Thursday, October 23, 2014
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An in-depth look at Ivy League television rights

I've talked to three people with direct knowledge of and involvement in the current setup: Ivy League executive director Robin Harris, Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky and Princeton associate athletic director Jerry Price.

An in-depth look at Ivy League television rights

Warning: This is probably the longest post I've ever written in five years working at Philly.com. But it's long for a reason. Take your time with it, and I hope that when you're done you'll post a comment at the bottom.

Tonight, the Palestra will host the game of the season in Ivy League basketball between Penn and nationally-ranked Harvard. For the Quakers, it will be one of the biggest games in multiple seasons, as the program makes its way back towards prominence in the Ancient Eight and beyond.

The game has generated buzz not only because of its impact on the court, but because it won’t be televised. Many regular observers of Ivy League basketball, myself included, have taken the conference office to task on Twitter over the fact that the Ancient Eight does not have a national television contract for its basketball properties.

In addition, Penn’s lack of a regional TV deal this season means that there is no local broadcast either. So the only way you’ll be able to watch the game is by going to the Palestra or signing up for Penn’s paid online streaming service.

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I’m sure many of you already know that this situation is not new. Last season’s Harvard-Penn double-overtime classic and this season’s Harvard-Yale clash two weeks ago are among the many big Ivy League games in recent times that were not televised nationally or locally.

Although much heat has been stoked over the last few weeks, there hasn’t been much light generated. So I decided now would be a good time to make some calls and put together an in-depth look at how television rights deals in the Ivy League are set up.

I’ve talked to three people with direct knowledge of and involvement in the current setup: Ivy League executive director Robin Harris, Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky and Princeton associate athletic director Jerry Price.

Each person, and each of their respective institutions, has their own set of goals and ways of accomplishing them. Although not everything I was told was on the record – that’s the price you pay sometimes for getting answers that can be printed – I was able to assemble a lot of facts.

I’m pretty sure that most of you know what I think about the current situation, so I’m going to leave my own opinions out of this post as much as I can.

One thing I will say is this: I think what you’ll find here will be useful in steering the conversation in the right direction. That’s something for all of us to keep in mind as the league, its member institutions and its fan base move forward.

Let’s start with some history.


Past Deals

For most of its existence, television rights to Ivy League schools’ home games have been controlled by the individual member institutions. That is a pretty unique setup among Division I conferences.

In just about every other conference you might follow, the league office holds TV rights. That’s why every Big East, Big Ten and ACC game is broadcast somewhere. It’s also why so many games involving Philadelphia’s Atlantic 10 teams aren’t.

So schools are able to negotiate their own deals if they want to, and as they are able to. That’s why Princeton has a deal with ESPNU, Yale has a deal with the YES Network and Penn for many years had a deal with Comcast.

With that said, the Ivy League has done a few national broadcast deals in recent years. The first was in the early 2000s with DirecTV and HDNet, which included basketball games during the 2001-02 season.

Then came a deal with YES Network for football and basketball that ran from the 2002-03 season through 2007-08. I suspect a number of you still remember that deal, as some big Penn football and basketball games were included in it.

The league then did a deal with Versus for football games in the 2008 season, and that continued into 2009 with Versus picking some games that it wanted. In 2010, the league agreed to a new two-year deal with Versus that got every team in the league televised over the course of the contract. That deal expired after the 2011 season.

With those Versus contracts, once the deals were assembled, the rights for the remaining games reverted to the original schools. That allowed Penn to put games on Comcast, Princeton on ESPNU and so forth.

There have also been TV deals for lacrosse. The league had two consecutive one-year deals with what is now CBS Sports Network for the women’s lacrosse tournament finals in 2010 and 2011, and struck a three-year deal with ESPN in 2010 to air the men’s lacrosse tournament final on ESPNU.

In 2011, that deal was expanded to include live streaming of the semifinals on ESPN3, and that will be the case again in 2012.


Changes in Basketball

So that takes care of football and lacrosse, which are significant properties for the Ivy League. But I’ve written this story on account of a basketball game, and that’s why a lot of you are here. So let’s get into the state of things on the hardwood.

There have been some major changes in how the Ivy League has handled getting basketball on TV since Robin Harris succeeded Jeff Orleans as the Ivy League’s executive director in 2009.

