College Trio Scores Big Distribution Gains

Three channels dedicated to college-football conferences will run in the gridiron spotlight this year: the rookie SEC Network, the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Networks.

The Walt Disney Co.’s SEC Network, a joint venture with the Southeastern Conference operated by ESPN, has generated most of the headlines, gaining wide-scale carriage prior to its Aug. 14 kickoff. However, BTN and Pac-12 Networks are also increasing their subscriber bases ahead of the premiere of this year’s pigskin action.

The SEC Network debuted with more than 60 million subscribers and is available to more than 90 million pay TV homes, making it one of the biggest launches in cable history.

The rollout speaks to the prowess of Disney’s affiliate team and the SEC’s pre-eminent position in collegiate rankings. SEC Network counts most of the nation’s top providers, including Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, Time Warner Cable, AT&T U-verse, Cox, Suddenlink Communications and the National Cable Television Cooperative, as affiliates, leaving Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV and Cablevision Systems as the major holdouts at press time.

Verizon has said it is negotiating with ESPN for SEC carriage. The first of 45 football games — Texas A&M at South Carolina — kicks off on Aug. 28.

All told, SEC Network, which will televise 450 events and present another 550 digital-exclusive live conference contests on and WatchESPN during its freshman year, has sought monthly subscriber fees of $1.40 within the conference’s 11-state footprint and 25 cents for affiliates located beyond those boundaries.

ESPN officials would not discuss the SEC Network’s rate card.

The Big Ten Network has grown its distribution footprint alongside the entry of Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten Conference. Through a series of upgrades with distributors in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas, BTN has bolstered its subscriber count by some 15% from 52 million since the end of the 2013-14 academic year to some 60 million subscribers, and is now available to 90 million homes with the 14-member conference’s 11-state footprint and throughout the country.

BTN’s eighth season will feature improved positioning on systems owned by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and RCN in the New York DMA, home to New Jersey-based Rutgers. Similarly, the nation’s largest distributor and Cox will boost the service’s availability in and around the nation’s capital and northern Virginia, where Maryland has a significant fan base.

“We already had strong levels of distribution on DirecTV, AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS inside and outside of the conference footprint,” BTN president Mark Silverman said. “Now, we’ve added more cable subs, with positioning on mostly expanded and digital basic. It’s a nice uptick.”

Moreover, Silverman said the network has picked up better coverage on Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles, which will complement carriage on DirecTV in the area.

Out West, Pac-12 Networks is heading into its junior year by televising more than 850 events across its national feed and six regional networks. Its football slate also begins on Aug. 28 with a pair of contests: Idaho State versus Utah and Arizona State hosting Weber State.

More subscribers of charter-affiliate partners, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable, will gain access to the action. Senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Art Marquez said Cox would make the Pac-12 national feed available on its sports package in Louisiana, Florida, Virginia and Rhode Island, while Time Warner Cable for the first time is going to begin offering the six regional channels throughout its systems around the country. Charter affiliate Comcast has been making the national feed available to customers beyond the Pac-12’s footprint, save for a handful of markets with capacity issues, according to Marquez.

He said that with the additions of a number of smaller providers, Pac-12 Networks, whose general game plan calls for expanded-basic positioning within the conference footprint and carriage of the national feed out-of-market, has 70 affiliates and is available to 60 million homes. Marquez would not disclose the programmer’s subscriber base.

Although executives at DirecTV and Pac-12 Networks have stated that it’s unlikely that DirecTV will carry the services this season, Marquez remains sanguine.

“We’re always in discussions. You can always get a deal,” he said, pointing out that when he was working at MLB Network, Dish Network launched the service in September, as the baseball season was winding to its conclusion.