Editor’s note: In June 1917, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives invited Michigan back into the league, increasing membership to 10 and eventually spawning the iconic “Big Ten” nickname. One hundred years later, Land of 10 will spend the summer looking at the history of America’s legendary conference and its teams.
CHICAGO — The biggest win, funny enough, was a loss.
Every fledgling network wants that truTV moment, that magical instant where millions of people who’d never heard of you start knocking over tables and calling customer service numbers in order to find you, right here, right now, in front of their eyeballs.
For the Big Ten Network, which celebrates its 10 th birthday on Aug. 30, that moment was Appalachian State. Or rather, the Appalachian State-Michigan football game on Sept. 1, 2007.
The Mountaineers were coming off two straight FCS national titles. The Wolverines were coming off a Rose Bowl. It wasn’t Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather. It was Conor McGregor vs. Floyd the Barber.
One catch, though: The Barber came to play.
App State led 28-17 at the break, and because nobody loves schadenfreude the way college football fans love schadenfreude, you tried to figure out how — seven years before Periscope — to find the Big Ten Network. Because a so-called crummy game was a barn-burner, a matchup turning the world upside down.
As the Wolverines’ last-ditch attempt at a game-winning field goal was blocked, as Thom Brennaman screamed in shock, as the Mountaineers poured onto the field at the Big House to revel in a 34-32 victory, they watched. In East Lansing. In Columbus. In Madison. In Iowa City. In Happy Valley:
Michigan’s loss to App State reportedly drew 11.3 percent of viewers in greater Detroit who had access to the channel at that time, in a universe where a spectacular cable audience was closer to 4 or 5 percent.
Network highlight shows, local highlight shows, ran the clips of those final, historic moments, over and over again. And if customers couldn’t see the carnage unfold as it happened, market to market, port to port, they started asking the same question: Why not?
With that, the Big Ten lost a game.
And started winning the war.
“It was going to get off the ground — the schools are too big, the fans are too passionate,” BTN president Mark Silverman told Land of 10 recently. “We had FOX behind us. We’re going to have to just go through some pain [initially]. And it was going to get done, and we were going to make it work.”
Everything is local now. Everything. There’s a channel for your teams, a channel for your band, a channel for your politics, a channel for your world view. As audiences fragmented, as niche channels became niche streams, Silverman looks like a soothsayer, ahead of the storm during what’s proven to be one of the most volatile decades in American media history.
“You know what? I’m proud — I wouldn’t call it vindicated,” Silverman said.
“I think I always believed they would be successful, and I think it was so many years ago, and I really think that we’ve built something that is bigger and more impactful than I really thought it would be. I see other networks sprout up and, yeah, I guess they’re happy with what we’ve done. They think what we’ve done is a pretty good thing if they’re trying to do a network like that. I think people find themselves now [saying], ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like without having Big Ten Network.’
“As opposed to before, when it was, ‘I can’t imagine having a Big Ten Network.’ Anytime you’re first, you’ve got to take some bullets. And there are more naysayers.”
BTN launched a decade ago against the wind, a start-up that was initially chided as the destination for the football and basketball games ESPN and FOX didn’t want — hello, Purdue-Northwestern — and a healthy diet of Olympic sports you wouldn’t pay with your brother-in-law’s debit card to watch.
A joint partnership of the Big Ten and FOX — the former owned 51 percent initially, the latter owns 51 percent now — saw the channel launch with DirecTV and AT&T U-verse on board, with Dish following shortly thereafter:
“When I first met with [the network], I had virtually no questions because I wasn’t really interested,” said BTN anchor Dave Revsine, an ESPN alum and Silverman’s hosting lynch pin since Day 1. “And then after an interim period, whatever it was — a couple weeks, I thought, ‘OK, well, I need to know this, I need to know that.’ I had all these things. And the one question I failed to ask them was: Are we going to be available on television?
“I was coming from ESPN, you’re on everywhere. I just figured: ‘It’s Wisconsin football, of course it’s going to be on the air in Wisconsin.’ Or Illinois basketball, or whatever it is. And so it just didn’t occur to me. So I kind of felt, not foolish, but I felt like, ‘Man, here I thought it was so buttoned [down] and had everything [figured out].
“There was certainly some frustration at that time, but it was much more [for] Jim [Delany, Big Ten commissioner] and Mark. The thing that was amazing is that Mark Silverman was so good in insulating us from this battle. He really said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s going to get done, it’s going to take a year, and it’ll get done, because they’re going to realize that hey, this is really good programming and these are good games, these are important games to our fan bases. So what I need you to do is go out and have a really good television network and I trust that you’re going to be able to do that, and that’s why we hired you.’”
Although sometimes, the games — and narratives — sell themselves. Appalachian State-Michigan happened. The calls came in, the eyeballs wanted more, and the stone walls started crumbling, one by one.
By August 2008, a year after the curtain went up, most of the largest cable providers in the Big Ten footprint had added the network to lineups in some capacity or another.