Those of you who’ve read this blog for a long time know that I’ve talked at length with Harris twice previously: when she took over, and at the Princeton-Harvard men’s basketball playoff last March.

Harris has made increasing television exposure a priority throughout her time overseeing the Ancient Eight. The results of her endeavors so far are a matter of public record.

But one thing that was not a matter of public record until now - at least as far as I know - is a significant change in how the rights negotiations are handled.

I wrote above that historically, each Ivy League school controlled its own broadcast rights. That changed before the 2010-11 academic year, when the eight athletic directors agreed to give Harris and her staff a stronger remit to go out and find a national broadcast outlet for those games.

As such, the schools gave up some sovereignty over their rights to games to the league office. Not just for basketball, but for all sports. 

That decision was not taken lightly, especially as it directly affected the self-interest of Penn and Princeton. Steve Bilsky told me that he was "reluctant to give up" the school’s rights to its basketball games "until I had reason to believe that if the league took over the properties they could do something with it."

"Over the last couple of years, the ADs talked about that if we really want to get a network package, or some significant visibility, we’re all going to have to agree to kick in our games to the league, and give the league the right to shop the premier games," Bilsky said. "We did it for the good of the league… We are going to be a good citizen."

Bilsky added that Harris’ leadership was a major factor in his decision.

"Frankly, the old leadership in the league, I didn’t have that confidence in," Bilsky said. "Robin has made a concerted effort to make television one of her priorities, and has been very successful with a football package."

The decision give rights to the conference office did not override existing contracts. Nor did it preclude schools from pursuing their own deals if national deals were not agreed. 

Princeton's deal with ESPNU and Yale's deal with the YES Network exist concurrently with the league's ability to shop the rights to games on a a leaguewide basis. 

In Princeton's case, their deal existed before that decision in 2010, and it has continued. In Yale's case, the school took advantage of an agreement from the 2010 decision that if no deal gets done for a given season, the rights revert to the individual schools.

Bilsky remains an important player in TV rights discussions. He serves on a three-person committee of league athletic directors that helps assist the Ivy office in pursuing television deals. The other two ADs on the committee are Columbia’s M. Dianne Murphy and Yale’s Thomas Beckett.

Harris told me that idea of having a television committee came from some of the league’s athletic directors. At this point, we got into some of the real process details of how the current system works.

"We really do vote on everything by consensus among the eight athletic directors, but sometimes it’s hard to gather everyone in a short time period," Harris said. "It was very helpful to me to have a suggestion to have a small committee of three ADs that I could work with, and gather as I needed, and report out to the whole group."

Harris said that all eight of the league’s athletic directors "are giving me authority to negotiate with their regular input. If I negotiate a deal that is counter to what they want, I‘m not going to last very long. But this is a new process for us."

The requirements for any national TV deal will sound familiar to anyone who follows the Ancient Eight.

"We’re not signing a deal that is going to require us to play Wednesday games," Harris said. Any deal would have to ensure that "our missed class time is going to be as minimized as it is now."

In addition to working with the athletic directors, Harris is much more directly under the influence of the league's school presidents than other conference executives are. This has led some people, myself included, to wonder aloud whether the presidents are the ones really calling the shots.

As Harris explained it to me, decisions are made much more by the ADs than the presidents.

"I keep the presidents apprised that this is ongoing," Harris said. "They don’t necessarily get into the details as long as we’re doing something that’s consistent with what’s been done in the past."

The league does not want to pay large sums of money to buy time for game broadcasts. Although Ivy League schools all have large endowments, their athletic departments operate with limited resources. That has been the case for a long time, and it is not going to change any time soon.

Harris pointed out that "there are leagues out there that are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for television."

At that point, my mind flashed back to when the Atlantic 10 originally signed on CSTV, which then became CBS College Sports and is now CBS Sports Network. ESPN was not willing to pay the conference a rights fee, but CSTV was. The A-10 took the money. But doing so caused all kinds of trouble with getting exposure for games, not just nationally but locally as well.

Bilsky said that the league won’t go for a deal that doesn’t get the level of exposure right:

If it’s not in 50-plus million homes, it wouldn’t make sense to me. I don’t want to get into names, because sometimes you can regionalize and syndicate like the Atlantic 10 does.

