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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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The making of a bad deal
UW sold fans a bill of goods on Big Ten Network
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Credit:Todd Hubler

Back on Aug. 2, a warm and sunny afternoon, Bret Bielema and Bo Ryan, respectively coaches of the UW's football and basketball teams, strode into the state Capitol's Senate Parlor for a press conference. Slapping backs, gripping paws and yukking it up with state legislators who seemed thrilled just to be in their presence, the pair took turns looking directly into the camera lens and encouraging Badger fans to call their cable providers and demand access to the Big Ten Network.

They said this new TV channel dedicated to covering Big Ten conference athletics would be a showcase for the fine work done by them and their colleagues in the University of Wisconsin athletic department. They predicted Badger fans would be able to watch more of their teams' games as well as sports like volleyball and women's basketball, which have previously received little television coverage. And they insisted the new network will prove indispensable in recruiting young athletes to play for UW teams.

Three months later, the Big Ten Network is still not available to customers of Charter Communications or Time Warner, the state's two largest cable providers with nearly a million households subscribing to their services. The games are available only on pay TV via Dish Network or DirecTV.

Cable subscribers could not watch the Badgers play in five games this season, including the tilt against Ohio State in the biggest game of the season two weeks ago and this Saturday's season finale at Minnesota. Hoops fans have it worse, with 20 Badger basketball games appearing on the network. And while it's likely few will weep over not being able to see Bo's boys tip off against the Savannah State Tigers tonight, the same might not be true on Nov. 24, when Georgia comes to town, or on Jan. 2, when the Badgers open the conference season at Michigan.

Clearly, this is not an improvement over the previous setup, which had Badger games not featured on national TV showing up frequently on widely available ESPN regional networks. But Bielema is not dwelling on how wrong he was in early August. Rather, in addressing the media prior to the Ohio State game, he urged fans to head out to a restaurant with satellite service.

"I'd grab maybe a burger and some cheese curds, maybe a refreshment," he said. "Grab a friend, wear some red and support the Badgers."

Bielema was putting a smiley face on a bad situation. The UW athletic department followed suit a few days later with an "open letter" to fans signed by Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, Chancellor John Wiley and Athletic Board Chair Walter Dickey. None of them addressed the Big Ten's complicity in this venture, which is being spearheaded by a division of Fox Sports.

The Big Ten Conference, representing its 11 member institutions, owns 51% of the venture, with Fox as the minority owner, and the schools will share equally in its proceeds, should any materialize. The network wants to be included in expanded basic packages in the eight states that have conference schools, but the carriers would prefer to offer the channel in a sports-only package, or "tier."

As has been widely documented, the NFL Network tried a similar strategy last year, hoping Packer fans would pressure their local carriers when they learned a late-season game against Minnesota would be available only on its new network. A year later, Charter and Time Warner still do not offer the NFL Network and Packer fans in this part of the state will miss a big game against the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 29.

The big difference, however, is that nobody affiliated with the Packers tried to convince fans that the new arrangement would make the team better.

Is it too early to declare the Big Ten Network a failure? Probably. But it certainly has not succeeded in widening the audience for Badger athletics, as was promised at the Capitol back in August. And the administration's response to this undesirable situation might actually turn public opinion against the UW.

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