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Comcast Ready for Some Football

The latest jab in a spar between Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable operator, and the fledgling Big Ten Network (BTN) came Tuesday when Comcast rolled out a list of Big Ten Conference football games available to its subscribers this season.

The company has been feuding over carriage fees with the BTN, a partnership between the Conference and News Corp. that will air Big Ten athletics. Comcast wants to carry the network on a sports tier, so as not to saddle its basic subscribers with the extra fees. But the network, which launches August 30, is pushing for the wider audience on the basic tier. The two have not been able to find the middle ground.

“From the beginning, we have said we would like to carry the network and will make it available immediately as part of our Sports Entertainment Package,” the company stated Tuesday in a release. “We simply can not allow Fox and the Big Ten to burden all of our customers—the vast majority of whom have no interest in Big Ten sports—with a $13 Big Ten tax.”

Comcast notes that subscribers will have access to Big Ten games on other networks. Some of those include Ohio State at Michigan, Michigan at Michigan State, Notre Dame at Michigan and Washington State at Wisconsin.

“But there are 40 Big Ten games that they are not going to have,” says Fox National Cable Sports Networks president Bob Thompson.

BTN has locked up distribution deals with DirecTV, AT&T’s U-verse and around 100 smaller cable operators, carrying the network on an expanded basic tier. That is the crux of the impasse between BTN and Comcast. The network has said it is a willing negotiator on fees, but wants BTN carried on an expanded basic tier. The cable operator wants to place the network on a premium sports tier. The result is that Comcast will not carry the network when it launches this week.

“We’re willing to negotiate on everything but the basic tier,” says Fox National Cable Sports Networks president Bob Thompson, while dismissing the annual ‘$13 Big Ten tax’ referred to by Comcast. “We’ve never put a $1.10 in front of them.”

Thompson notes that there are ongoing discussions with other carriers such as Time Warner Cable, Mediacom and Insight Communications that he hopes will bear fruit soon.

The network has also locked horns in negotiations with satellite service provider EchoStar, which recently asked the FCC to rule on the national or regional status of BTN—a move that could potentially open the door to arbitration.