College Sports Network To Begin in ’03

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002,

In a country where home television viewers have more than 250 channels at their fingertips, is there room for a 24-hour college sports network? Chris Bevilacqua and his colleagues think so.

Bevilacqua is one of the founders and Executive Vice-President of the National College Sports Network (NCSN), a 24-hour cable network dedicated to college sports that plans to begin broadcasting early in 2003.

“If there can be a Food Network, Home and Garden channel, and Golf Channel, which I feel are all high-quality services, why not college sports?” says Bevilacqua, a former Penn State wrestler and Nike executive. “With college sports, you’re not talking about just a niche, you’re talking about a giant category if it’s packaged and presented properly. There are so many great stories out there that don’t get told.”

In addition to Bevilacqua, NCSN is headed by a pair of cable network pioneers, Brian Bedol and Steve Greenberg. The two co-founded the Classic Sports Network, which they later sold to ESPN. When they announced plans for the new college network this June, Bedol and Greenberg indicated potential investment in the network of nearly $100 million.

By the end of the summer, the network had reached multi-year agreements with more than a dozen NCAA Division I conferences comprising more than 150 schools. The agreements generally include sports that have not received much television air time in the past. For example, the network’s agreement with the Northeast Conference includes coverage of men’s and women’s cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field, golf, soccer, tennis, baseball, softball, women’s lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, and swimming.

“We see it as a good supplement to the television package we already have in place, which primarily takes care of basketball on a regional basis,” says Northeast Conference Commissioner John Iamarino. “We’re currently not doing anything to provide exposure for other sports, and since that’s the niche that NCSN is trying to create, it seemed to be a good match.”

The network is working mostly with conferences at this point, as opposed to individual schools, and has reached agreements with the Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Atlantic 10, Ohio Valley, Southland, Mid-Continent, Big South, and West Coast conferences, among others. In addition, the network is working with a consortium of Division I-AA football conferences to televise a game of the week.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll have a relationship with every Division I multi-sports conference by the time we launch,” Bevilacqua says. “And then you have the single-sport conferences in sports like ice hockey and lacrosse, and I expect we will have a relationship with all or most of them as well.”

The network is also looking beyond Division I. “If you think about what we’re building, which is a home base for college sports, it’s important that we represent the entire collegiate sports landscape—Division I, Division II, Division III, and the NAIA,” Bevilacqua says.

This kind of coverage could provide welcome exposure to many schools and sports overshadowed in the current market. But athletic directors probably shouldn’t count many other benefits beyond exposure.

Bevilacqua cites confidentiality agreements in declining to talk about any rights fees included in current agreements. “I would suggest that a major attraction to the relationship we provide is national exposure for a lot of sports that otherwise don’t get covered,” he says. “It’s a great marketing platform because you’re touching alumni and other fans who you normally wouldn’t reach. In return, we get access to great programming.”

Iamarino agrees. “For a smaller Division I conference like ours, the idea of being able to have an event carried nationally is very important to us,” he says. “We’re trying to do everything we possibly can to raise awareness of the Northeast Conference, which will increase our fan base and help our schools by making people more aware of who they are.”

While the concept for a 24-hour national college sports network may not sound very original, NCSN is the first group to move beyond the conceptual stage. For Iamarino, the proven track record of the network’s leadership was a key reason the conference climbed on board.

In addition, Bevilacqua credits a confluence of several outside factors in helping the network get off the ground. “First, you had the implosion of many Internet companies, and all the crazy valuation of media rights came back down to earth,” he says. “Second, you have the Title IX issue out there. Athletic directors are under pressure to more aggressively [promote] women’s sports and non-revenue men’s sports.

“Third, ESPN and Fox have been great partners to college sports, but they don’t have a lot of shelf space left for college sports,” Bevilacqua continues. “And last, you have the growth and explosion of digital cable—the operators have spent all that money to build out their systems, so now capacity is not a negating issue.”