IOWA CITY — Darian Cooper received more than a dozen high-major scholarship offers as a prep at Maryland’s renowned DeMatha Catholic.
Cooper, then a top defensive tackle prospect and now a red-shirt freshman at Iowa, wanted to compare the schools and he found one mechanism to do so: the Big Ten Network.
“I remember it was me, Nico (Law) and (Jordan) Lomax and Nico was committed here. He was like, ‘Hey, man, come watch this game with us,’” Cooper said of his current Iowa teammates who also lived in Maryland. “We were checking out the Big Ten Network and watching games.
“It was another way for me to recruit schools as much as they were recruiting me.”
That’s what Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, BTN President Mark Silverman and other league officials envisioned when the network debuted Aug. 30, 2007. The network — which celebrates its fifth anniversary Thursday — was designed to help the league to control, distribute and display its second- and third-tier football and men’s basketball games, accentuate its Olympic sports and grow revenue.
After meetings with ESPN officials in 2004, Delany saw the market for Big Ten programming was stagnant, and he wanted growth.
“We thought it was time to look at another way of getting more events and more university content to our fans,” Delany said a month before the launch. “It was our goal to take what we had, make it national, grow it locally and to expand to opportunities, not only for our football teams, but other sports as well.”
The BTN grew bullishly. It became the first network to exceed 30 million homes in its first 30 days. It aired around 350 events in its first year, up from 279 the previous year. But those numbers look modest compared with today’s statistics.
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Today’s BTN is a national brand. It’s available in 90 million homes and has more subscribers outside the league’s nine-state footprint than inside it. It plans to air around 900 events this year, and its year-over-year ratings increased by 11 percent. Ad sales have grown by 20 percent, Silverman said, and its documentary series “The Journey” earned an Emmy nomination.
The BTN became profitable in its second year, and it generates significant revenue for its schools. Iowa’s athletics department earned more than $18.8 million from NCAA/Big Ten sources in the 2007 fiscal year. That number expects to climb past $25.1 million this fiscal year with more than $8 million coming from BTN.
“Its growth has been really something we’re all proud of,” Silverman said.
Yet BTN’s first year was filled with turbulence. BTN endured protracted distribution challenges, including a year-long standoff with Mediacom, the largest cable provider in Iowa.
Before BTN most Iowa basketball games appeared locally through syndication. But only three Iowa Big Ten games aired on Mediacom in 2007-08. That impasse coincided with an unusually cold winter, several late starting times and first-year coach Todd Lickliter earning a 13-19 record.
“It got real complicated through the state of Iowa because lack of access to men’s basketball,” said Rick Klatt, Iowa’s associate athletics director for external affairs. “Football was costly, too, but men’s basketball ramped up on us.
“But as we cleared the distribution hurdle, I can’t even point to something that hasn’t gone well.”
Mediacom and BTN eventually agreed to terms in August 2008.
With the infusion of revenue and exposure for Big Ten athletics, BTN become college athletics’ ultimate game changer. Every major conference since has revamped membership makeup and media partnerships in the wake of BTN’s success. The Pac-12 created its own network with six regional affiliates. The University of Texas created a joint venture with ESPN called “The Longhorn Network.” The SEC, ACC and Big 12 all reworked their media deals.
“It goes without saying every conference in America trying to duplicate it,” Klatt said. “That speaks volumes about the vision of Commissioner Delany and the league presidents and directors of athletics.”
The BTN weathered some turmoil, such as dropping its institutional programming for low ratings. The network has an obvious conflict-of-interest with the league owning 49 percent and television partner Fox owning 51 percent, which initially was reversed. BTN faced criticism because it didn’t televise Louis Freeh’s live report on the Penn State sex abuse scandal. But the network reversed subsequently devoted commercial-free time to the subject when the NCAA handed down its judgment.
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“We kind of whiffed on the coverage there, and it’s something that we have to come to grips with,” Silverman said. “You can make a mistake from time to time. I think we did a great job the last couple of shows we’ve done on the Penn State coverage.”
The network’s prime mission is to showcase Big Ten sports, athletes and history. That’s from live events to original programming. This fall it will air a series of documentaries on the league’s greatest teams, similar to its past “Icon” series.“It’s like SportsCenter of the Big Ten,” Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said. “It’s a couple of extra reporters, a couple of extra interviews in there. They’re not hindrance at all. It’s a huge positive for the conference.”