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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Does ESPNU own the game of lacrosse? BOOOYAAH!

During most of the big college lacrosse games this season, the action on the field won't be the only competition going on. The war being waged off the field between ESPN and local content providers Comcast and Cablevision, all over the U.S., is an intense, well-coached, smash mouth contest, played expertly. It's the rematch of a bitter rivalry that's long-standing and will end no time soon. And this season lacrosse fans are the ball.

Upon first glance at the master TV schedule for college lacrosse in 2008, the lax fan can't help but feel that lacrosse has come a long way since the day of only one game on national broadcast TV -- the men's Div. I championship. But if you live in most areas of the country, your second glance was less exciting and you felt something closer to disappointment or anger. Most of the better games of 2008 will be on one network, ESPNU which is not available on two of the largest cable services nationwide, Comcast and Cablevision. Desperate, realizing that you will probably NOT see all those great games on the schedule even though they will all be on "national TV," you call the local office of your cable provider to complain.

Burke Magnus, vice president and general manager of ESPNU, sees everything the network is doing with lacrosse as good for the game. He also sees the distribution issues that distress the occasional consumer as aggravating but temporary. "These problems are not unique to lacrosse," Magnus said, "We have to navigate through those issues when they pop up and people are frustrated. It's truly not part of some greater design. We think televising way more games than ever before in most sports is a net benefit to everyone."

But ESPN does win when you harass every company in the area about not carrying ESPNU. In fact, that feedback you provided is invaluable - to ESPN. They can't buy it - other than to buy the games and hold them from you so you call. And you did. It works. It has worked. Since 2005, a slow but steady stream of cable providers have added ESPNU to the lower-tier lineup, which means they pay ESPN for content without passing that cost on directly to the consumer by instituting an overall service fee increase.

"We can't possibly expect that method to work," Magnus said during a phone interview last week. "We don't set it up to work that way. Comcast, for example cannot be played like that. One game here and there and some complaint calls just aren't effective. Comcast has business logic they apply. We hope that over time we prove to be a valuable service that their customers want and that it makes business sense for them to have it."

NOT JUST A LACROSSE ISSUE

ESPN is famously located in Bristol, Conn., the home of the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" and close enough to Storrs, home to the Connecticut Huskies football team. Coincidentally, the dilemma lacrosse fans now find themselves in, being used as a pawn-like character in ESPNU's growth story, reached even the local Connecticut fans this fall as the Huskies shot to prominence after beating a hot and highly ranked South Florida.

The following week, the Huskies were slotted as the ESPNU game instead of ESPN or ESPN2. And the consumer complaints poured in. Even the athletic director complained about it. "The bottom line here is that I fully understand that the University of Connecticut and the University of Connecticut football program is being used by the network to leverage cable companies in our state … to add ESPNU to their platform," Jeff Hathaway said at the time. "We understand that. We know that's what's happening." ESPNU denied Hathaway's accusation.

In 2006, ESPN televised an Ohio State football game against Indiana on ESPNU network instead of its flagship channel, ESPN. The Buckeyes were undefeated and the top-ranked team in the nation at the time. The game was worthy of a national showing but by virtue of being on ESPNU, it was available in less than 10 percent of the nation's homes. Ohio State fans who complained at the time have said recently that the "ESPNU" brand went from widely unknown to a household name in one week. The method works well. The few we communicated with said they still hate ESPN for missing that huge game but they now have ESPNU in their homes.

NASCAR, one of the most popular sports in the U.S., has broadcast partnerships with Fox and NBC. Each put about one-third of its NASCAR coverage on its cable channels, FX and TNT. You can believe that race fans made some calls if they didn't get those channels in their local lineups. So ABC and ESPN are not the only ones relying on "complaint marketing" to sell their products. Of course in this case, lacrosse folks are affected. And we are less apt to be pushed around than some. Just ask Mike Nifong.

LACROSSE: A PRECIOUS COMMODITY

Throughout our interview, Magnus never pretended to know lacrosse well but knew quite well that the "big upside" of the sport is in the college game. The big college games are important to us in lacrosse. They are far more important than any pro lacrosse game shown on ESPN2. The regular-season matchups between quite a few schools are actually cherished by the lacrosse community, because they are quite limited and have great histories. The number of Div. I men's lacrosse games in this category is finite. Title IX precludes major college men's lacrosse from enjoying the wave of growth that is generating more television customers each year. Monopolizing lacrosse isn't hard and the reward for doing so is increasingly larger. This is no secret in the lax-on-TV biz. The next tier games - the ones just below the ESPNU standard, have been scooped up by CCSN and even Comcast (CN8).

