BTN at 10: A Decade Ago, The Big Ten Network Changed Everything

By RossWB on August 30, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Ten years ago today, on August 30, 2007, the Big Ten Network made its broadcast debut. Three days later, on September 2, 2007, the network broadcast its first set of college football games. They got a truly auspicious game to kick off their coverage, though no one could have expected it before the season began: Appalachian State's seismic upset of #5 Michigan in the Big House, an upset that still seems stunning today. 

Can you even remember what things were like before the Big Ten Network? The only cable TV options for Iowa games were ESPN or ESPN2. Once in a while, Iowa would land a football game on ABC or a basketball game on CBS. Some other games were aired on ESPN+, a service which aired on some local channels in the state of Iowa and was available through PPV packages for out-of-state viewers. Most football games ended up being televised that way -- it's been a long, long, long time since Iowa had a football game go truly untelevised -- and a lot (but not all) basketball games ended up being televised as well. And if you cared about other sports? Good luck, outside of a few wrestling duals on Iowa Public Television, maybe. 

Certainly, for Iowa fans living in the state of Iowa this situation wasn't too terrible. They got access to most football and basketball games with local channels and a basic cable package that included ESPN. For Iowa fans living outside of Iowa, though? It wasn't great. If they wanted anything but the games on ESPN/ESPN2 and the rare nationally-televised ABC or CBS game, they would need to pony up for the PPV packages offered by ESPN. 

Now, ten years from its launch, the Big Ten Network seems like a no-brainer, an idea that couldn't help but be an enormous success. At the time of its launch, though, its success was anything but a sure thing. Fans, writers, and analysts were deeply skeptical of the network's ability to survive, let alone thrive, particularly as the network struggled with carriage disputes with several major cable and satellite providers. And to be sure, access was a struggle at times at the beginning of that first year of the network's existence; I distinctly remember that Mediacom in Iowa City did not have it at launch, nor for several months thereafter.

When the Big Ten was negotiating its new television rights agreements in the mid-2000s, Jim Delany wanted a significant increase in their rights-fee from ESPN, their longtime television partner. He presciently foresaw the incredible value of live sports to television networks, as the rare content that is virtually DVR-proof and still gets viewers to watch commercials. Without that increase, he threatened to launch his own network. ESPN and the Big Ten did re-up their rights agreement -- but without the significant increase in fees that Delany was seeking. As Teddy Greenstein recounted in The Chicago Tribune

"The shortest [negotiating session] I ever had," Delany told the Tribune. "[Marc Shapiro, ESPN Executive VP of programming and production] lowballed us and said: 'Take it or leave it. If you don't take our offer, you are rolling the dice.' I said: 'Consider them rolled.' "

"'Take it or leave it. If you don't take our offer, you are rolling the dice.' I said: 'Consider them rolled.' "

ESPN declined to bet on the network, thinking that  BTN was too much of a risky gamble to make. Was there really a large enough audience out there to support a channel focused on just a single conference? If the conference has large and passionate fanbases like the Big Ten, then it turns out the answer is an emphatic "yes."

Delany bet on himself and on his league -- and he won. He won big time. 

The creation -- and, more importantly, the phenomenal success -- of BTN changed the face of college football. Nebraska is a member of the Big Ten in part due to the existence of BTN; the growing disparity between league finances in the Big Ten and the Big XII after the success of BTN was the straw that broke the camel's back in Nebraska's increasingly contentious relationship with the Big XII. They may have chafed at the outsize influence of Oklahoma and (especially) Texas on league matters, but if the money in the Big XII had been closer to the money in the Big Ten, swallowing their pride and staying put -- in a league where they had roots dating back a century -- would likely have been more palatable. 

If BTN was a factor in Nebraska's move to the Big Ten, then it was all of the factors in the decision to add Maryland and Rutgers to the conference. Delany desired to expand the Big Ten's "footprint" -- and get into the huge (and lucrative) television markets in the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas. While there have been issues from a fit and competition standpoint in some respects, they've been a huge success from a financial standpoint. The addition of Maryland and Rutgers got BTN onto cable packages throughout the NYC and D.C. areas, driving up subscriber fees and increasing the flood of television money into the Big Ten. 

Of course, BTN didn't just reshape the Big Ten; it ended up reshaping almost every other conference in the nation. The success of BTN inspired Texas to partner with ESPN to create the Longhorn Network, a move which sparked the departures of Texas A&M and Missouri from the Big XII to the SEC. The chaos of EXPANSIONPALOOZA destroyed the Big East as a football conference, with Rutgers bolting for the Big Ten, West Virginia leaving for the Big XII, and Louisville, Pitt, and Syracuse leaving for the ACC. The Pac-12 ended up adding Colorado and Utah when their bid to make a super-conference with the Texas and Oklahoma schools from the Big XII fizzled at the last minute. The non-BCS conferences weren't immune to the chaos, either; the American Athletic Conference rose from the ashes of the Big East by combining the remaining Big East teams with squads from Conference USA and the Sun Belt. Those leagues and the Mountain West experienced tremendous turnover and the poor WAC ceased to be entirely. 

Would there have been some realignment without the existence of BTN? Probably. As anyone who's studied their histories can attest, most college sports conferences are not exactly known for their stability. But the existence of BTN poured gasoline on the sparks of realignment and turned it into an inferno that raged for years. And that only happened because the network was a massive success. 

Its success has prompted copycats around the college football world. Some, like the SEC Network, have been huge successes in their own right. Others, like the Longhorn Network and the Pac-12 Network, have struggled to grab a foothold in the voluminous cable and satellite landscape (although from a purely financial standpoint, the Longhorn Network has still been a good deal for Texas -- they get paid a lot by ESPN regardless of its carriage issues). 

BTN has transformed the way we watch Iowa sports. We can now watch more games and follow more teams in more Iowa sports than ever before. Football and men's basketball are and likely always will be the cash cows that drive the network, but the network has steadily increased coverage of sports outside the big two over the last decade. Thanks to the existence of BTN, we've been able to watch Iowa compete for conference titles in baseball, wrestling, women's basketball, and track and field (to name just a few sports) in recent years, not to mention watch countless regular season games in many of those sports as well. Would that have been possible in a BTN-less world? Probably not; it's hard to imagine ESPN airing too many of those competitions.

With BTN Plus, the network's added-fee online streaming service, fans are able to watch even more games from those smaller sports. To be sure, the quality of BTN Plus can be frustrating at times (from both a technical level and a broadcast standpoint) and the fact that it costs an additional fee certainly rankles when we're already paying for BTN through more expensive cable bills and when the league is awash in so much cash that "non-profit" athletic departments are running out of ways to spend all the extra TV money they're getting. But it does make even more games available to be watched. Ten years ago the idea that you could watch so many Iowa wrestling meets, baseball games, or women's basketball games would have been unthinkable. 

Love it or hate it, BTN changed everything. It changed how we watch Big Ten sports -- and college sports in general. The amount of college football games available on TV on a given weekend is staggering now and while the number of games available would have increased no matter what -- Americans have an incredible appetite for college football and given sports' status as a DVR-proof viewing option, more networks would have come in to try and fill the vacuum and satisfy that appetite. But BTN was still one of the trailblazers in that regard and they were the trailblazer in the niche of conference-focused networks. The network has also changed who we watch in the Big Ten and other leagues; realignment has transformed the sport and BTN was a key driver in that entire process. College sports -- and college football in particular -- would look very different in a world without BTN. Happy anniversary, BTN -- given all the change we've witnessed in the previous decade, who knows what things might look like a decade from now. 

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