Pac-12 prepares for launch of network
By JOSH DUBOW
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) The studio has been built, the staff has been hired and the programming grid completed.
It's been a whirlwind year since the Pac-12 announced plans on July 27, 2011, to launch one national and six regional networks to give more exposure to the conference's athletic teams.
And the fun has just begun.
Come launch day on Aug. 15, the conference will be responsible for making sure the seven television networks and one digital network that will air 850 live sporting events and countless studio shows this coming year run smoothly.
"It's like racing to the start line," said Lydia Murphy-Stephans, the executive vice president and general manager of the Pac-12 Networks. "It's not racing to the finish. Launching the networks is only the beginning. It's almost as if there's two distinct huge projects going on. One is hiring the people, locking in the facility and getting the facility ready to launch networks. The second part is bringing the networks to life and taking the Pac-12 brand and bringing it to life."
The first live event on the network will be a women's soccer game on Aug. 17 between Stanford and Santa Clara. There will be a handful of other soccer. volleyball and field hockey games that air before the first football game is played on Aug. 30 between Utah and Northern Colorado.
That is one of three football games to air on the opening weekend, followed by Stanford against San Jose State the following day and California against Nevada on Sept. 1.
"Gone are the days of regional broadcasts on ABC or Fox," Commissioner Larry Scott said. "This is going to be a major change in terms of the national exposure and recognition our conference gets."
The networks are guaranteed a wide distribution, having announced distribution deals with Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Bright House cable systems when revealing plans for the networks last summer. Those systems are in more than 40 million homes, including much of the conference's footprint, lessening some of the distribution issues that plagued the Big Ten Network in its first year in 2007.
The conference recently announced deals with the National Cable Television Cooperative, which sets the terms for distribution on hundreds of smaller cable operators, BendBroadband in Oregon, Frontier Communications, Western Broadband and Orbitel Communications.
Deals with DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon, AT&T, Cablevision and other distributors are still being negotiated, with the conference hoping to have contracts in place by launch or shortly after.
"We've had great conversations with all of them," said Gary Stevenson, president of Pac-12 Enterprises. "They all believe our programming is important. There's no doubt that fans want this. Pac-12 fans feel they have been underserved because of our television contracts in the past were not as broad as they should be."
That is no longer the case under the conference's new $3 billion, 12-year contract with Fox and ESPN that will end the days of regionalization of Pac-12 football games. Fox and ESPN will broadcast 44 football games nationally, with 35 additional games on Pac-12 Networks.
Also, every home men's basketball game will air either on Fox, ESPN or the Pac-12 Networks, as will extensive coverage of women's and men's Olympic sports that traditionally had been overlooked on television.
"It was like being Santa Claus because in all cases the amount or programming these sports will get in Pac-12 Networks is double, triple, quadruple, quintuple or dramatically more than the exposure these teams have gotten in the past," Stevenson said.
And in a development the conference is particularly proud of, there will be just as many women's sports on the network as men's in what Murphy-Stephans said is a credit to the gains made 40 years after the start of Title IX and the deep investments conference schools have made in women's athletics. The Big Ten Network reached a 50-50 split between men's and women's sports last season, its fifth year on the air.
"Many times I've been approached or asked the question when is it time to launch a women's sports network," Murphy-Stephans said. "This is absolutely the best outcome. Why separate it? Instead of launching a women's sports network have a network that's all about sports and there's a significant amount of women's and men's sports on the same network. I never thought in my career that this would happen."
Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, who had complained in the past about lack of coverage, called the new arrangement the best television package in the country that will help the conference's schools recruit top athletes.
"It's great for women's sports," she said. "It's a great statement by the Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors and Larry Scott. In women's basketball, a lot of top players have left the West Coast. We want great players coming to the West Coast and now we have great universities here, great weather, a stable league and now television exposure. What's not to like?"
The first year will rely heavily on game action with the 850 live events as well as replays of most football and men's basketball games that air on Fox and ESPN. There will be classic games from the past in both football and men's basketball to augment coverage.
There will also be pregame, halftime and postgame studio shows for every football game, a Sunday night football studio wrapup show and a Tuesday coaches show for football and men's basketball.
As a conference-owned network there is the delicate situation of how to handle off-field news. The Big Ten Network came under heat recently when it did not cover the release of the Freeh Report at Penn State.
The network later aired a special on Penn State and covered the NCAA's punishment of the school.
"They may not like it but they need to agree that there is a certain way to communicate whether it's internal messaging or external messaging," Murphy-Stephans said. "I don't think it's healthy for anybody to put their head in the sand and pretend it didn't happen."
Updated August 2, 2012