CBS College Sports Network (CCSN) has a schedule of regular-season games, anchored by Navy, and they have the Div. III and Div. II championships. Time Warner (TW 26 in New York) is the longtime exclusive presenter of Syracuse lacrosse. CN8's schedule includes Harvard against Cornell at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on April 5; a 6-game series of ECAC matchups; and, on May 3, the CAA championship game.

ESPN's ABC affiliation with Baltimore's WMAR and their regularly scheduled broadcasts of national powerhouses visiting five of the six major "Baltimore teams" -- Hopkins, Towson, Loyola, UMBC and Maryland -- is the starting point for ESPNU's schedule. But beyond that initial WMAR schedule, ESPN utilized the growing strength of college conferences in today's Div. I lacrosse world. "As a company we have a long relationship in football and basketball so it was an easy conversation," Magnus said. "They've always wanted us to show more of the other sports on TV".

IT TAKES TIME TO CONQUER THE WORLD

"We just passed our three-year anniversary," Magnus said. "Over that span of time, we've done deals with just about everybody. We have eight out of the top ten distributors in the country. We don't have Comcast and Cablevision. We have Dish [Network] and DirecTV and Cox and Time Warner and Insight and Mediacom, all the way down the list. And we have Verizon digital which, by the way, solves the Comcast issue in many cases [overlap of markets]. We've done an excellent job in three years where this has become less and less [of] an issue."

Magnus sees relief coming shortly for the Comcast subscriber, "More and more they [Comcast customers] are being isolated in a way that they are the exception and not the rule -- especially if you live in an area where you have alternatives like satellite or Verizon or whoever. There are options now. I mean they [Comcast and Cablevision] are sort of the last ones to the party on ESPNU. So what we have to do is do our best job scheduling the network, give people what they want and the rest will take care of itself. In eight out of the top ten cases, that's happened. I would never criticize them in any way for decisions that they make. They've got to run their businesses."

ESPNU vs. COMCAST

And while Comcast recognizes that the lacrosse community is an unwitting victim in all of this, they feel they have done all they can for sports programming in this instance and point the finger at ESPN. Aimee Metrick, the director of public relations for Comcast said: "We are disappointed that ESPN has repeatedly elected to air popular matchups on ESPNU, thereby effectively depriving most local fans of these games. We have made more than a dozen cable channels available to ESPN, but rather than placing games on one of those widely available channels, they continue to carry popular games on ESPNU, their least available channel".

ESPN's Magnus doesn't see it that way. "The Comcast argument really doesn't hold water in lacrosse because we're not depriving anyone of anything. If we are just talking about lacrosse, I would argue that everything we are doing on ESPNU is completely new. The logic doesn't apply here. This is not something we were ever doing on ESPN or ESPN2. It was a sport category that we thought had tremendous upside but it is restricted geographically at this particular time [in terms of mass viewership] to the traditional lacrosse areas. It's growing now into places like Florida, Dallas, Denver and the Bay area. We saw a great future for the sport. And we bet on the sport here at ESPNU. We didn't take a bunch of games off of ESPN or ESPN2 but we've decided to invest in a sport that was previously untelevised on ESPNU."

DOES ESPN OWN LACROSSE?

BACK, BACK, BACK, BACK…

For those of you who don't remember the birth of MTV, it used to be a 24 hour music video source and the hottest thing in the 80's. "I want my MTV" was immortalized by Sting in the Dire Straits song, "Money for Nothing" but it was the greatest ad campaign ever. Kids would see MTV at a friend's house and the transitional segments (ads) played between music videos emoted the theme in every possible creative way. Those kids would literally go home and say "I want my MTV" to their parents and the parents would order cable. If the local cable operator did not carry MTV, the calls rolled in and usually started with "I want my MTV". Before we knew it cable TV was everywhere and MTV was a major network.

The MTV tactic was brilliant, like the first time a telemarketer called your house. Its impact was not lost on the neighbors. Just down the cable line-up and another beneficiary of the rise of MTV and cable, was ESPN. ESPN's initial programming was creative enough, providing an outlet for many a frustrated team statistician turned clever college sports editor between showings of Australian Rules football games. The 24 hour sports network concept was a hit and has long outperformed the music video.

ESPN was so successful, in fact, that they were bought by Disney / ABC and provide sports coverage to the network, program six cable channels, offer pay subscription packages, 31 international channels, radio networks, websites, broadband, print publishing, mobile, consumer products, even food at the ESPN Zone restaurants and clothing at ESPN stores. ESPN has become in their own words, "a multi-platform, one-stop shop for sports fans". MTV is now owned by Viacom who also owns CBS and CBS College Sports Network (CCSN), which was CSTV until a week ago.

