The entire college sports world has been rocked in the last week by the Big Ten’s decision to bring Maryland and Rutgers into the conference, perhaps as early as the 2014 season. This could lead to a destabilization of the rest of college football and basketball and is the next, and perhaps scariest, sign that college presidents and athletic directors are willing to sell out decades of tradition -- the primary selling point of college sports -- for the promise of short-term revenues and elbowing out a conference rival for the sake of misguided corporate competitiveness. In 30 years, we’re going to look back at all this conference movement and wonder what in the hell those idiots in the early 2010s possibly could have been thinking.
And you can make a pretty strong argument that this entire issue exists because of the Big Ten Network.
The Big Ten Network launched in 2007 and almost immediately changed everything we thought we knew about college sports. Its instant financial windfall -- last year it brought in about $242 million in revenue and $80 million in profit -- and its potential for more has given the Big Ten most favored nation status: Its bountiful cash harvests have forgiven a decade of mediocre football and a plethora of recent scandals among member schools. Maryland and Rutgers are schools with serious financial problems; joining the Big Ten, theoretically, will save them. Heck, you can make an argument that the only reason the journalism department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, of which I am a proud alumnus, still exists is because of Big Ten Network revenues. It is providing much-needed lifeblood to cash-strapped universities. It is changing everything.
But it is still, you know, just a TV network. One of the main reasons it’s thought that the Big Ten invited Rutgers to join the league was to get the network on New York City cable systems, but, living in Brooklyn, I’ve been watching the network for years. It’s on an extra sports tier for which I pay $15 or so a month, along with NBA TV, Fox Soccer and NHL Network.
This little network, based out of Chicago, is transforming college sports. Pretty good for something that, as I type this, is currently showing a replay of a game between Fairleigh Dickinson and Northwestern, called by a couple of undergrads.
And this is the dirty secret about the Big Ten Network, one that belies its importance around the sports world: It’s not very good.
Don’t get me wrong: It has improved. I’m probably even overstating it. When it first came on the air -- it was on so few televisions that students at Illinois couldn’t watch the games in their dorm rooms for two years; you had to go to a bar just to watch an Illini game that was being played just about half a mile away -- its production values and on-air talent were one step above “Wayne’s World” Aurora public access. (You half expected a set to fall down in the middle of a studio show.) The Big Ten was so eager to get its network up and running that it never thought about what might actually make good television, and the first two years were plagued by problems with feeds, scheduling mishaps and “analysts” who were clearly training on the job. It hardly felt like anything that would ever be monumental.
It got better in the last few years, thanks to an emphasis on student contributions (I make fun, but it is a nice thing to give young broadcasters a chance to cut their teeth with exhibition games), an improved studio show and, mainly, letting former ESPN broadcaster Dave Revsine emerge as the prime studio guy, sort of their version of Brent Musburger back in the “NFL Today” days. (Think of Revsine as the Big Ten Network’s Rich Eisen.) Revsine is a vastly underrated host and the main reason why the network is watchable.
But this network is far from ready for primetime and of note far more as a revenue producer than for any sort of valued programming. For all the worry about the NFL Network and MLB Network being house organs, there is no more hagiographic self-promoting in-house network than the Big Ten Network. (I swear, every time commissioner Jim Delany is interviewed on that channel, it seems like they back-light him as if he’s wearing a halo, and the questions are about as tough as the ones Paula Broadwell likely asked of Gen. Petraeus in the early stages of their book planning.) There are too many inexperienced voices on the channel, like basketball analyst Tim Doyle (a former Northwestern basketball player who’s probably fun to hang around with socially but adds zero insight into anything, ever), and a dramatic overemphasis on Gus Johnson, the broadcasting equivalent of whippets. Johnson is the sort of hired gun you bring in to pep up lackluster material, and that Johnson sounds roughly the same broadcasting a Nebraska-Nicholls State game in December as he does broadcasting the Big Ten Championship game is the firmest indictment against him that I can come up with. (During last year’s Big Ten Tournament, in between games, the league had a “Gus Johnson soundalike contest,” an event that gave roughly 47 percent of the crowd seizures.)
The network still hasn’t shaken the sense that it’s low-rent. Its sponsors don’t help, either, with ultra-regional outfits like Omaha Steaks, Rotel and ConAgra. Now, I love those sponsors, but I’m from Central Illinois and still get a nostalgic kick out of John Deere ads. I’m not sure Omaha Steaks will go over huge on NYC cable, however. The fact is, compared to CBS Sports Network, Fox College Sports or any of ESPN’s myriad broadcast tentacles, the Big Ten Network is still putting itself together. Its quality has a long way to go.
That would be fine, except that this whole Rutgers/Maryland business is based on putting the network in front of as many people as possible. And it’s not there yet. (Oh, and as someone who has dealt with NYC cable companies for 13 years, let me tell you, the idea that it’s going to just pop up on basic cable, non-sports tier -- a centerpiece of those rosy $20 million revenue projections, even though Delany admits it won’t be easy -- just because it got Rutgers and because News Corp. is an investor, is crazy. This is a city that just got The NFL Network. The notion that the average, non-sports-fan consumer will pay a flat-rate to watch Mike Hall hawk Rotel Queso Dip is insane.)
The Big Ten Network may be the most important network in sports right now. As long as you’re not regularly watching it.
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I say this sort of out of love: I watch the Big Ten Network way, way more than any Brooklynite should. And therefore I know all its flaws. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.