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Big Ten Network working to win over Maryland fans

Big Ten Network trying to win over Terps fans, some unhappy after recent Nebraska broadcast.

Eighteen months after the University of Maryland's jump to the Big Ten, the conference's television network is trying to make Terps fans feel more at home in their sprawling new neighborhood — an Illinois-based league with deep Midwestern roots.

"No one is expecting it to happen overnight," said Mark Silverman, the Big Ten Network president, of the adjustment to unfamiliar opponents and distant athletic venues. "Our whole conference is based on rivalries. It takes time to build them."

The conference and its network are trying to bridge the gap by bringing the Big Ten men's basketball tournament to Washington next year and staging a live basketball pregame show on Maryland's campus on Feb. 21. The network's public relations efforts suffered a setback last week when Maryland fans missed most of the first half of a BTN-televised Terps game because an earlier game went into triple overtime.

Officials from Maryland and the conference said they anticipated a long transition period after the university decided to join the more lucrative Big Ten after 60 years in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which doesn't have its own network.

Because it broadcasts so many Maryland games — six football games last season and 14 men's basketball games this year — BTN is an important player in the reorientation of Terps fans.

If, as university President Wallace D. Loh is fond of saying, athletics represent a highly visible "front porch" for the school, then BTN is the front step — a medium through which Maryland fans connect with their teams.

The network, which maintains a studio at Maryland Stadium, also shows women's basketball and volleyball as well as men's and women's soccer and lacrosse, among other sports.

Maryland's brand "is receiving an unprecedented level of national recognition associated with our move," said Nick Lofaro, an associate athletics director at the school. "The volume of Olympic sport events being televised and streamed digitally is at its highest level in school history."

The move to the Big Ten was engineered largely by Loh. While the school won't divulge how much it receives annually, he said in 2014 that the conference's shared revenue structure would provide roughly $10 million more per year than the ACC did, with the potential for more money looming as the Big Ten negotiates with various television partners.

Besides granting rights to the Big Ten Network, the conference has broadcast deals with ESPN/ABC and CBS. Those contracts expire after the 2016-2017 academic year, and the Big Ten is free to negotiate in the open market.

The conference owns 49 percent of BTN, and Fox Entertainment Group owns 51 percent. BTN pays the conference a rights fee and a share of its profits, which are distributed to the member schools.

BTN, which is available in 60 million homes, was formed in 2007 and says it became profitable in 2009. When Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, the network says it added about 8 million homes.

While BTN came to terms with most cable television providers in the Mid-Atlantic, it got into a dispute with the DISH satellite service over the terms under which DISH would carry BTN in Maryland and New Jersey.

Both sides say Terps games are now available to DISH customers in Maryland, although there has been no announcement of a resolution. "BTN continues to work toward a long-term agreement," the network said in a written statement.

BTN's advertising includes national brands such as State Farm and Buffalo Wild Wings. Silverman said football-season advertising typically sells out. Not so for basketball, but, he said, "we'll sell more ads for basketball this year than we ever have."

Analysts say BTN benefits by the vast size of its member schools' alumni bases and its expanding reach.

"A network like the BTN and also the SEC Network have so many large schools spread over large, populous areas that they're going to do very well," said John Mansell, a Northern Virginia-based sports and media consultant. "If there's a big Maryland football or basketball game that's going to be on BTN, there's going to be a lot of demand for that."

Silverman described the network's ratings for Maryland football games in Baltimore and Washington as "middle of the pack." He said viewership of Terps men's basketball — ranked No. 4 in the nation — is in the "top group" of the 14-team conference but declined to provide specific figures.

Still, BTN — seeking to generate local buzz — has explored opportunities for months to host a live football or basketball pregame show on Maryland's campus.

The network planned a series of pregame events tied to the Maryland-Michigan football broadcast in College Park on Oct. 3, but Hurricane Joaquin interrupted those plans. It then identified a prime men's basketball game as a replacement — the Terps-Michigan contest at Xfinity Center on Feb. 21 — but CBS is televising the game.

No matter. Underscoring the importance of the Washington and Baltimore markets, BTN recently made the unusual decision to stage a live show before the Michigan contest even though it is not broadcasting the game.

"I would prefer if we're going to come out here, it would be to promote a BTN game," Silverman said in an interview at the conference's Washington office overlooking the U.S. Capitol dome. "But I didn't want the year to pass and not to be here. I did call CBS and talk to them, and we'll make sure we're off the court before they start their telecast. I feel like it's well worth it for us to be here and show the fans that BTN is here and they're important to us."

To make Terps fans feel more welcome, the network retained Gary Williams, the former Maryland men's basketball coach, and others with Maryland ties to do studio analysis or other work.

The conference announced in 2014 that it would hold its men's basketball tournament at Washington's Verizon Center for the first time in 2017. The network said it has been forging deals with area hotels making sure their cable or satellite plans carry BTN.

"In general, I think Maryland's been treated well by BTN over the past two years," said Marc Karlinsky, editor of a Chicago legal newspaper and a vice president of the Chicago Terps Alumni Network. "I don't get the sense BTN treats any particular school or region above others."

But the coverage has not all gone smoothly. On Wednesday night, Terps fans missed all but the final three minutes of a close first half of the Maryland-Nebraska men's basketball game because the earlier-starting Illinois-Rutgers game on BTN went into triple overtime.

Hoping to catch the Terps game on television in a Chicago bar, Karlinsky said he ended up seeing most of the half on BTN's mobile app.

"Every screen in the bar was turned to BTN, yet we were left huddling around cellphones watching the first half and burning through our data plans," he said.

Maryland fans took to social media to complain. "Feels like we're back in the ACC," tweeted one Terps fan of the league that the school left in 2014. Terps fans often complained that Maryland games, particularly in football, were too often available only through Internet streaming during the ACC years.

BTN can show multiple football games simultaneously. But Silverman said basketball season is more crowded with games on various networks, and BTN can't access a second control room that would be needed to distribute an additional feed.

"We did all we can do" during Wednesday night's competing games, Silverman said. "We went back and forth. We did split-screen for a while. We did not take a commercial break."

Regardless, what Maryland fans and BTN both need is for the school to develop a rivalry approaching the interest generated by some of its ACC matchups, particularly the memorably intense Duke basketball games.

Silverman said Penn State could emerge as a football rival. The teams split their first two games as conference foes.

In basketball, "nothing is going to substitute for North Carolina or Duke in the near term," Silverman said, though Indiana "seems like a likely candidate."

In the meantime, he said, "you want to see good basketball. It's highly competitive with top matchups, and you're going to have more of your games televised than you've ever had."

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