Phil Miller's Big Ten Insider: League rests in hands of TV exec Silverman

  • Updated: November 23, 2012 - 6:19 AM

Jim Delany and the Big Ten are after a piece of the East Coast cable market, and it might have the resources to pull it off.

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This July 26, 2012 file photo shows Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany speaking at the Big Ten football media day in Chicago.

Photo: M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

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Jim Delany was the driving force behind the Big Ten's surprise expansion this week, the mastermind who determined that adding Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York City to the conference's reach was more important than whether Maryland and Rutgers are actually any good at football.

Now serving his 24th season as Big Ten commissioner, Delany has tied his legacy to this decision, one that shook up the most conservative, tradition-bound college conference in America. But Delany is 64 and nearing retirement. It won't be the most influential commissioner in college sports who determines whether this marriage of convenience is successful.

No, for that, Delany has put the fate of his league in the hands of a much younger man: Mark Silverman, the executive who has shepherded the Big Ten Network from a crazy broadcasting experiment into one of the biggest cash registers in sports. But Silverman will have plenty of help as he tries to turn this gamble into a victory, too, and from some unlikely sources.

People like Bill O'Reilly. And Louis C.K. And Derek Jeter.

Let's explain.

It's certainly no secret that this expansion, and the next (inevitable) one, too, is driven by money, by the Big Ten's desire to have a marketing presence in the most heavily populated corridor in America. Those potential markets certainly will raise the stakes when the Big Ten shops for a new television contract five years from now, whether it re-ups with ABC and ESPN or finds a better deal from CBS, NBC, Turner or someone else. But networks are smart about demographics, and they won't pay for a New York City audience of 14 million if their market research finds that only 250,000 New Yorkers care about Rutgers.

The real prize, then, is Silverman's specialty: carriage fees. In regions where the Big Ten Network is available on a basic or sports tier -- nearly the entire current nine-state current footprint of the league -- BTN charges cable customers a standard monthly fee, in some cases nearly a dollar a month, whether they watch a single minute of programming or not. Outside that region, BTN is mostly available in higher-tier specialty packages; you have to specifically ask (and pay) for them, which means only a fraction of the viewers.

Silverman's challenge: Convince cable operators along the East Coast to make BTN a basic offering, and collect from all subscribers, not just those who want it. It's a distinction that's potentially worth untold millions a year.

It's not easy, though, as a series of recent cable disputes, like the one which temporarily blacked out Comedy Central on DirecTV recently, has proved. Cable companies are loathe to add new channels, because it means raising their fees, which consumers hate. The copycat Pac-12 Network has yet to reach a carriage agreement on DirecTV, and BTN itself was absent from many Midwestern cable systems during its first year on the air.

Silverman, however, has some powerful allies as he tries to leverage East Coast cable operators. The Big Ten owns only 49 percent of BTN -- the other 51 percent is owned by Fox Sports, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. media empire. And News Corp. also owns Fox News Network, home to O'Reilly and the highest-rated news organization in cable. It owns FX, home to comedy programming like C.K.'s sitcom. And just last week, it announced plans to purchase a 49 percent stake in the YES Network, which broadcasts Brooklyn Nets basketball and nearly 150 New York Yankees games, with Jeter at shortstop, every year.

That's some of the most popular programming in the nation. Think cable operators will listen when Silverman, backed by his corporate partners, suggests that Rutgers football belongs on basic cable?

Delany's conference headquarters is in the historic Montgomery Ward Building on Chicago's North Side, less than five miles from Wrigley Field. But I'm guessing the commissioner is developing a sudden fondness for the Yankees.

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