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IOWA CITY — The Big Ten’s recent expansion could shift a few non-conference football games to non-traditional channels owned by the league’s primary television partners.
The additions of Maryland and Rutgers give the league as many as 13 games on the first four September Saturdays. Big Ten home games routinely air on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, as well as BTN and ABC but it’s possible a few games could overflow to either ESPNNews or ESPN Classic.
“They’ll be on BTN. They’ll be on an ESPN platform,” said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten’s senior associate commissioner for television administration. “I don’t think we’re quite ready to announce that yet.”
The league usually releases times and television choices for the first three weeks’ worth of football games in early June. This year the announcement could be around July 1, the networks’ notification date.
Last year, the Big Ten had nine Saturday games on its opening weekend and two appeared in primetime. BTN televised Wyoming at Nebraska (7 p.m.), while ESPN2 aired Northwestern at California (9:30 p.m.), a game that fell under the Pac-12’s media deal. The other seven were split between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. kickoffs. BTN aired two 11 a.m. kickoffs, while ESPNU and ESPN2 showed one. At 2:30 p.m., both ABC and BTN aired a game.
This year’s second week slate features particular challenges. Three non-conference games were selected for primetime kickoffs, although only one (Virginia Tech at Ohio State) falls under the Big Ten’s media deal with ESPN. (The others: Michigan State at Oregon on Fox; Michigan at Notre Dame on NBC). Nine other games are under Big Ten jurisdiction and only two viewing windows are open. Most of those match-ups lack national appeal and none involve high-major opponents. BTN aired three games concurrently at 5 p.m. CT last year but those are considered primetime games, spokesman Elizabeth Conlisk said. BTN has no plans to air more games in primetime.
The Big Ten will not move games away from its current media partners, Rudner said.
“We’re definitely not peeling off any inventory to any third party,” he said. “There’s not going to be any side deals.”
The Big Ten’s current football television package doesn’t expire until after the 2016 season.
ABC has until July 1 to decide if it wants to move one more Big Ten game to primetime. The Big Ten boasts primetime Saturday night games through mid-November except on Nov. 8. That day, Ohio State plays at Michigan State in a potential battle of top-five squads. Rudner declined to say which game could shift to primetime.
Men’s basketball also features its own challenges with 14 squads. There are league scheduling core principles, such as each team gets two days to prepare for a game with no more than two consecutive road games. There’s a weekend/weekday and home/away balance between the league’s first and second halves. Arenas cannot host a men’s and women’s game on the same day and there are plenty of special requests.
The league did end television exclusivity with ESPN when it expanded in 2011-12. That will help this year when BTN and ESPN might air games in the same viewing window.
“Our approach won’t be any different from the approach we used before,” Rudner said. “Midweek there’s a possibility of seven men’s games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and seven women’s games as well. But we have enough windows. Obviously without ESPN exclusivity, we’re able to do a lot more than we have in the past.”
Finding networks for non-conference games also provide challenges.
“We’re confident that we’ll find the space for them,” Rudner said. “I don’t think we’re going to be changing up too much from what we’ve done in the past. We’ve used ESPNU, and we’ve used ESPN3, and obviously BTN has its own streaming platform as well. So I think we’ll be fine.”
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