Pac-12 Network on track to launch in more than 40 million homes
When the Pac-12 Network launches on Aug. 15, it just might be the best thing to happen to Utah's athletic department since the school was admitted to the league.
Seven TV channels one national, six regional airing 850 live events in Year 1. High definition. Digital content.
What's not to like?
Well, Utah athletic director Chris Hill and his team aren't thrilled that the regional network Utah will share with Colorado will be known as Pac-12 Network Mountain.
"That scared us," he said with a laugh. " 'They're calling it the Mountain? That's not good.' "
The Pac-12 is not the Mountain West Conference, and the Pac-12 Network is not ill-fated, hard-to-find Mountain West Sports Network aka The Mtn. But local fans may still feel burned by that experience.
"I think there's anxiety there," Hill said. "But the whole fear of what happened last time I think people have to get over that."
The Pac-12 Network has a national feed and six regional networks Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Northern California, Southern California and Mountain that each include two member schools.
In Year 1, 350 events will air across all seven channels. That includes 35 football games, about 135 men's basketball games and "the best of the best" in Olympic sports, according to Gary Stevenson, chief executive of Pac-12 Media Enterprises. "For example, I'm sure that we will cover gymnastics from Utah."
Each of the six regional channels will have an additional 100 events about 50 from each school.
Distribution, present and future
When the Pac-12 Network was unveiled in July 2011, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Bright House cable were on board.
For Utahns, that means Comcast subscribers will get Pac-12 Network Mountain on basic cable. And the Pac-12 insists on the same for other cable companies in the Salt Lake TV market which encompasses all of Utah.
"We won't do a deal with anybody unless it's on basic in our geographic footprint," said Stevenson. (That may mean digital basic.)
"Outside of our geographic footprint, it's likely to be on a sports tier," Stevenson said. That means fans in other parts of the country will have to pay more to get the Pac-12 Network, which is hardly something new and different.
"That's not unusual for sports fans," Hill said.
Much remains up in the air, however. Local cable systems may offer the other six channels on a more expensive tier, or not at all.
"It's case by case," Stevenson said.
The biggest question is satellite distribution, because as of this writing there isn't any.
"Until we get satellite, people are still going to be nervous," Hill acknowledged. "I'm optimistic about it. I can't imagine satellite balking at it for a long time."
Talks are ongoing, and the Pac-12 Network has ammunition for this fight. Those 35 exclusive football games will have satellite subscribers calling their providers if they can't see them.
It's a bit early to worry. It's not unusual for TV deals like this to be made shortly before games start being played.
Stevenson said he doesn't expect "long, drawn-out" talks, which he characterized as "productive and positive."
Even if the Pac-12 Network doesn't sign any new affiliates before the football season, the network will be available in more than 40 million homes. (The Mtn. launched in fewer than 1 million and peaked at about 11 million.)
"If we do a couple more agreements, which we're confident we'll do," Stevenson said, "we have the potential to be the most successful new cable launch in history."
Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham is enthusiastic about the new TV networks.
"It's going to be a big plus for us in recruiting," he said. "It's going to make the Pac-12 games accessible nationwide. And we anticipate a very positive impact."
No longer will Utah coaches have to explain why no one can see their games. They can tell recruits they'll have a national audience.
"Kids love to be on TV," Hill said.
And parents will know they can see their kids play.
"It's more of a topic with parents than it is with players," Whittingham said.
While the new deal will be an improvement for football, it will be a quantum leap for Olympic sports.
"If you take a look at the number of exposures Olympic sports will get compared with what they got last year and then compared with every other conference in the country, it's staggering," Stevenson said.
"Our volleyball teams are going to be on more than any other league in the country," Hill said. "That's got to help with recruiting."
And the thought is that this will help years down the line.
"The younger kids will have the chance to watch you and learn about your program on TV," Whittingham said. "It's good to have get a look at you."
The Pac-12 Network is just one TV outlet for the league, which will also air football and basketball games on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox, FX and FSN/ROOT.
"Having other networks putting on college football is just a win for the fan," said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisitions. "If you're a Pac-12 fan, you're going to be able to watch your team on a lot of different networks. What more can you ask for?"
Whereas the MWC used to announce schedules months in advance, the Pac-12's TV deal means some game times and channels will be set three weeks or less before they're played.
"Fortunately, we're in more of a power position on the times," Hill said. "We're not going to play a football game 4 o'clock in the afternoon on Friday just to be on TV."
But Olympic sports might.
"Maybe the soccer team will play at 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon when they would love to play under the lights at 7 when the crowd would be bigger," Hill said. "It's a trade-off. We want to be on TV? It comes with a price.
"But it's going to be worth it. Once fans get used to this, they're going to love it."
About the Pac-12 Network
The new sports channel will be on basic cable for Utah's Comcast subscribers when it launches on Aug. 15. The league is still negotiating with Dish, DirecTV and myriad other cable companies.
Utes go first
Utah will get the honor of playing host to the Pac-12 Network's inaugural football game.
Utah's season opener against Northern Colorado on Aug. 30 is scheduled to start at 5:15 p.m. The early start time will allow the network to pair the game with the Arizona State-Northern Arizona contest, scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m.
Take it with you
If your cable company carries the Pac-12 Network, you'll be able to watch the channel anytime, anywhere on your mobile device.
"Let's say you're traveling in Florida and you want to watch Utah play a football game," said Gary Stevenson, pictured, chief executive of Pac-12 Media Enterprises. "You just put your authentication number in and you'll be able to watch that game on your iPad while you're sitting on the beach."
If your cable or satellite company doesn't carry the network, you cannot subscribe online only to the Pac-12 Network. That may come eventually, Stevenson said, but not this fall.