Big Ten Sports Network Kicks Off Battle With Comcast

Posted July 10, 2007 at 6:26pm

Correction Appended

Big Ten fans will have to wait until November for the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game, but the storied athletic conference has another key battle in store this summer on Capitol Hill.

The Midwestern league is fighting cable giant Comcast over a deal to carry its new cable television network. And while the skirmish has no legislative component, for now, it has spilled onto Beltway turf in recent days as both sides scramble for advantage in a wider public relations contest.

Executives from the Big Ten Network, as the channel is called, will start making the rounds today to Hill offices of the eight state delegations represented in the league. And Thursday, the network will host alumni working on the Hill at both a morning briefing and an evening reception.

Comcast has been deploying its weighty lobbying force to work the same crowd.

The dispute centers on how the network, which launches Aug. 30, will be offered on cable television. University and network officials argue the sports-heavy programming has wide appeal in Big Ten states and should be standard in basic cable packages.

Comcast counters that only a narrow slice of its customers will be interested, arguing that it is unfair to charge all viewers in regions with member schools the $1.10 a month it would cost to make the network part of the standard package — especially considering that ABC and ESPN will maintain exclusive rights to top-rated Big Ten games.

Instead, the company wants to offer it as part of a premium package of sports channels that fans would pay extra to receive. The company declined to comment for this article.

Comcast and others in the industry are worried that if the Big Ten Network has its way, other college athletic conferences will follow suit.

Already the skirmish has drawn the concern of House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), a fan of Big Ten school the University of Michigan. He wrote Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany in late June asking pointed questions about the network’s plans, the status of talks with cable operators and whether fans should have to pay to watch their teams at all.

“I am increasingly concerned about the migration of previously free, over the air content to a pay television tier,” Dingell wrote.

Dingell, whose committee has jurisdictional authority to hold hearings on the matter, has no plans to do wield his gavel in the debate, according to staff. His letter was printed on the letterhead of his personal office.

Delany answered Dingell’s June 25 letter with a letter of his own, but network officials declined to make it public. They are set to follow up with Dingell in a personal meeting this week.

Elizabeth Conlisk, the vice president of communications for the network, said the blitz of Hill visits today and Thursday have been in the works for six weeks and were not a response to the Dingell letter. The message, she said, is that “this is a network about, by and for the Big Ten and the Big Ten communities where these people live.”

The meetings are a chance to introduce the network and the scope of its coverage.

The network hopes a wide fan base on Capitol Hill will warm to its pitch. According to a Roll Call analysis, five Senators and 22 House Members attended Big Ten schools, including Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del./Ohio State), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich./Michigan State) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind./Indiana) and Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga./Michigan State) and Frank Wolf (R-Va./Penn State). So did countless aides.

To coordinate its pitch, the network is tapping the lobbying shops of its member universities. Four of them — Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue — have offices in town. Others are working from Midwestern offices to help set up meetings.

While the network lacks heaps of political cash and an army of consultants — over the past two years, Comcast spent $9.4 million on its lobbying team and doled out nearly $1.1 million in campaign contributions, according to CQ PoliticalMoneyLine — it has a play in its playbook its rival can’t count on.

The schools have a combined alumni network of about 4 million people across the country that Conlisk said could be asked to get in touch with lawmakers.

To bulk up the team, the Big Ten recently took a more traditional turn, hiring the professionals at the Dewey Square Group.

So far, the network has inked deals with 75 cable operators, Conlisk said.

Most of them are local, but they also include DIRECTV, which is owned by News Corp., a part owner of the network itself. News Corp. does not appear to be backing up its investment by lobbying in support of network. Similarly, Time Warner — which has joined Comcast in holding out on a deal with the Big Ten — is hugging the sidelines on the Hill.

Correction: July 12, 2007
The article incorrectly stated that the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game occurs in October. The game takes place in November.