Miller: Big Ten Network calls the shots

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2012 - 7:31 AM

The big-business network risks alienating some Big Ten fans and teams with early kickoff times and an ongoing contract dispute with Dish Network.

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The Big Ten Network risks alienating some Big Ten fans and teams with early kickoff times and an ongoing contract dispute with Dish Network.

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Remember the 2007 season, Gopher fans? A 1-11 disaster made worse (or maybe better, depending on your tolerance for pain) by the fact that you couldn't watch the games on TV because the just-launched Big Ten Network wasn't available on most cable systems.

Dish Network subscribers didn't experience that disruption at the time, because the fledgling network struck a deal relatively quickly with the satellite system. But perhaps that was merely deferred distress, because BTN is about to go black on one of its biggest carriers.

"We'd like to be still negotiating with Dish, but unfortunately, negotiations have stalled," BTN vice president of communications Elizabeth Conlisk said. "There is a surprising lack of urgency from Dish, but we're ready to continue discussions at any time."

If no agreement is reached, the 2.4 million Dish subscribers who pay extra for a sports tier that includes BTN will not be able to watch Saturday's New Hampshire-Gophers game. If the dispute lingers for another week, the game with Western Michigan is in jeopardy.

It's just the latest ignominy that Gopher football fans have had to endure because of Big Ten television contracts, and a good reminder that all that cash -- and make no mistake, it's a lot, roughly $20 million to each Big Ten member last year -- comes at a price. True, in many ways, following Gophers football never has been easier or better, given the development of high definition, the virtual guarantee that every game is televised, and the portability of watch-now apps such as BTN2Go. Not to mention the new beer garden at TCF Bank Stadium.

But football's popularity means it can be used as leverage in negotiations such as the ones with Dish, held hostage while each side attempts to extract as much in fees as possible from the other.

And even worse, particularly for fans who want to attend the games in person? As Gophers fans well know, TV decides when the games are played.

In Minnesota, that has meant 11 a.m. kickoffs for several years, despite the school's distaste for the early starts. In 2009, five home games started at that hour, and three more followed in 2010. The Gophers believe the early starts cost them at the box office, and detract from the atmosphere they are trying to establish at TCF Bank Stadium.

"I'm an old traditionalist, a college football guy. I like playing in the afternoon," coach Jerry Kill said. "But that's all changed."

Actually, it's changed twice now. The Big Ten, given new freedom in its TV contracts to schedule more 2:30 p.m. games, pledged last year to make morning starts less frequent, and followed through by assigning the Gophers no 11 a.m. kickoffs at home.

But that pledge has apparently lapsed. Rumors persist that low ratings for Gophers games play a part in this year's schedule, but the conference has denied it. Whatever the reason, four of the Gophers' next five games, three of them at home, will kick off an hour before noon. (The remaining four home kickoffs will be scheduled later in the season.)

New athletic director Norwood Teague has noticed, and he doesn't sound pleased. He recently described noon kickoffs while he was an assistant AD at North Carolina as "difficult," and noted that morning games are hard on Gopher fans and the school's students. Teague, like Joel Maturi before him, said he would like the matter discussed at a conference level.

In the meantime, set those alarms. And hope that Dish and BTN settle their differences.

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