Fox Moves to Majority Position in Big Ten Network

by , Aug 30, 2011, 3:09 PM
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Clearly, James Delany is one of the most powerful executives in college athletics. The Big Ten Conference commissioner repeatedly calls on ambition and leverage to drive TV dollars for his schools. This year, there's a prominent new Big Ten member in Nebraska that will allow for a lucrative football championship game in December.

Perhaps Delany's biggest coup, however, is engineering the launch of the Big Ten Network (BTN) four years ago as part of a joint venture with Fox. Protective of the Big Ten brand and a muscular negotiator, Delany secured an arrangement that had the conference holding a majority stake at about 51%.

The network, now in 45 million homes and profitable, will launch its fifth football season Sept. 2 with a Michigan State game.

Yet, surprisingly, there was a provision in the 20-year deal between the Big Ten and Fox that would allow a reversal in control. At some point since June 2010 that kicked in and Fox has moved to an approximate 51% ownership position.

A Fox representative declined comment on specifics of the deal, though wrote in an email that "a change in control was anticipated at some point." Yet, he said the Big Ten "maintains sufficient control" over matters "it deems most important."

That surely means there will continue to be no alcohol or gambling-related ads on the network, and promotional programming about campus life at each university will continue.

The flip in majority control may not alter much functionally. The BTN president (now Mark Silverman) will continue to report to a board - it isn't clear if Fox would be able to remove the leader unilaterally - and Fox will still handle affiliate sales, human resources and other functions.

Still, it's curious that the Big Ten would make a deal allowing itself to become a minority owner so early in the BTN's lifespan. Even if the conference thought it would get along famously with Fox, it would seem to have wanted more time to ensure the network would be running at a level meeting its standards.

Then again, Fox parent News Corp. owns about 70% of the National Geographic channels in the U.S. The brand-conscious National Geographic Society owns the rest and appears content, so that likely helped assuage any concerns.

Yet, from a perception standpoint, Fox taking majority control is coming at an inopportune time. Many believe TV dollars have taken an outsized role in altering the landscape of college athletics, making esteemed academic institutions greedy.

Surely impressed by the BTN, the University of Texas has launched its own network controlled by ESPN that has other schools angry and jealous, while Texas A&M may leave the Big 12 conference, which could cause a massive realignment in pursuit of TV lucre.

The Pac-12 is starting its own network next year, which calls into question -- and hindsight is 20/20 -- whether the Big Ten may have erred in making a lengthy 20-year deal in 2006 as the media landscape was bound to shift. The Pac-12 will have a network and regional versions and apparently keep full ownership.

The Big Ten may have created demand and not get the full benefit of its craftiness. 

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