College Sports Television or CSTV was the first all college sports network, dedicated to the smaller sports. ESPN launched ESPNU two full years later. They came into the market second, but had the power of the parent networks, ESPN and ABC over the college conferences before CBS ever thought of buying CSTV. In fact, everyone assumed that CSTV would be bought by ESPN. We were all stunned by the announcement that ESPN would be taking on CSTV with this new venture, ESPNU. Not as stunned as the folks at CSTV.

Maybe a coincidence; ESPNU was launched on ESPN's 25th anniversary year. Probably not so coincidental is that ESPNU was launched only months after reports of an investigation of ESPN by the United States Justice Department. The Antitrust Division was, according to The New York Times, interested in "ESPN's practice of 'warehousing' -- televising only a portion of the games it has the rights to broadcast, then restricting the leagues from making deals with other television entities". The NYT also reported that Justice would look into how ESPN allegedly used football and basketball broadcast appearances as leverage over conferences, and how it allegedly scheduled football games in order to reward certain colleges with national exposure for recruiting.

It's all but forgotten now but for the first few decades of televised college football the whole season of games was "managed" by the NCAA. They determined which teams were on TV, when teams would appear and they negotiated the deals with the networks, sharing with the schools only what they chose to. The NCAA had become, in the words of Justice John Paul Stevens and the 1984 Supreme Court majority, a "classic cartel".

The 7-2 decision in N.C.A.A. v. BOARD OF REGENTS OF UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA meant the end of the NCAA's grip on the college regular season. It was the result of an antitrust suit filed by two participating schools, the University of Georgia and the University of Oklahoma. Coincidences abound as the same basic control is now in the hands of one corporate entity, at least in lacrosse, AND the formation of ESPNU in 2005 actually seemed to placate the Justice Department investigators, promising to broadcast a significant amount of the licensed content ESPN was allegedly "warehousing" or holding back.

BUT I THOUGHT LACROSSE WAS REALLY HOT?

More big basketball games are showing up on ESPNU, including the recent Virginia-Virginia Tech basketball game, but there were two other big games that night on ESPN and ESPNU. That's not our situation here. Magnus would not divulge what kind of money is involved when a basketball or football game appears on ESPNU as opposed to ESPN2 or the Uno, which is material in the debate involving those sports. He did however confirm our notion that none of the lacrosse programs were being paid for the games' rights. "Lacrosse, right now, is purely an exposure play. We are very up front with them [the schools] about where the games will appear. We're doing one game on ESPN2 this year, that's it".

So why is it so hard for the cable providers to just get ESPNU and give us our lacrosse? I mean ESPNU has put together every single (but for 1 or 2) lacrosse game of mainstream import in 2008 and wrapped it up neatly with a preview show, post season show, selection show and every single division I men's playoff game. Comcast, in response to my inquiry, explained basically that if they concede on this just as they have in the past, subscribing to other ESPN offerings, what would keep ESPN from doing it all again next year with another channel, perhaps The ESPN Lacrosse Channel. Comcast would still get the complaint calls, still be pitted against the public, while paying for the extra channel too. It is far less expensive to stand their ground and we are the coincidental victim.

I asked "If ESPNU did not exist, would lax be on ESPN2 or ESPN", and the answer was no. "It wasn't on before. And that's not an indictment of the sport as much as it is a commitment to other sports on those channels. The networks that are fully developed like ESPN or ESPN2 are more about audience delivery and ratings and I would argue that lacrosse as a sport, its not there yet".

Stop reading if your bubble hasn't burst yet but Lax is not the hot property we often think it is in the game. "If televised college lacrosse was viable for ESPN or ESPN2 it would already be there," Magnus reminded me, "Advertisers would come to us saying we want more lacrosse." In 2004, CSTV chief executive Brian Bedol, revealed to reporters the going rate for licensing a lacrosse game, "Before we came along, they were actually paying - in TV production costs or slotting allowances - just to get on TV."

But there's a very good story here for fans, insists Magnus, "We'll have the entire tournament and a schedule of 40+ games for everyone when the distribution issues are resolved to the point where everybody has access to it. Trust me. It's not far away. I do believe it will happen, hopefully sooner than later. The philosophy we take is build it and they'll come and we're doing more content for college sports fans. In the case of lacrosse, more than there ever was to begin with which is all a good story"

So lacrosse is not as hot as we thought it was. But Magnus thinks its all upside from here, "Ultimately the sport and the network can grow on the same trajectory and five years from now we could be at a much different place that's incredibly positive both for the sport and for us".