 But I think our goal is to have it be in tens of millions of homes, because otherwise it didn’t make sense for us to give up our rights [to our home games]. We can get on television, that’s not an issue. The issue is getting on national television, and I think that’s the goal.

Harris’ goal is, and has been for some time, to have a national television deal in place for men’s basketball for the 2012-13 season.

She acknowledged to me that it would have been nice to have a national television package for this season. And she is well aware of the heat she’s been taking from followers of the league via Twitter and other means.

But Harris and others have told me that there has been genuine progress towards getting a deal done for next season. No one is willing to put the name of a network on the record, but I’ll say this from the what I’ve heard.

All of the people I’ve talked to know what ESPN can bring to the table, and what it costs to sit at that table. It’s also known that NBC Sports Network had a relationship with the league when it was branded as Versus, and is now aggressively expanding its sports properties to compete with ESPN.

Nothing’s done yet. But here I will put forward my own opinion for a moment: I take everyone I’ve heard from at their word regarding a deal for the 2012-2013 season. I know the people involved well enough to be able to trust them. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but I do think Harris and others I’ve heard from mean what they say.

In the meantime, schools are still going about the process of assembling their own deals.

Not every school works in the same way, and the contrast is especially stark between two programs in the conference.

You might not be surprised when you find out what those programs are.


Penn vs. Princeton

It is no secret that the rivalry between Penn and Princeton extends well beyond athletics. The two schools are different in many ways, and they aren’t afraid to let each other know about it.

Penn is situated in the heart of a major city, while Princeton is ensconced in a leafy exurb.

Penn is renowned for its business and medical programs, and its campus has a distinctly pre-professional atmosphere. Princeton excels at political science and the humanities, and has a much more familial environment.

Penn has the Palestra, fraternies and Koch’s Deli. Princeton has Jadwin Gym, eating clubs and Hoagie Haven.

(In fairness, Koch’s and Hoagie Haven both make outstanding sandwiches. But some people prefer the Gobbler and some people prefer the Sanchez.)

Anyway, you get the point.

When it comes to managing media rights, Penn and Princeton take different approaches as well.

It isn’t a rivalry in this case. Each program looks at what the other has done with respect and some real admiration.  But there are distinct differences. Here is an explanation of them.

Right now, the Princeton deal with ESPNU is the most prominent of the league’s TV contracts. It has allowed for some major Ivy League contests involving the Tigers to gain national exposure. The latest game in the deal is the Harvard-Princeton men’s basketball game tomorrow night.

Princeton’s deal came about as a result of some connections between the company that runs its athletic department website and ESPNU. When the network launched in 2005, Princeton’s basketball program was a year removed from an NCAA Tournament berth with a very good team. That helped some more doors to open.

The current contract puts a minimum of seven Princeton athletic contests on ESPNU across a range of sports. In this academic year, the sports included are men’s basketball, men’s lacrosse, men’s soccer and men’s water polo. Football has been included in the past, but is not at the moment.

"We have a very good relationship" with ESPNU, Price told me. "They’re very easy to work with."

As part of that relationship, Princeton became more flexible about start dates and start times. Historically, dates and times for Ivy League contests have not changed much over the years. But as part of the ESPNU deal, Princeton was willing to make some adjustments

For example, in football, the Tigers played Colgate on a Thursday night in 2009, and Penn on a Friday in 2008. In the 2008-09 men's basketball season, the Tigers tipped off their traditional Tuesday home game against Penn at 9 p.m. instead of the usual 7 p.m.

Price told me that he doesn’t mind changing start dates and times, because it allows the program to learn more about its fan base.

"We’ve played some of these games at weird times, or times we wouldn’t normally have done, and all of a sudden you look up and it’s like, hey, there’s twice as many people here as we thought there would be – maybe we should play a game at this time again," he said. "Or there’s nobody here and let’s not do this anymore."

Of course, the financial aspect of a national TV deal matters quite a bit. My understanding is that Princeton doesn’t pay ESPNU for the time and ESPNU doesn’t pay Princeton a rights fee. 

The point was made – and I heard these numbers from multiple people that I talked to – that it costs between $50,000 and $100,000 to buy a timeslot for a basketball game produced in high definition, depending on how high up the ladder you want to go.

