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Why the Tennis Channel CEO meltdown matters to Maryland fans

TelevisionCollege SportsTennis Channel (tv network)Media IndustryBig TenMaryland Terrapins

Maybe you're a tennis fan, and you found last month's ruling that Comcast did not have to put the Tennis Channel on its basic level of service quite troubling.

Or, more likely, you're a Deadspin reader and you found that website's reprinting of a screed authored by the Tennis Channel CEO as hilarious as it is preposterous.

Yeah. Probably that.

John Koblin got his hands on the letter, which is in the approximate style of something a precocious 14-year-old might write during an ill-advised Facebook outburst. But maybe not even that, since he calls the three (remember that number) judges who rendered the decisions "Lone Rangers." Comcast, meanwhile, is cast as their sidekick, Tonto.

The Lone Ranger was a force for good, of course, and the original Tonto was considered a highly offensive caricature of a Native American. How any of this relates to a couple of non-descript judges and a behemoth corporation that made $62 billion last year is anyone's guess.

There's also an absurd comparison to rape in the letter, so be warned before you click.

The Tennis Channel's feud with Comcast was already being watched closely by cable industry observers before it went bonkers. This concept of having the FCC -- which originally said Comcast did have to offer the Tennis Channel on its basic package -- or the courts decide where channels must reside could help completely reshape an already-in-flux cable landscape.

Here's the dispute: Tennis Channel sees itself as being on par with the Golf Channel and NBC Sports Network, both of which are offered on basic cable, to more than 20 million Comcast customers. But Comcast thinks the Tennis Channel belongs on a seperate sports tier for which it charges $5 a month to the 5 million or so customers who order it.

You could see how this difference in opinion could mean a great deal to the Tennis Channel's bottom line.

The Tennis Channel, which is independently owned, has accused Comcast of unfair business practices in the matter since it owns NBC Sports and the Golf Channel. The FCC agreed; the court didn't.

This matters to Maryland fans as they prepare for their beloved Terps sports teams to hop conferences in 2014 to the Big Ten, which had the foresight and chutzpah to start its own network a few years ago when the idea seemed brazen instead of brilliant.

Cable carriers were originally reticent to put the Big Ten Network on its cable packages, even within the conference's traditional Midwest (and Pennsylvania) footprint. But the Big Ten eventually succeeded in forcing its way off of any sort of tier setup and into more widely distributed basic packages in many key areas.

As a result, the Big Ten conference has been able to control its own coverage and also pay out $24 million per team, while other conferences have been relying on other networks for coverage and paying less. In the ACC's case, that number was $17 million. So when the Big Ten came calling -- with projections for future payouts well above $30 million per year -- it was not a difficult decision for Maryland officials to make.

The Big Ten's decision, meanwhile, was mostly about leverage. Maryland and Rutgers are fine schools with good sports programs, but their real shine comes from their locations outside of D.C. and New York, respectively. The Big Ten can now attempt to push its network into more homes in those large markets, spreading its reach and raising its revenue.

But the conference knows that battle won't come easily. It won't likely reach the U.S. Court of Appeals, but some manuevering is inevitable. Already the Big Ten has threatened to not show Maryland and Rutgers games in their local markets until cable distributors move the network off of tiers and onto expanded basic.

The Big Ten Network isn't nearly the underdog that the Tennis Channel is, though. It's partially owned and operated by Fox, which has many other ways of leveraging a deal. Even if multiple Lone Rangers and Tonto get involved.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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TelevisionCollege SportsTennis Channel (tv network)Media IndustryBig TenMaryland Terrapins
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