Twenty-five years ago, before the civil war that changed college football forever, the campus game was the most tightly managed commodity in all of televised sports. One matchup made it to the air each Saturday, except for a few special occasions, and thanks to the iron-fisted control of the NCAA, the major powers who drove the ratings and the rights fees were limited to no more than three appearances per season. Now the whole notion of a finite amount of televised college football seems as quaint as black-and-white sets and rabbit ears. Since the courts deregulated the sport in 1984, allowing schools and conferences to cut their own deals, the major powers have proven that there is no such thing as too much college football on TV. All of the major conferences have both broadcast and cable packages, many of them bumping heads with each other, fighting for viewers and advertisers in a blur of seemingly infinite consumer choices. Cable has been the primary beneficiary of this football bonanza. In fact, on any given Saturday in 2003, a college football fan can see more games on cable than he could have watched in the entire season of 1980. “College football really isn’t about generating a big mass audience anymore,” says Bill Irish, VP, programming, of Fox Sports Southeast. “It’s all about serving a series of niches.” For advertisers, buying college football has gotten a lot more complicated. Even though the college football audience skews heavily toward the hard-to-reach young male demo, it may require a rather sophisticated series of buys on several different cable outlets to achieve the right national reach. “The way things have evolved creates both challenges and opportunities,” says John Rash, SVP and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. “The proliferation of games makes it tough to get a big national audience, but all the regionalization allows for more precise targeting.” All those choices for the viewer mean alternatives for media buyers. “That gives us more leverage in negotiations these days,” says Sam Sussman, media director at Starcom. Throughout the deregulated era, ESPN has dominated college football on cable. The all-sports channel owns the cable rights to most of the top leagues, including the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference. That makes ESPN the place to see such powerhouses as SEC favorite Auburn, defending national champion Ohio State and perennial national title contender Miami. ESPN and ESPN2 will show more than 130 games this season, including 20 different postseason bowl games. Most of the games are scheduled during the season, after CBS and ABC have made their picks, but ESPN’s marquee early-season matchups include Texas A&M at Virginia Tech (Sept. 18), Miami at West Virginia (Oct. 2) and Maryland at Georgia Tech (Oct. 23). While ESPN tries to provide almost wall-to-wall college football on Saturday, including its popular GameDay preview show in late morning, the network has slowly built its Thursday night series into appointment viewing for serious fans. Last year, for the first time, Thursday prime, without competition from other college games, drew a higher rating (2.21) than Saturday (2.18); 35% of ESPN’s college football schedule now takes place on other days of the week. “We see the Thursday package as a mini-Monday Night Football,” says Dave Brown, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions. “It’s a great showcase that everyone involved with the game is watching, and it’s like the unofficial start of the football weekend.” In most parts of the country, ESPN’s Saturday night games compete head-to-head with college football coverage on TBS and Fox Sports Net. After more than a decade away from the game, Turner returned to college football in 2002, making a deal with Fox Sports Net, which owns the cable rights to the Big XII and Pac-10, to license the rights to a Saturday night game involving the two conferences. The two networks alternate picks, with Pac-10 games starting at 10 p.m. Eastern and Big XII games at 7 p.m. Turner executives saw the package as a way to increase the channel’s viewership on the West Coast and in the Midwest. That makes TBS the place to see national title contenders Oklahoma, Southern Cal and Kansas State, plus traditional powers including Texas and Nebraska. But it also means the network will be weakest around its traditional Southeastern base, home to the most passionate and numerous college football fans. This is one reason why execs scheduled LSU at Arizona on Sept. 6 as the series opener, hoping for some early sampling by SEC fans. Determined to improve on last year’s 1 rating, TBS will invest much more heavily on promotion at the start of this season. “It will take time to build this audience,” says Jeff Gregor, Turner’s SVP of sports programming. In the end, Gregor