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. …