America Channel Debuts in 2007, Grabs Rights To College Sports

As college sports leagues increasingly operate their own networks, a new contender has entered the field. The yet-to-be-launched America Channel has swooped up broadcast rights for a slew of sports events, albeit for lower-profile conferences.

TAC, scheduled to debut next summer, will use telco TV as its distribution backbone. It has picked up the rights to basketball and football competition for eight NCAA Division 1 conferences, ranging from the Big Sky and Big West in the West to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and Southern Conference in the East. Coverage could include games involving some 80 universities in 50 markets; the channel says those schools are in most of the top-20 markets, perhaps helping it land distribution agreements in A and B counties.

Although the eight conferences are not on par with the leading college sports leagues, such as the Big Ten and ACC, lower-profile Division 1 conferences are gaining traction and attention as more of their teams make it into the NCAA Basketball Tournament. They even win games on the big stage. For example, George Mason of the CAA made it all the way to the Final Four last year.

While TAC's basketball coverage could generate interest as viewers scout teams before the NCAA, its broadcasts of other sports might struggle.

Football, for example, is low-profile in leagues such as the Big Sky--and the Big West doesn't even play it. Other sports on tap include soccer, volleyball and tennis. (The sports coverage is scheduled to launch in November 2007.)

Word of TAC's multi-year agreement comes on the same day that one of the networks devoted to a single league--the mtn., which focuses on the Mountain West--has reached a deal with Cox to make it available in leading markets San Diego and Las Vegas. And the other channel--the Big Ten Network, which is scheduled to launch next August--said it would build studios and headquarters in downtown Chicago.

Other conferences, perhaps the ACC, are believed to be looking into the possibility of getting into the network business--much like pro leagues have recently, most visibly the NFL Network.

The channel says it "will explore and celebrate communities, campuses, real heroes and ordinary people who accomplish the extraordinary." In addition to sports, it will carry programming about student life and other activities at the schools in the conferences it has agreements with, with students producing some of the programming.

It appears that the network hopes to use the fledgling telco TV services, such as Verizon's FiOS and AT&T's u-verse, as its principal distribution avenues initially. (The channel says seven telcos plan to carry it at launch.) Those programming services, which have very limited distribution so far, are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from cable and satellite operators in a bid to lure customers away from traditional providers.

TAC's agreements are with the Big South, Southern Conference, Big West, CAA, Big Sky, America East, Patriot League and Atlantic Sun conferences.