published Monday, February 13th, 2012

SoCon ponders TV alternatives

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men’s basketball team played Elon on Thursday night at Mc-Kenzie Arena. You could have watched the game on your phone, tablet or laptop computer — or even your television.

The game was one of many SoCon matchups this season available for viewing on ESPN3.com, but not on a television network. The Lady Mocs also have played on ESPN3.

Because of all the devices that can transmit ESPN3 content, including the millions of Xbox 360 systems, can a mid-major conference like the SoCon, which can’t get a lucrative television deal, ditch the networks completely?

“Maybe,” UTC athletic director Rick Hart said. “I think it’s intriguing, and it’s something that we’re going to give serious consideration.”

According to a New York Times report last week, Americans ages 12 to 34 are spending less time watching programming on their TVs, while those 35 and up are spending more.

The SoCon currently has television contracts with public television stations in Tennessee (in the Chattanooga area only on WTCI), North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, as well as My 68 WABM in Alabama. It also has a deal with ESPN3.

At last month’s SoCon athletic directors meetings, the main topics of conversation were the current deals and where the league goes in the future. Representatives from ESPN were at the meetings and Hart said it was “mind boggling” what the sports programming giant has planned for the future.

It might not be long, Hart said, before ESPN3 is able to serve as the online home for “an almost unlimited” amount of broadcasts. SoCon commissioner John Iamarino said ESPN told the league that “no conference is providing as many exclusives, with as much variety, as we are, in terms of ESPN3.”

Of broadcasting football games on public television stations (in some parts of the SoCon but not all) during the 2011 season, Hart said it was a “unique model” that achieved mixed results.

“I think it works better in some markets than others, and I think the numbers support that,” he said. “But it was better than what the alternative would have been.”

The alternatives were to stay with broadcast partner SportSouth — partner meaning the SoCon paid money and SportSouth broadcast its games — or have no TV deal, which was unacceptable. But staying with SportSouth meant, in Hart’s words, being “third, fourth or fifth in the pecking order in terms of game times and slots and coverage.”

Going with ESPN3 only would require significantly fewer production costs and would allow teams to play whenever they wanted, rather than when it best suits the TV network. And for mid-major schools, ticket sales is the No. 1 revenue generator so they want to play when it best suits their fans.

The College of Charleston is at the forefront of the streaming broadcast push. The school has already purchased a production van and the necessary equipment, for a reported $200,000, and it shows many of its games on ESPN3.

Iamarino said no action has been taken as far as the league’s broadcast future, though a direction was been mapped out at the winter meetings.

A league vote on that direction could come in the spring.

“Obviously it’s a very fluid subject with all of the technology,” Iamarino said, “and we just want to make sure we’re prepared and that we position the conference the best we possibly can.”

Part of that positioning, Iamarino said, could include the league getting a van like the College of Charleston’s.

“They’ve had great success with it so far and it’s something we’re looking at,” he said.

The Lady Mocs will play Appalachian State on ESPN3 on Feb. 27 and the quarterfinals, semis and championship game of the SoCon women’s tournament will be on ESPN3 only.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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