writer
September 2, 2007

A bad loss for the Big Ten might have been a big win for the Big Ten Network.

The fledgling channel received a priceless advertisement for the entertainment value of the games it televises when Appalachian State shocked No. 5 Michigan during its inaugural weekend.

"It was very exciting," said Elizabeth Conlisk, the network's vice president for communications, before quickly adding, "Certainly disappointing that Michigan lost."

All that drama wasn't available in the homes of many fans in Big Ten country, though. The network has yet to reach agreements with several major cable providers.
Fans may perceive Saturday's stunner as evidence that they need the network -- or that they've been hurt by its creation.

Michigan fans are accustomed to being able to catch their school on TV. The team has had 145 consecutive games televised dating to 1995. Of course, those who saw the upset loss might've wished they hadn't.

For now, the impact of the new network depends on where fans live and what cable or satellite system they subscribe to. And it won't affect the conference's marquee matchups. Those will still air on ABC/ESPN. At least 35 games will be shown on the Big Ten Network this season, compared with up to 41 on ABC/ESPN.

The network's national contract with DirecTV gives some viewers outside the region an opportunity to watch games they didn't have access to before. The network is available in about 17-18 million homes around the country. By comparison, HBO, a premium channel, is in about 30 million households.

Nick Farrell, a Michigan fan in the Bay Area with DirecTV, was pleased that he was able to watch Saturday's game without paying extra money for a college football package, which he had to previously.

For other fans, some games that used to be available on free TV now require a trip to a bar or restaurant.

Last year's matchup between the Wolverines and Central Michigan was aired by ESPN Plus and picked up in the Detroit area by WXYZ. The local ABC affiliate reaches more than 1.9 million households. In the conference's entire eight-state region, the Big Ten Network is available in fewer than 3.5 million homes.

The WXYZ switchboard was peppered with calls from confused viewers on Saturday, wondering why the game wasn't on.

Mark Anderson, a Michigan alum living in Cincinnati who subscribes to Time Warner cable, had to watch Saturday's game in a bar packed with fans of rival Ohio State. His eyes covered as the Wolverines attempted a winning field goal in the final seconds, he knew his team had lost by the cheers of other patrons.

In Chicago, Mark Papazian, class of 2001, also went to a bar. He has Dish Network and doesn't plan to switch because of the Big Ten. He described the attitude of Michigan fans toward the network as "fairly negative, but not to the point of outrage."

To Mark Chen, a 2001 Michigan grad in Dallas, the new network has little effect on his viewing habits. He went to the bar frequented by members of the local branch of the alumni association, just as he did before. Chen, who has cable, would switch to DirecTV if his apartment complex
allowed it, but he would do it for better service and value, not because of the Big Ten Network.

Conlisk said the network remains open to negotiating with cable providers. Big Ten officials have said they understand it may take time to make the network available to a larger segment of the country.

Packed bars around Big Ten country Saturday demonstrated the network's broad appeal, Conlisk said, and the Michigan-Appalachian State game refuted criticism that the network's offerings aren't appealing.

"The stunning upset is going to forever be associated with the first national broadcast on the Big Ten Network," she said. "That's huge for us. It just goes to show you can't always predict in June what's going to be a white-knuckle finish in September."

AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins contributed to this report.


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