The budding market for 24-hour college sports television programming will gain a heavyweight in the ring Friday with the launch of ESPN's new college-sports network,ESPNU.
Kicking off with a live,two-hour College GameDay from Stillwater,Okla.,at 7 p.m. EST,followed by an Ohio Valley Conference Tournament semifinal basketball game,ESPNU will join College Sports Television and Fox College Sports as major national cable networks offering non-stop college sports action.
The new network will complement college sports programming on ESPN's other networks but will not replace it,said Burke Magnus,ESPNU vice president and general manager,in a teleconference last week.
“We're going to get into some sports and highlight some teams that probably haven't received the exposure they've deserved over the years,” he said. “So whether it's good teams from conferences that don't get a whole lot of exposure or sports from major conferences that don't get a lot of exposure,I think that will be the distinguishing factor for ESPNU.”
The network has a working agreement with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference to broadcast Division I-AA football next fall. Basketball will be a major focus,as well,but Magnus said sports such as baseball,softball,lacrosse,women's volleyball and wrestling could find more viewers on ESPNU.
“There's certainly some remarkable stories of athletes in sports that traditionally don't get a lot of exposure that can be brought forth to a national audience,and we feel we can help build these sports,” he said.
ESPNU will launch with about 3 million subscribers,Magnus said,and will be aimed at cable television providers' digital networks,right next to its competitors.
Owned by ABC and Disney,ESPN is joining the game late. CSTV was founded in April 2003 and is available in 40 million homes. It has also built a significant online network that includes official athletic Web sites for 180 universities,said CSTV President Brian Bedol. CSTV recently earned the rights to broadcast NCAA Tournament basketball games online,which it will offer for a $19.95 subscription.
FCS,which comprises three separate regional networks,launched in May and is also available to approximately 40 million homes,said Tom Tyrer,senior vice president for Fox corporate communications.
Bedol founded the Classic Sports Network,which he sold to ESPN,and is now ESPN Classic. He said ESPN is inexperienced at launching a specialized network.
“ESPN is a very good general store of sports,with a focus on professional sports,” Bedol said. “I'm very comfortable in our strategy and approach to college sports.”
ESPNU will be available initially through Adelphia cable and DirecTV satellite,Magnus said. CSTV and FCS are carried by Adelphia,Charter,Comcast,Cox,DirecTV and Time Warner,among others. Most include the networks in digital sports packages,aimed at drawing more customers toward digital service and away from analog.
Despite swelling cable packages that offer increasingly specialized programming ranging from the Outdoor Network to the Biography Channel,all sides are confident that college-sports networks can survive without being lost in the mix.
“We're in the early stages of a transition,driven by technology,from programming for the masses to personal programming,” Bedol said,adding that there are 150,000 college sports events per year in hundreds of markets,while professional sports fall into about 30.
Fresh out of college,Mike Hall,ESPNU's head anchor,may know best. The 23-year-old was named the lead anchor for the network less than a year after winning ESPN's Dream Job contest and graduating from the University of Missouri.
“My buddies followed sports daily. They couldn't get enough of it,” he said. “I certainly had buddies who would race home to catch a game or miss class to catch a game.”