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Big Ten NetworkCashing inOn Football

It’s already a great football season for the Big Ten Network. Roy Seinfeld, Big Ten Networks VP for advertising, says commercials during the channel’s football schedule are already sold out. It’s also making progress with the next item in the playbook: adding sponsors for programming in other dayparts.

The network scored a touchdown in getting Discover Financial Services to become presenting sponsor for its new primetime series Big Ten Icons, which will profile great players from the conference’s rich athletic history. Icons is hosted by legendary announcer Keith Jackson.

Discover has been bulking up its already considerable support of college football. Last week, the company became presenting sponsor of the Orange Bowl.

Other major advertisers joining Big Ten Network’s roster this year include International House of Pancakes, Sprint, Home Depot and General Mills for its Chex Mix brand.

All of the network’s previous key sponsors are returning, including the Marines, which will present the network’s football telecasts; Buffalo Wild Wings, which presents the halftime show; Auto- Owners Insurance, which has its name on the pregame show; and State Farm, presenter of the football wrap-up show. Other returning sponsors include Conagra, GMC and Nissan.

The Big Ten Network generates about two-thirds of its revenue during football season. This year, Seinfeld projects that football-season revenue will be up 25% from a year ago. And last season, when other networks were struggling with the recession, ad sales were up 30%. Ratings for football were up 22%. “We’re trying to build the network off of that strength,” Seinfeld says.

The network now has about 20 million subscribers in the eight states where the Big Ten has universities—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—and about 23 million subs elsewhere. Cable operators pay more for the network in the Big Ten states. But while the net generates most of its distribution revenue in the Big Ten’s Midwest footprint, 90% of its ad revenue comes from national advertisers and buyers. “I don’t call myself a regional sports network,” says Seinfeld, adding that he can’t split copy so that one ad runs in Ohio and another airs in California.

Seinfeld says the Big Ten Network got a boost on Madison Avenue from all the talk earlier this year about realigning college conferences. The amount of money the network could generate as new schools joined the conference was a door-opener. The addition of powerhouse Nebraska, which joins the league next season, should also help. “It gave a very positive spin to what we were doing,” he says, and helped reinforce the message that people who attended Big Ten schools retain ties to their alma maters. For many fans in the Midwest, after ESPN, the Big Ten Network is the place they turn to for sports.

“We’re reaping some of the seeds we sowed,” says Seinfeld, a Bronx native who arrived at Big Ten Network in Chicago via a stint in Minneapolis.

Big Play After Slow Start
The Big Ten Network got off to a slow start when its attempt to get cable carriage was blocked by Comcast and several other major operators during its first year, 2007. But once Comcast signed on, the channel has been steadily moving the chains.

Owned 51% by the Big Ten conference and 49% by News Corp.’s Fox Cable Networks, the network started turning a profit shortly after Comcast and the other cable operators signed on—a very quick exit from the red zone for a new cable net. The network paid the conference $72 million in 2009.

As the Big Ten Network kicked off, other conferences weighed launching their own channels. Despite BTN’s financial success, none have gotten off the drawing board.

“Partnering with Fox was a good move. There are rumblings about more launches, but it’s so tough to get carriage,” says Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan.

As part of its arrangement with the Big Ten, the network does not accept advertising from marketers of alcoholic beverages, a key category for most sports broadcasters. That means that while you can see a beer ad when, for example, Penn State plays Iowa on ESPN, you can’t when Ohio State plays Illinois on the Big Ten Network.

“People like us for having a different environment,” says Seinfeld, putting the best face on a lost opportunity. “No alcohol helps us with some companies.” Without alcohol ads, the Big Ten Network is more dependent on other categories, notably cars, insurance and even food, even though most food products tend to skew female.

Beyond the Gridiron
This week, Big Ten Network launches several new primetime shows. Some focus on football; others on Big Ten sports in general. In addition to Big Ten Icons, which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET, the new offerings include:

The Next Level
, Thursdays at 8 p.m., with each episode spending a day with former Big Ten stars, focusing on their lives after school in professional sports and society. Among those featured on the show are Lavar Arrington, Dallas Clark, Joe Girardi and Dhani Jones.

Big Ten Film Vault, airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m., features rarely seen football footage, including some games never seen on national television. The show is hosted by Dan Dierdorf, who played at Michigan before becoming an NFL Hall of Fame player and a broadcaster.

Other shows debuting are Big Ten Pulse, Thursdays at 9 p.m.; Big Ten Football Report, Fridays at 8; and Big= Ten Football Saturday: Kickoff, Saturdays at 10 a.m.

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