“I’m comfortable with where we are,” Silverman said. “We’ll see what happens with the ACC Network [launching in 2019]. The SEC Network is doing great. The Pac-12 [Network] is out there. There’s been a nice run to it and I think as content continues to evolve and how people watch it, we’ll see. It might not always be on the linear network — a lot of our stuff [is presented] digitally now. And it’ll be interesting to see how it all evolves.”
BTN launched with 17 million homes; its distribution in early 2016, as estimated by SNL Kagan, had ballooned to reportedly 65 million — a reach that’s been matched by ESPN’s SEC Network (70 million), which launched in August 2014, and dwarfs the Pac-12 Network (15 million). As points of comparison, the NFL Network reportedly reached 70.9 million homes in 2016; MLB Network, 67.1 million; NBA TV, 54.3 million; NHL Network, 38 million.
“The reason for the success of BTN is the popularity of Big Ten football, together with the extension of the geographical market by adding new teams,” said Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College and author of a number of books on college sports, most recently Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It. “The fact that it happened during a strong decade for cable TV and the advent of the DVR, which placed premium value on live sports advertising, also helped. I don’t think the future of BTN is nearly as bright as the past.”
Which raises a fair point — and one which Silverman is perfectly aware, given severe staff reductions at ESPN and FOX Sports in the last 12-20 months in response to “cord-cutting” and dwindling cable subscriber bases.
“The train’s moving. You can either jump on and figure out where you’re sitting or you can miss your train.”
— Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman
“It’s crazy, I know,” Silverman said. “We can’t just put blinders on and do what we’ve been doing. I think, in retrospect, that the print industry was very slow to adapt to people not reading the paper anymore. And how now I get my iPad out, I’ll read the New York Times and the I’ll read the Wall Street Journal and I’m reading it on my iPad. The thing is — everyone was just slow to get there. So when we talked earlier about the distribution of the network, when people say the word, ‘cord-cutter,” well, cord-cutters, they’re watching Hulu, they’re watching YouTube. They’re there. They’re not [subscribing to cable].
“I think the lesson I’ve learned from the music industry and from the newspaper industry is that you can’t just hold on to what worked in the past. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to adjust … ‘OK, do I want to be available on these apps?’ Do I want to have my content on Facebook and Twitter?’ And we’ve gotten there. And we’ve gotten comfortable with it. And that’s the way the world is and you couldn’t be— not scared, but reluctant, to go over areas with your business in a different direction.
“The train’s moving. You can either jump on and figure out where you’re sitting or you can miss your train.”
Silverman, like Delany, would prefer to be on the move than stuck waiting on the platform. BTN last month announced plans to make content available via over-the-top streaming services such as Hulu, Sling, YouTubeTV, Playstation Vue and DirecTVNow. The channel recently collaborated with ESPN on the reality mini-series Being P.J. Fleck, and are producing a weekly Ohio State football show for SportsTimeOhio.
The Big Ten’s current broadcast partnerships are up for negotiation after six years, sooner than any peer Power 5 conference. That’s by design, given an era in which the new buzzwords are “pivoting,” “diverse portfolios,” and “flexibility.” Six years in today’s snackable media environment — short videos, viral laughs or viral rage, shareable content — feels more like 12. Old monopolies are under siege as the under-35 crowd demand whatever they want, how they want it and when they want it.
“I know, I know,” Silverman said. “I wish I knew the answer. And I think once we’re [near the end] of the six-year deal, we can see how things are going. And if, all of a sudden, a digital player wants to get into the game, and as they kind of evolve their models … Amazon Prime getting into video, Netflix, who know where these guys are going to go. You can’t predict it six years from now.
“So staying nimble — [you] have the big platforms, [you’ve] got the branded network by bringing FOX into the fold.
“Once you get a taste of Big Ten content, you like having Big Ten content. Great fan bases. Great demo. And I think it’s only going to increase in value. Even through things were evolving, the transitional market, whatever you are, whatever ESPN is going to be, you’re still going to want Big Ten content. Same thing on FOX. Same as us.”
Could that mean a Big Ten content feed one day via, say, Netflix? Is it better to chase the eyeballs? Or have the eyeballs chasing you?
“We want to monetize it,” Silverman said. “We want to promote our core brands and platforms. So there are going to be more and more opportunities.
“Anyone who’s bringing in a lot of viewers that we think would want to watch our stuff, those are opportunities for us, in my opinion. For [ESPN/FOX], it’s a little different, just because if this is [where it goes], they might have to bid up for those rights. But for us, our deal goes a long, long time. The conference likes having us around.”
Stick and move. Better still, just move. A year ago, the Pac-12 announced a streaming partnership with Twitter. Word on the street is that other Power 5 circuits are turning over rocks to try and figure out how to engage audiences, especially young audiences, who engage alternatives to the established media giants.
“I think for us, I think the opportunities are much more significant than the challenges,” Silverman said. “Because we own all the content. We’ll do the content where we think it’s in our best interests. If we decided to put it out for free on some of these platforms … but at the same time, we have a really good business in BTN Plus. So if I’m going to do that, it’s going to have to make sense for us.”
Because nobody wants to miss that next truTV moment, the next Appalachian State, wherever and however it comes. The train’s careening downhill. At warp speed.
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