If you don’t have a pre-existing contract, you have to buy the time. That's a situation in which the Ivy League has found itself multiple times in recent years. It's my understanding that Princeton doesn't have to deal with that expense in its ESPNU deal.

Princeton also has a deal with Verizon FiOS to show a range of Tigers athletics contest on its cable systems in New York and northern New Jersey. The FiOS sports channel is not available in Princeton itself, and the games are shown on tape-delay. But the deal nonetheless creates a consequential distribution platform.

The FiOS contract has a significant added bonus: Verizon lets Princeton use its produced broadcasts in the Tigers’ paid online streaming package. That package does not include ESPNU broadcasts, and ESPNU is not as widely distributed as other ESPN networks (though its games are available on ESPN3.com.)

Although Princeton doesn’t get revenue from the ESPNU deal the way it does from its online streaming service, the program puts a high value on its TV broadcasts. As Price told me:

We have made the decision institutionally that it is in our best interest to have these games on ESPNU. You can make the case that moving football games to Saturdays to Thursdays and Fridays has hurt attendance. It is a fact that it has hurt attendance for the games that we’ve done it for.

We institutionally made the decision that we were okay with that. Right now that balance swings towards trying to put games on ESPNU versus driving people towards our video streaming. That’s an institutional decision that we have made at this point and that we are comfortable with.

Way more people are going to watch the game on ESPNU at this point than will watch it on video streaming.

Penn has taken a different approach, putting a much greater emphasis on its online streaming package than on television. As Bilsky told me, the program wants to take advantage of the broader national and international reach of an online package, compared to the local reach of the television deal it has had in past years.

Penn’s deal with Comcast put from six to eight games on what is now known as The Comcast Network, formerly CN8. These were usually a mix of Big 5 home games and Ivy League home games.

At its peak, CN8’s reach spread across the entire northeast corridor. But in 2009, Comcast pulled CN8 out of points north of Pennsylvania, most notably New England, and rebranded the channel as The Comcast Network. Comcast also split the channel into two separate entities for the Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington-Richmond regions.

"If we’re still trying to widen our reach, as Comcast is narrowing its reach, we should really invest significant sums in streaming," Bilsky said. "Which is what we’ve done. We’re constantly looking to make it better, but it’s a product right now, and the feeling is that it widens the network beyond just the Philadelphia area to the world."

Bilsky told me that the amount of investment required to create the current setup, with produced coverage in HD quality, was "six-figures plus, to buy the high definition cameras and get replay equipment and stuff like that."

At present, Penn’s online streaming system has three tiers of pricing. You can pay $9.95 monthly, $29.95 at once for four months or $69.95 at once for 12 months.

(Princeton’s pricing structure is the same. They also use the same streaming video service, NeuLion.)

I’ll disclaim something here. I’ve paid for two separate months of the package this season for home games I have not been able to attend. I had some issues with the video being choppy early in the season, but those issues have been resolved.

The quality of the video stream is equivalent to pretty much any other sports streaming service you’ll find out there. Most of the Penn fans I’ve heard from about Penn’s product this season have the same opinion.

If there is a point of contention, it’s the pricing structure. Bilsky has no objections to it, and I’ve heard from many Penn fans who are also fine with it.

But I put it to Bilsky that when a person wants to watch just one game – such as Harvard-Penn tonight – charging for access might be a turnoff. Sure, it costs money to watch a game on cable, but many fans think of such broadcasts as "free" because they aren’t pay-per-view.

This was Bilsky’s answer:

I think that’s a good point, and like any other new enterprise, I think that has to be looked at. You want the price point to be effective to bring people in.

Theoretically if you have – well, with Penn Relays it’s in the thousands [of dollars] right now – it’s not an insignificant revenue source. It’s not an insignificant revenue source when you combine advertising with it. But you have to marry that with the idea that you want people to watch the game.

So if I thought that the price was too high, then it’s probably more important to us to increase visibility than to bring in revenue on us.

For an individual game, it’s reasonable. Over the course of the season, it becomes reasonable if you’re a fan – it’s a very reasonable price. If you want to watch one or two games, you might argue it should be at a lower price. So we have to look at that.

I later had it confirmed to me by a spokesperson for Penn’s athletic department that there have not been discussions to drop the paywall for the Harvard game. Yale did that when the Crimson played there two weeks ago. It was very well-received by fans, but it also crashed the Bulldogs' video streaming server.

