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Roundtable: Can The Big Ten Network Survive The Bursting Cable Bubble?

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The BTP staff breaks down the current status of BTN and where it could be heading in the years to come.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Although Big Ten and college sports fans have been focusing on the gridiron over the last few weeks, another story has been quietly bubbling in the background. And that one deals with BTN and its future. The league’s cable channel appears to be in peril and it just finished a battle with Comcast over its distribution.

So, what’s the future of BTN hold? Can it survive in a world with Hulu and Netflix? Our staff sat down to chat about the network and where it could be heading.

BTP Roundtable Discussion:

-Thomas Beindit: So, significant news broke over the last few weeks regarding the future of BTN. The Big Ten and Comcast finally reached a deal to make BTN available to Comcast subscribers after quite a battle. Of course, we all know how important the network has been to the league and the idea that it wouldn’t be available is a significant note. It’s also a sign of something that could be changing. So, when you heard the news, what was your initial reaction and/or thoughts on where BTN is today?

-Eric Leisure: It’s in a weird place that’s nowhere near the juggernaut Jim Delany envisioned when BTN launched in 2007, but not quite the failure some would have you believe following the contentious negotiations with Comcast.

In Delany’s defense, it’s not his fault that a majority of BTNs shortcomings are a side-effect of the cord-cutting trend plaguing the entire industry.

On the flip side, it’s easy (and probably warranted) to criticize the commish for rationalizing the additions of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten based on cable subscribers instead of geographic and competitive upgrades. That’s especially true for the latter considering New York and Connecticut, home to many Scarlet Knights alumni, weren’t included in BTN and Comcast’s eleventh hour deal.

And as an unabashed believer in the Big Ten’s commitment to the East Coast, I can’t begin to tell you how much that pains me to say. But what say you? Where do you see BTN at now and what, in your opinion, does it do well/need to improve?

-Beindit: Before I dive into that, it’s important to remember that BTN was a revolutionary move when it first popped up. I’m as critical of Delany as anyone out there, but even I have to admit that BTN was a bold move and was ahead of its time. Moreover, it radically changed how schools and conferences looked at college athletics. Cable deals ballooned to epic proportions and have changed the game completely.

The problem, of course, is what you outlined above. BTN was revolutionary, but it’s more than a decade old now. The world has changed substantially and cord cutting is a real issue. Maybe things like Hulu and Netflix are fads (I doubt it), but the trend is pretty clear. The cable dollars that sports leagues have enjoyed over the last 10 to 20 years simply won’t exist in the very near future.

And that’s the thing that should scare Big Ten fans. Delany’s clear goal since unveiling BTN has been to chase the cable money associated with BTN and, naturally, money associated with the cable model. Whether people want to accept it or not, Maryland and Rutgers were added to boost the league’s bottom line. The Big Ten shipped its games to FOX to boost its bottom line. Those are massive moves with the lone goal of making money.

The question now is whether Delany has the ability to transfer from his “GIMME THEM CABLE DOLLARS” mindset into one more focused on the league and its long-term outlook. Anybody with half a brain knew this bubble was going to burst as recently as the early 2010s.

So, do you think Delany can figure this situation out?

-Leisure: That’s the multi-million dollar question -- literally. From where I sit, the jury is still out on what’s to become of BTN, but color me less than optimistic of Delany’s ability to evolve the network with the changing times. Should he want to seek some case samples on how to proceed and what to avoid, however, he need look no further than ESPN and WWE.

Long plagued with declining ratings and significant revenue losses, ESPN has stubbornly attempted to keep its networks alive by doubling-down on its old school formula for success (read: pumping money into SportsCenter). But much like watching a ground-and-pound football team compete in the age of the RPO, what once worked won’t always.

Finally sensing what everyone else already knew, the Worldwide Leader rolled out ESPN+ in April of this year as its over-the-top subscription based digital platform. But less than six months into ESPN+’s debut, it looks to be too little, too late. Introduced almost a decade after Netflix began streaming movies online and with a watered down selection of second and third tier sports, ESPN+ has proven that you can’t half-ass this type of product.

