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."
Read more of my thoughts on ESPNU at E-Lacrosse.