Overall, Bilsky wants Penn’s media rights plan to have three facets: an Ivy League-based national TV package, a local TV package for games against city opponents, and a robust online streaming service.

At some point, the league might also take over rights to non-conference home games. That could help get national exposure for Big 5 and other marquee contests – and sweeten the pot to get national broadcasts for conference games. But that process hasn’t started yet.

Using Penn and Princeton as case studies doesn’t come close to covering the entire Ivy League, but it does showcase two very different approaches to media rights. It is worth emphasizing that Penn has not had the national TV deal that Princeton has, but Penn’s local TV deal got more live basketball games on locally than Princeton’s did.

And even though both teams have struggled in recent seasons, Penn and Princeton are still marquee draws by Ivy League basketball standards. They still have the largest gyms and the biggest fan bases, and that still matters.

So we have discussed the past and the present. Now for the future. Penn, Princeton and the league office all told me the same thing about where the league will end up. The question is how, and when, the league will get there.


On the Horizon

Plenty of people who follow the Ivy League acknowledge the financial expenditure involved in putting a national television package together. Often times, their next question is this: What about a leaguewide online streaming network?

The Horizon League is renowned among mid-major conferences for its broad (and free-of-charge) online streaming package. Lots of games from lots of sports are available online for fans to watch from anywhere.

Whether the broadcasts are free or not, there's still a a considerable financial cost to set the productions up. There is both a physical capital expenditure - cameras, replay equipment, etc. - and a human capital expenditure. Not every team in the Ivy League has made that investment yet.

"We want to move in that direction," Harris told me. "We have schools that have invested different amounts to date. All our schools are doing some form of streaming and we are definitely moving in that direction - the question is the timetable and when we will have an Ivy League network online."

Harris added that any leaguewide streaming setup will include all sports, not just the big ones.

"We know we have to start with a few sports, basketball or football, but we think it has to be all sports," she said. "We think digital streaming has the ability to reach more people internationally. Our base is overseas as well in the U.S. It’s the wave of the future, and it’s where people are used to getting our content."

The international fan base in the Ivy League is not something you might initially think of as a factor, but it is definitely there. There are plenty of students and alumni from many countries in Asia and Europe, and their numbers are increasing across every Ancient Eight campus.

Harris told me that "everyone’s willing and ready to move forward" to put together a leaguewide streaming package. "The question is the pace and how do we implement it."

And there, as Harris pointed out, is where the devil resides.

"We just need to figure out what the cost is going to be to do it the way we want to do it," she said. "Are all eight willing to make that level of investment, and what is that level? We’re still trying to figure that out. It’s an equipment investment and a personnel investment."

Price put it this way:

That’s a fundamental change to the way we do business. It’s a significant cost, it adds significant needs for staffing, it adds significant changes in job responsibilities for people who already work there. It’s not something that can be done on the cheap if it’s done right.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how we get from here to there, and as of now I don’t know how we get from here to there at this point.

Bilsky said that the expense of creating a leaguewide streaming package "would have to be matched by revenue which would be generated ourselves," whether through sponsorship or subscriptions.

"It’s the Ivy League, so it’s not going to come from the presidents," he said. "I think the initial investment would have to come through the individual schools, and every school’s way of doing business is different. In our case, we raised the money to buy the equipment and do this."

As far as finding sponsors goes, there are plenty of major companies out there with Ivy League alumni in their board rooms. But Bilsky said he doubts any deals will be made based on loyalty to alma maters.

"Even though we have Ivy League alumni who are CEOs at major companies, usually these decisions are made by their marketing folks," he said. "They will look at it as a pure business decision and say how many subscribers do you have, how many people are looking in... But I think that if we’re on the ground floor of this, the future for the Ivy League is phenomenal."


The End, For Now

At this point, I’ve put down 4,600 words in this post. That’s more than enough to give everyone a lot to think about.

I hope that I have been able to put some facts out there that haven’t been published before. As I’ve said, everyone across the Ivy League knows what the current situation is, and what it will take to make changes in the future.

Above all, I hope that for those people who’ve been critical of the league over its lack of a basketball TV deal, this piece helps aim those criticisms in the right direction.

That, as much as everything else that the league hopes to accomplish in the coming months, would be progress.

Now let’s go watch some basketball.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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