WWE, on the other hand, essentially killed its Pay-Per-View revenue model when it introduced the WWE Network in 2014. But as Vince McMahon and Triple H would happily attest to, fortune favors the bold. While there’s been some bumps along the way, WWE’s stock price currently sits at $87 a share, up from the $16 a share the company was trading at prior to the network’s announcement.

So what’s this have to do with BTN?

Well, one way Delany could go about saving the network is to blow out and redevelop the brands BTN+ add-on. As it stands right now, BTN+ does not include any Big Ten football or basketball games broadcast over the conferences cable channel, which eliminates why many cord-cutters would pony up the $120 to become a subscriber.

Do you think that going all-in, a la the WWE, is something that could save BTN?

-Beindit: That’s an interesting comparison, for sure. And I think your commentary outlines a reality that most don’t want to accept: There is no right answer. I’m not trying to cop out of an answer (I will give my thoughts in a second), but it’s an important thing to keep in mind.

It might go without saying, but predicting the future with accuracy is a dangerous game. BTN makes the Big Ten and its universities a lot of money. And it will for (at least) the foreseeable future. The question is whether the Big Ten can evolve BTN to make more and/or sustain that level for a longer period of time. Netflix may seem like the “in” thing right now, but who knows how things will shake out. While we all know that the cable bubble is going to burst, we can’t say with certainty what will come next.

With all of that said, I believe your suggestion about going in on a WWE-style model is the way to go. The cable bundle is quickly unraveling and I think it’s only a matter of time before subscription services like Hulu and Netflix far outpace the traditional providers. Take the bold step now and you might come out ahead in the years to come.

However, I would try to take a measured approach. To start, you need to phase out your contracts and the cable use of BTN. The cable dollars are still going to be there for a few more years. There’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Capitalize on those funds until the floor gets a little closer to falling out.

And while you’re in this measured phase, start transitioning programming solely onto BTN+. This shouldn’t just be your extra junk, either. Put legitimate programs on there that people want to see. By using BTN+, you can also probably cut production costs as well. Maybe you couldn’t afford school-driven programming on the regular BTN channel, but it might be possible through an online model. Recruit local personalities. If YouTube stars can make millions, why can’t you put together some online programming solely available on BTN+?

I would also explore partnering with some of the online subscription sites. I realize this might be eerily similar to the cable model, but why not link up with other sports subscription services? My guess is that there would be a lot of people interested in getting subscriptions to both BTN+ and ESPN+ for a slightly lower price.

Either way, my guess is Delany will keep milking the cable dollars until it’s far too late. It’s tough to speculate about what’s to come, but this contractual battle is probably a sign of things to come.

What would be your recommendation?

-Leisure: My big picture recommendation, not to mention hope beyond hope, is for Delany to stay ahead of the curve, electing to help set a new trend rather than follow in others footsteps.

But as you astutely pointed out, wagering on the Big Ten to do so probably isn’t a smart bet. That said, and to the conference’s credit, at the time, launching its own cable network was fairly unheard of with only the Mountain West beating them to the altar.

So, what next-wave horse could and should the Big Ten tie itself to?

Well, as we hashed out earlier, it’s probably some sort of over-the-top digital service.

Monumental Sports Network recently launched as the first such service, but much like BTN+, doesn’t include its two biggest draws -- Washington Capitals and Wizards games.

Services like MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, and NHL Center Ice, on the other hand, have proven to be successful and solid case studies on consumer’s willingness to pony up significant dollars to access live content that would otherwise be unavailable. And speaking as someone who relies on the aforementioned services to watch professional sports, there’d be very little hesitation on my part to subscribe to a Big Ten over-the-top digital network if it became my only recourse for watching Penn State football, basketball, and hockey.

When all is said and done, I ultimately see this type of service being what rises like a phoenix from the smoldering ashes of cable subscriptions.

Whether the Big Ten gets onboard with that sooner rather than later, however, is anyone’s guess.

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This is certainly an interesting discussion and BTP will keep you posted as it develops further.