MBPT Spotlight: No Beer Ads, No Problem For Big Ten Network That Finds Other Ways To Boost Ad Revenue

When it comes to ads, The Big Ten Network takes the high road: It does not accept ads for beer or any kind of alcohol, which means eschewing one of the largest revenue categories for every other sports network. BTN also will not superimpose large logos of brands on the field during its game telecasts. But the network has come up with several alternative ways to bring in additional ad dollars, while also offering its viewers some top value-adds to its game coverage.

Within the past year, using technology and its connections to the Big Ten universities, the BTN has begun offering three sponsored digital ad buys as part of packages that also have those sponsors running TV commercials during the network’s live games.

The first is BTN Field Pass, sponsored by Buffalo Wild Wings, in a deal that began midway through last season. About an hour before BTN’s most important football game each week, the network sets up a camera—usually on the field—and streams live content on its BTN2Go website. The camera allows fans to see the teams warming up and whatever else is going on inside the stadium. The feature is promoted on-air as being presented by Buffalo Wild Wings.

The second is Did You See This, which features clips of great plays during a game that are posted on social media and on BTN.com right after they happen. Viewers can access them via a special video player, and the feature is sponsored by Orville Redenbacher. The sponsor gets a pre-roll spot at the start of the clip and the video player is also branded with the sponsor’s name. One spectacular catch during a game in the first telecast of the season received more than 180,000 video views. The feature is also promoted on-air as being presented by Orville Redenbacher.

The third is BTN Connect, which collects and aggregates all the Twitter streams from around the conference onto one page and allows fans to interact with each other, as well as with BTN talent during the games. This feature is sponsored by Buick.

“These three tools are all about our creating an environment that connects college sports fans to their teams in a more intimate way and the sponsors are right there with them,” says Elizabeth Conlisk, BTN’s VP of communications and university relations.

The Net’s Net
The Big Ten Network, launched in 2007, is the oldest of the conference-affiliated TV networks. It’s a joint venture between Fox Cable Networks (which owns 51%) and the Big Ten Conference. It is currently available in about 53 million homes and is watched most in its eight core markets that include Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Daytona, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

Last football season, BTN’s conference game telecasts averaged a 1.7 household rating in those eight core markets. Comparably, ESPN game telecasts in those markets averaged a 1.8, ESPN2 0.8 and ESPNU 0.1. Ratings for last season were up 18% over the previous season.

This season through the first two conference game weeks, BTN is averaging a 1.6, ESPN a 1.7, ESPN2 a 1.0 and ESPNU a 0.3.

The Big Ten conference has a TV rights deal with ABC and ESPN, so they share the conference telecasts. This season BTN will televise about 47 Big Ten games.

According to a recent Chicago Tribune story—citing SNL Kagan data—the Big Ten Network in 2013 is projected to bring in $270 million in total net revenue with $234 million of that coming from carriage fees. Ad revenue is projected to be $29 million this year, and 60% of that is tied to the Saturday football game telecasts.

Jim Reeder, VP ad sales at BTN says the ability to offer fans and advertisers various enhancements helps the network compete with the many competitor national and regional networks that carry college football games each week.

Even Fox Sports 1 is televising college games in BTN markets and is a competitor.

“Anyone selling advertising for college football is a competitor of ours,” Reeder says. “We compete against all of them to get our share of advertising.”

And BTN, without the flow of beer ads, is still pulling in a sizable number of sponsors and regular advertisers. Among the sponsors: U.S. Marines for the net’s noon football games; John Deere for the 3:30 p.m. games; Buick for primetime games; Auto Owners Insurance for the pregame shows; State Farm for postgame shows; and Buffalo Wild Wings for halftime.

For the network’s original programming, Chase is sponsor of Big Ten Elite, which chronicles outstanding seasons of some of the Big Ten’s most successful teams. While Best Buy sponsors The Journey, which takes viewers inside each Big Ten school’s football and basketball programs.

Reeder says ad sales so far are pacing ahead of last season but he adds that there is inventory left. New advertisers joining the BTN roster this season, Reeder says, are Chrysler and Jeep Ram, American Family Insurance, PNC Bank and Duluth Trading Company.

Reeder adds that while the network is not Nielsen Television Index rated, it basically uses its metered-market ratings to project a national rating that it then goes out with.

And what is the audience that BTN is selling to advertisers? Reeder says it’s a highly educated, upscale-income audience that is made up largely of alumni of each of the Big Ten universities—in other words, people who are passionate about watching their alma maters play each week.

“We are showcasing a lot of teams that didn’t always get as much coverage as their fans desired before we launched,” Reeder says. “And these digital enhancements we’ve added allow us to make a deeper connection with those fans, and the advertisers benefit from that too.”