LACROSSE IS PLAYED IN CABLE COUNTRY

There are things that affluent neighborhoods all over America share. One is cable TV and another is lacrosse. "It obviously hits a lot of their [Comcast or Cablevision] markets because lacrosse hotbeds are in their markets, but were doing this for lacrosse fans and not to impact [Comcast or Cablevision]", says Magnus.

I asked him if the small size of the sport makes lacrosse a good bet for them or a risky one. He said ESPNU was created to serve just that type of market. He said they wanted 'small but growing'. And he said "This is how ESPNU's gonna make its mark. Everything we're doing is going to help the sports we carry. I mean we carry a lot of basketball and football, but it's not like there's a shortage of college football and basketball on television. I can't imagine that lacrosse fans or lacrosse as a whole don't see that what we are doing is better, much better for the lacrosse fan. Our investment in the sport is growing each year. We want to continue to get better. Next year will be bigger. We are doing 11 more games this year than last year and next year we'll do probably half dozen to a dozen more.

I had to concede that the increased college lacrosse coverage, like that on ESPNU and CCSN, could and would help grow the game, but perhaps only in more prep school areas. I questioned how ESPNU and an expensive cable package helps us get the game to a more diverse crowd which is seen by many as a key to real growth. Magnus did not play lacrosse. His father did and his son does, so he knows the game, relatively. Skip the pun. He's been close enough to see that diversity is a big part of any real growth that will occur, "We believe [lacrosse] has a really bright future. It certainly can become more diverse in many ways - Socio-economically diverse, geographically diverse. Diversity is at the heart of our company's mission statement. The changing nature of sports fans needs to always be reflected in our programming."

Quint Kessenich has long been ESPN's lacrosse analyst

DO THE MATH. MAKE THE CALL.

To be fair, most of the blogs over the last year blasting ESPN for these practices have included verbiage resembling "Most of what is shown on ESPNU is worthless so…" These people completely miss the point of an ESPNU or a CSTV, now CBS College Sports. They show women's sports and the smaller sports and the smaller teams or conferences in the big sports. They show the stuff, generally, that not enough people watch to make Mountain Dew pick up the phone and say, "Dude, rock our ads on that!" At least that's how I think Mountain Dew would say it, but they'd be spending advertising money to show the broadcast to as many viewers as possible and that means ESPN, ESPN2 or even ABC. They made that call on the skateboard events you now see on lots of channels. Its supply and demand and we, as an audience, do not represent enough demand.

When you add the lacrosse crowd to the college hockey crowd and the softball crowd and a few others, via a sports network, advertisers can find value. Without the advertisers somewhere, on some network, nothing gets on TV. As consumers in this small sport we need to appreciate that all the "other" programming that accompanies the lacrosse on ESPNU and CBS College Sports is, in reality, the only reason you're able to watch lacrosse. And the inclusion of lacrosse programming is helping a wrestling fan to see their conference playoffs too. It's a co-op or coalition. We are in a coalition of the desperate; rabid fans of the lesser watched college sports.

Matt Ward is on the ESPN broadcast team in 2008

Most lacrosse entrepreneurs will tell you that monetizing the growth of the game isn't easy. The new starts, turnover and consolidation in lacrosse industry have been dramatic for five years. If ESPNU and/or CCSN were to, at the end of the day, albeit in 2010 sometime, succeed in reaching most households, stay devoted to the full lacrosse schedule, and did not move lacrosse to a new unavailable spin-off channel to restart the process, wouldn't we all be pretty happy 2010 lacrosse campers?

What's the alternative? Can we ask ESPNU folks to only show games and sports that truly nobody would watch? Should they carry fewer games in the interests of more lacrosse on TV? Shouldn't ESPNU try to have the best product possible? And if they did and we wanted it, but our cable provider did not carry it, wouldn't we call to ask why? Where's the evil in that? Isn't that called capitalism? Are we a bunch of commies in lacrosse?

ESPNUNIFICATION IS HERE.

Back in the day, we would just hang out and dream of a time when all of the big college lacrosse games could be seen on our TV's without driving to Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Long Island or wherever. This was in 2005. We had no idea it would be here so soon. And we had no idea how it would come about, but that's how business works. A need is recognized and someone fills it.

I finally gave in and told the ESPNU boss that all of us in the lacrosse world would capitulate and call Comcast or Cablevision this week and complain, starting into motion the inexorable ESPNUnification. He would simply have to promise us that over the next three or four years they would not take all the lacrosse games and move them to some spin-off channel like The ESPN Lacrosse Channel so we'd all have to check the guide, call our providers, and start the process in motion again. He responded, "I don't think that's a reasonable proposition." I agreed - because somewhere there are a couple of lacrosse kids just chilling and dreaming of an all lacrosse network.

February 22, 2008
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