Roughly a year from now, the Pac-12 will have its own functioning television network. And roughly a year from now, that network could change how people around the world watch sports.
When the Pac-12 Conference signed its record-breaking, 12-year, $3-billion television rights contract in May, conference commissioner Larry Scott and his underlings in Walnut Creek made sure that ESPN and FOX, the networks responsible for the enormous payout, did not receive the conference’s entire stock of games. For that enormous hunk of cash and nearly generational commitment (when the deal expires, children set to begin fifth grade this fall will have college degrees) the media companies still do not own the rights to about half of the conference’s football games and own only a minority of the Pac-12′s men’s basketball conference games. Those games, along with hundreds of others in the non-revenue sports (for television ratings interests, women’s basketball and women’s volleyball probably top the list), are reserved for the Pac-12 Network.
This much is clear: the Pac-12 will have a network and will broadcast the aforementioned games and matches, along with various features, documentaries and studio programs, beginning in August 2012. The model of a collegiate athletic conference taking on its own television channel has been established by the Big Ten, and now, to an even more regional and specific scale, the Longhorn Network of the University of Texas. The New York Yankees pursued a similar concept years ago when it began the YES Network, and teams around MLB have followed suit ever since.
Where Scott and his plan set off for the territories is conceptualizing not just the institution of a network for the conference, but rather in envisioning how that network will present itself and the transmission method it will use to reach consumers. Rumors indicate that with its enviable slate of games, the network could go partially or exclusively digital, broadcasting programming through either Apple or Google platforms and/or a traditional cable channel with a television network partner.
So first, let’s extinguish what has become a pressing–and largely unfounded–concern for many fans. Scott will almost surely not make the Pac-12 Network exclusively an internet venture. Jon Wilner claims that several anonymous sources have told him such an exclusive arrangement is out of consideration, but that seems to be merely a statement of the obvious. The people most likely to watch games online–and also those most technologically proficient at doing so–are those roughly in the 18-35 age demographic, and even 35 is most likely on the very high end. People that watch games on a computer are often those that do not readily have access to a traditional television–in other words, college students.
As tablets and laptops fuse into one of the same and render any distinction between the two a relic of technology history, more and more people will access television programming via mobile and computing devices. But now, and for at least the immediate future, those college students watching games on iPads and MacBooks are exactly the people the conference needs to attend games in person and pack the member schools’ student sections, rather than sit in dorm rooms and watch the games on a device. It is an audience to cater to, but not an audience to cater to exclusively. The Pac-12 needs a good, old-fashioned television channel to reach its fans that aren’t staying up until 3:00 am every night and single-handedly keeping Maruchan afloat.
While the conference needs a traditional television outlet for the Pac-12 Network, let’s face it: there’s not much to talk about on that front until the channel has hosts, a visual brand and real content to discuss. The nitty-gritty of the contract arrangements to re-brand an existing cable channel or enter into an agreement with a network provider isn’t compelling sports discussion.
The intriguing part is the hypothetical dynamics of an online Pac-12 Network.
The prospect of an online network presents a multitude of distinct possible directions–many of which would bear few similarities to each other–for the viewer experience. A possibility is something like the MLB.TV set-up, where subscribers can watch live out-of-market games and watch any game on demand after it’s played. Such a system would likely require black-out restrictions as long as the network stayed on traditional television in order to protect television advertising revenues. But it seems like a good model for a collegiate conference, where games occur in multiple sports simultaneously almost every day. Depending upon how much money the conference could spend on television crews, fans could potentially have access to a much broader variety of games than they would on the cable channel, which can only show one program at a time. The financial advantage of this system would further boost Pac-12 infrastructure and school pay-outs; after all, MLB.TV has been an extraordinarily popular product for baseball.
Think, too, of the egalitarian angle to such a distribution method. Don’t want to watch football when you can catch every play of Stanford-Cal field hockey? Click onto the latter and have at it. Sick of watching guys dribble a ball up and down a floor when you could be viewing women’s gymnastics? Feel free to get every moment of every athlete’s floor routine. Fans and the family and friends of the athletes themselves could pick exactly what they want to watch, rather than choose between viewing a sport they find uninteresting or turning off the television.
There’s money in greater accessibility to less popular sports, too. For every fan that loves Colorado water polo but can’t stand watching the gridiron, the online Pac-12 network would pick up (or at least have a good chance to pick up) another paying subscriber–provided it can promise a wide slate of sports from across the conference.
Of course, exactly what a digital version of the Pac-12 Network would do would largely depend upon the technological capacities and vision of its partner in development (again, either Apple or Google). If Scott goes with Steve Jobs, Inc., he’ll be making a wager on the future stability and growth of the proprietary iOS as a leader in software and Apple as a leader in hardware for well over a decade into the future. If he goes with Google, the approach would likely be less based on devices and software and more interested in search, social networking and web browser integration.
Either way, it would be wise to avoid making the online network merely an online streaming facsimile of the cable channel. Doing so would only increase convenience for fans either without a television or away from it for a period of time, rather than pushing the limits of what sports media can accomplish in the digital space. For the conference that houses Stanford, Berkeley and the most technologically advanced region of the world, Scott can move the Pac-12 to the forefront of both sports and media innovation by advocating for a radical and experimental digital network model. Consider Stanford president John Hennessy’s position on Google’s Board of Directors and his title of Lead Independent Director on that board, and the Pac-12 has yet another opportunity to work with a world leader in tech.
Price also plays a key role in determining whether or not–and how quickly–the online network becomes a success. Assuming that the speculative demographics mentioned above are roughly accurate, the conference will have to sell online subscriptions to one of the market’s notoriously cheapest consumers. $20 monthly subscriptions would be too costly to persuade college students not to stream games illegally from pirate websites. But for $5 or so per month–less than the cost of a subscription to Netflix’s instant streaming service–Scott should be able to attract a lot of students on the West Coast and even some from elsewhere in the country to buy into high definition, legal streaming of the Pac-12 Network. $5 per month for hundreds of games live and on demand is a bargain that even 18-year-olds can appreciate.
Doing so would be a huge financial victory for the conference as it continues to increase its national and international exposure while bolstering its pockets to compete with the SEC and Big Ten both on the playing surfaces and in corporate board rooms. But the remarkable convenience of a digital network offering makes the computer element more than just part of a business deal, and inserts it into the conversation of components that can fundamentally alter the fan experience. Pac-12 fans could be much better off, and absorbing their favorite teams and sports in a substantially different and more advanced way, than their peers around the nation if Scott handles the Network deal correctly. Add in the field-leveling effect of increased access to all sports across popularity and gender lines, and the potential digital conference network could change the landscape of digital media in college sports.