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The Big Ten Network: A Giant Miscalculation

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We've seen the promotional advertisements. We've seen Tubby Smith and every other Big Ten coach applaud the supposed benefits of the conference having its own network. We've heard of the exposure the network will supposedly provide the conference to lure recruits.

It's all bogus. The Big Ten Network was a giant mistake. Tom Izzo has been quoted as calling the network a public relations nightmare. It's more than that.

Forget the fact that many cable companies have refused to cave and offer the BTN as part of expanded basic packages.  BTN executives point to deals struck this year with cable companies like Comcast and suggest that now two-thirds of viewers in Big Ten Country receive the channel.

But what the Big Ten has done, is give the SEC and other major conferences a leverage boost at the negotiating table. Here's SI's Stewart Mandel:

At the same time the Big Ten announced its new venture in 2006, it also signed a reported 10-year, $1 billion extension with ABC/ESPN. The SEC, which last year earned $63.6 million from football and basketball television revenue, is expected to reap a far bigger windfall from its current negotiations. Rarely has a conference sat at a bargaining table from such a position of power.

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The question SEC officials have to ask themselves is, are the potential benefits of a network worth bearing those complications? Their counterparts at the Big Ten are only now starting to find out.

I think we know how worked out for the SEC. They got a 15 year deal worth about $55 million per year from CBS and a 15 year deal worth 2.25 billion from ESPN. You've probably seen the impacts of this already this season. On the high-profile networks, the SEC has enjoyed prime-time coverage. While Big Ten teams are somewhat hidden on the BTN--where, again, just two-thirds of Big Ten homes can watch them--the SEC juggernaut is getting the national exposure.

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we know that the deal with ESPN comes with the network's agreement to help brand the conference.

No other conference has that kind of branding on ESPN: Not the Big Ten, not the Big 12, and not the ACC. The SEC will be able to walk into a living room and say that every conference game will either be on CBS or one of the ESPN platforms. And if the SEC is recruiting a player outside the nine-state area, the coaches can tell parents that the games will be on the dish as part of ESPN’s Game Plan

And this isn't to say there aren't some nice beneifts of the BTN. It's certainly great to have one-stop shopping for Big Ten highlights and programming. It's nice, albeit a ratings and financial loser, to have a place to watch non-revenue sports. I enjoyed the ongoing feature last year on Tubby Smith's Gophers.

But I'd much prefer to be in the SEC's shoes. Again, from the AJC:

2. The SEC no longer needs its own network: I talked to commissioner Mike Slive late Monday and he told me he was once convinced that an SEC network was the way to go. “I felt that way for about a year because I thought it was the only way we could get everything we wanted in terms of exposure and revenue,” said Slive, a former attorney and judge.

This new deal eliminates the need for the SEC to invest in its own network because ESPN is going to do it for them.

When the SEC representatives sat down to negotiate with ESPN they brought a laundry list of things they felt their own network could do for them. “Every time we would bring up an issue of something that we wanted, ESPN would come back to us and say ‘We can do that for you,’” Slive said. So the SEC gets the benefits of its own network without any of the risk. It will use ESPN’s massive infrastructure instead of having to build its own. “If we start our own network you’re looking at a 20-year commitment at least,” said Slive.

And here’s a question worth pondering. What if the Big Ten had asked ESPN to do this same deal? Would there be a Big Ten Network today?

So, the next time you hear a Big Ten coach exalting the benefits of the Big Ten Network, remember that the conference took a giant risk in going off on its own and the SEC took that leverage and got much, much more from two major television networks. Years down the line the BTN could be the boon for the conference executives expected. But for now, it looks like a giant miscalculation.