More Lights, Cameras, College Sports

Article excerpt

Perhaps adding meaning to the term March Madness, the women's college hockey championship, known as the Frozen Four, received national TV coverage for the first time this past weekend. That's quite a feat, given that the tournament did not even exist five years ago. But since then, three cable television networks, dedicated solely to college sports, have been launched.

"The entire college sports landscape is ripe for this kind of partnership," says Brian Bedol, cofounder of College Sports Television (CSTV), the two-year-old cable network that aired the women's Frozen Four, including Sunday's final between Harvard and Minnesota. "There are so many great stories in college athletics that aren't being told. Now they will be."

Despite this month's annual basketball blizzard of bracket- busting buzzer-beaters, there is, by the account of TV executives and other industry experts, ample room for still more coverage of college games of all sorts - and niche audiences sizable enough to make such ventures profitable.

Beyond CSTV, both ESPN and Fox Sports have recently launched cable networks dedicated to constant campus coverage. CBS is paying $6 billion over the course of its current 11-year contract to carry the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but CSTV and its two competitors (Fox College Sports and ESPNU) have much more affordable targets in mind.

Instead of chasing the better-known college football and basketball games, the three cable ventures are concentrating on cheaper fare. Program lineups include studio shows filled with highlights and analysis of various games, documentaries, replays of classic matchups, and a slew of live broadcasts dedicated to rarely seen college competitions in wrestling, baseball, soccer, swimming and diving, track and field, and, yes, ice hockey.

TV in OT

The advent of three national networks devoted to college sports comes as little surprise to media analyst John Mansell of Kagan Research. After all, he says, in a digital-cable world offering almost infinite channel space, the need for programming is substantial. "You have to remember that, at the same time, there is an insatiable appetite for sports on the part of the American public," he says. "I'm not sure if we're ever going to see The Sewing Channel, but we're getting pretty close to it."

By Mr. Mansell's informal roll call, the number of sports networks easily outpaces those concentrating on news. While many of the new sports ventures will struggle to reach more than a few hundred thousand viewers at any given time, the allure of reaching sports fans - often young men - resonates with advertisers. They like college sports viewers, who tend to be well-educated and especially ardent many years beyond graduation.

With 109.6 million TV households in the United States, the traditional networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox) need to reach huge audiences to succeed. (Advertising rates are based on which programs offer the most viewers). Major cable channels, such as ESPN, which reaches 90 million households, follow similar formulas with the benefit of cable subscriber fees. …