It's fitting that some of this year's biggest Big Ten games -- the ones that will affect who earns a trip to the Rose Bowl -- are playing out on the network devoted to covering the conference more extensively than ever before.
Saturday's matchup between Iowa and Michigan State -- 3-0 and 3-1 in the conference, respectively -- airs at 6 p.m. on Chicago-based Big Ten Network, a platform that didn't even exist three years ago.
The development pleases its president, Mark Silverman.
''Having games like Michigan-Michigan State, Purdue's upset over Ohio State and this prime-time game [today] ... the credibility these games provide the network are vital,'' he said.Added studio host Dave Revsine, ''The story is no longer, 'Oh, where am I going to have to go to watch this game?' ... Now it's what we can do to make it great for the fans and not having to listen to questions of if people get it."
The BTN, now in its third year, was created to give more in-depth coverage while maintaining existing contracts with ABC/ESPN and CBS. In addition to 35 to 40 football games a year, it airs 105 regular-season men's basketball games, 55 women's games and a bevy of other sports. The Big Ten owns 51 percent of the enterprise, Fox the other 49.
Early on, the BTN was hamstrung by not being available on basic cable packages, an obstacle resolved after contentious legal battles. Now it's available to 75 million U.S. homes and 95 percent of homes in the Big Ten area, Silverman said.
''Most cable networks take about five years to break even, and they did a lot better than that,'' said Derek Kagan, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan, which studies media and communications. ''Regional sports networks are attracting an audience in your home market that is very loyal, and I think they've become more of a must-have channel.''
Because the network's and the conference's interests are tied so closely together, there's always the question of how to cover news that paints the Big Ten in a less-than-glamorous light.
"That's the reality
of a network like ours," Silverman said. "We have a vested interest in
promoting the conference. However, the other reality is sometimes the
news isn't all good and we need to be able to cover that when that does
Silverman points to the coverage of then-Indiana basketball coach Kelvin Sampson's dismissal from the program as an example of how BTN can be objective.
"We are well aware that is a bit of a tight rope to walk at times for us," he said.
With time, one gets the sense BTN is finding its niche more and more comfortable with each day, now that some of the early struggles are in the rear-view window.
"We're definitely further along than I
expected at this point," Silverman said. "We still have a significant
amount of improvement ahead of us that we're all looking to achieve,
but we're very happy with where we are now."
As advertising has grown, more shows have begun, including four Revsine-hosted weeknight shows called the ''Football Four Pack.''
''I hope we're getting to the point where people understand ... that on every single night on this network there's going to be an hour's worth of programming devoted to Big Ten football,'' Revsine said. ''Where else are you going to get that?''