In a panel on the benefits of having your own media network at IMG’s Intercollegiate Athletics Forum Thursday in NYC, college sports execs spoke of lessons learned about dealmaking, digital distribution and the value of live sports.
 
A conference set to get its own network next year is the SEC, which recently announced plans to air a double header on opening day in August and plans for 450 live TV events and an additional 550 events available digitally. We’re “in the build phase right now,” according to Justin Connolly, svp, programming, college networks, ESPN. On distribution, he said they’re in “advanced conversations with a few other large distributors," but “it’s safe to say some will come down closer to launch."
 
No stranger to sports media deals, including the SEC’s, ESPN veteran and current sports media consultant Chuck Gerber divulged on what he believes to be the four pillars of distribution: a national cable deal, a regional deal, a local, institutional package and a “robust digital offering to give them their own national network.” The latter is a very integral part moving forward, he said.
 
Brooks Boyer, co-founder & CEO, Silver Chalice Ventures, who leads strategy for the digital-only network Campus Insider among others, uniquely understands this. Digital allows greater coverage for some of the smaller conferences, he said. The reach they gain improves valuable branding, recruitment and distribution, with the network casting the schools’ content to a wider group of fans. But at the same time, production is a challenge. “We have to deliver the same quality but it’s in a digital manner,” he said.
 
Connolly agreed on digital’s importance, saying that any way you look at the metrics of sports consumption on digital, it’s increasing. Determining the best way to distribute that content—whether through authentication or opening the content up for free—depends on what your business goals are, he said.
 
Indeed, with all inventory spoken for now, in comparison to just some games being aired in the past, the digital level must be fully “exploited,” said Dean Jordan, managing executive, global media, Wasserman Media Group. Larry Jones, evp, Fox Sports said that digital provides a big opportunity, calling it a “platform somewhat like a network” that allows you to get your programming to more people.
 
Having your own media network is very valuable to schools, according to Jones, and it’s most helpful from a branding perspective. Connolly added that it brings value to sponsors, advertisers and the teams. Boyer praised Big Ten Network’s coverage, saying that you get a feel of the conference through the network. “It’s a ticket driver,” he said, and is successful at getting people to come out to games.
 
Another benefit to a conference network is the educational component, execs agreed. Students attending the schools learn about producing live sports events, Jones said. “It’s not just about what we put on the air.” Boyer agreed, saying that at Campus Insider a lot of its live events are student-run.
 
The inevitable question about the high cost of sports rights was posed, with Gerber predicting that “the upper level of product will continue” to escalate. But a network has to set priorities, he said, and isn’t financially able to gobble everything up. Some, they’re “going to have to pass on," he said. "ESPN is not necessarily an ATM machine…It has to do with the priorities.”
 
Jones added that it’s important to keep in mind the length of the deal. Headlines with dollar amounts can be misleading in that sense, he said. “The value of those deals grow” with time.
 
On how sports rights are affecting the ecosystem, Connolly maintained that the value of live sports for both programmers and MVPDs is high. DirecTV, for instance, “makes a tremendous amount of money from repackaging sports games” to customers. “It’s hard to suggest that we at ESPN haven’t put a whole lot of value into the ecosystem,” he argued. Jones agreed, adding that sports is DVR-proof, great water cooler talk and that live sports is the “only unscripted, legitimate programming” out there. “They’re not starving off our deals,” he said.

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