believes the imperatives of regionalization cannot trump the presence of exciting matchups. “Having good games that are worth watching is what it’s all about,” he says. All of the regional sports networks provide some live college football. Fox Sports Net’s coverage is the most comprehensive, dominated by the Big XII and Pac-10, whose teams appear across the entire platform. FSN’s 22 regional affiliates have the ability to tailor their schedules by accounting for regional differences. Fox Sports South, for instance, transmits the Atlantic Coast Conference package, syndicated by Raycom, to the state of Georgia only. It then sends another game, usually a small-college offering, to the other six states in the network’s territory. “You want to get the best games on the air, but it’s more complicated than that,” says Jeremy Langer, manager of scheduling for Fox Sports Net. “You always want to do what makes the most sense for each regional network, while fulfilling our obligations to the conferences, and that’s a juggling act.” When CBS selected its Big XII game for Sept. 13, Langer knew he had to act quickly. Understanding the value of the Iowa-Iowa State game to his viewers in Chicago, but faced with the Chicago regional’s obligation to a Cubs game late that afternoon, he convinced the archrival Hawkeyes and Cyclones to reschedule their game to 12:30 Eastern. “Believe me, we spend weeks and weeks playing out those scenarios,” Langer says. Re-tasking game coverage remains a big trend, and displaced fans who can’t find their favorite team on the major cable channels have two other choices. For fans willing to pay for the action ($14.95 per week or $99 for the season), ESPN’s GamePlan package offers access to about a dozen different games each week, mostly culled from ABC’s regional broadcasts. Fox Sports Digital Nets, currently available in about 5 million homes scattered around the country, features about ten college games every Saturday across their three feeds, including Missouri-Kansas on Sept. 27 and Texas A&M at Texas Tech Oct. 4. “This is a way for the cable operators to level the field with the satellites,” says David Nathanson, VP, Fox Sports Digital Nets. Two new networks are betting big on the insatiable appetite of college football fans and the expanding digital universe. College Sports Television, which bills itself as a showcase for everything from women’s soccer to men’s basketball, launched in the spring. But the opening of the football season is being treated as a mini-relaunch around CSTV. In addition to a Saturday schedule of mostly Division 1-AA games, starting with Montana vs. Maine on Aug. 30, CSTV will try to attract the hard-core major college football audience with news-oriented programming in prime time, promising behind-the-scenes access as well as the latest highlights and practice information. Former Notre Dame star Derrick Mayes hosts a two-hour Fighting Irish block on Sunday nights, and the network also will air coaches’ shows from throughout the country. “Part of our mission is to provide a national context for college sports,” says CSTV president and CEO Brian Bedol, a founder of Classic Sports Network. “At the same time, we intend to tap into the personal, one-to-one passions of college sports fans who are being underserved.” The Football Network launches around mid-season, although it will be producing games under the TFN banner for syndication starting in late August. TFN is counting on making a big splash with the first-ever Division 1-AA All-Star Game in Ft. Lauderdale on Dec. 30. But it may be 2004 at least before anyone can know whether there’s an audience for a network catering to every level of football — from Pop Warner to the NFL. In a business driven by increasingly smaller and more precise niches, college football is not just programming anymore. It’s a community. Networks like CSTV and TFN believe they can hit paydirt by strengthening the bond between cable and passionate football fans, helping pave the way for the digital conversion as surely as the lure of TBS, ESPN and CNN built basic cable. “At the end of the day,” says CSTV’s Bedol, “it’s not so much programming as affinity marketing.” While regional sports networks still dominated the college football TV scene — accounting for 73% of all games aired in 2002 — RSN numbers are down 22.4% from 2001 and off 40% versus the 1992 high of 1,638 games. Overall carriage in 2002 (1,342 games) was up 4% from the previous year, but still 29% below 1992. National cable accounts for 9.9% of the carriage pie, out-of-market PPV 7.5%, broadcast 7% and syndication 2.4%. Indeed, a softening ad market, coupled with a glut of TV product and the downward ratings trend all contributed to an across-the-board $153 mil. (11%) drop in gross ad revenues in 2002.

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