For weeks and months now, we've been hearing about how Rutgers might be a crucial factor in Big Ten expansion plans, and that it's because Rutgers can put the BTN on televisions in New York City, and helloooo, subscriber fees. Andy Staples put it a little more callously:
But really, why would the Big Ten want to add an athletic department with a football team that has accomplished so little since hosting the sport's first game in 1869? That question comes up a lot from people who don't understand what the expansion is really about. Certainly, Rutgers is a candidate because it's a flagship state university with a great academic reputation. But the most important reason is that Rutgers might help deliver the New York market.
Ahem. We know exactly what this expansion's about, and we think it's a dangerous idea all the same. Staples makes a cursory note of the danger later:
Prediction: As long as the cable companies are willing to play ball, the Big Ten-Rutgers marriage would benefit both parties.
But it's worth examining in more detail than that--especially considering the distribution of the cable networks themselves... and the BTN's history.
Recall, if you will, the arduous carriage process undertaken during the first year of the BTN's existence. Here's the BTN's Mike Hall's version of the early going:
Initially, finding the Big Ten Network on your TV was a chore, even within the eight-state footprint that’s home to Big Ten teams. Cable providers balked at including the network on their packages, but by the summer of 2008, the heavyweight providers — notably Comcast and Time Warner — ended heated negotiations and reached agreement with the network,.
"They fell like dominoes," Hall said. "It was like boom, boom, boom in a matter of days. By the time the second football season came around, it was like we penetrated all of basic cable in the entire Midwest."
Now, we're willing to grant Hall the benefit of the doubt that he just didn't choose his words perfectly and that his words weren't a reflection of deeper, darker intentions at the network. And yet, it sure felt like the Hawkeyes were being held hostage by the network during those negotiations. The very notion of the Hawkeyes not even being on basic cable in Iowa City during the 2007 season seemed, to say the least, perverse.
So the channel has a rather clear history of playing hardball with local cable providers when it comes to maximizing carriage rates and getting on basic cable packages. And fine, that's clearly worked out for them so far. In New York City, though, it'll probably be a different story.
That's because withholding the Scarlet Knights won't do anything in New York. Oh sure, there's the New Jersey market, but according to NewJerseyNewsRoom.com, New Jersey's already covered by Comcast, with whom the BTN already has an agreement. New York, on the other hand...
The Big Ten could increase the cable TV footprint by adding Rutgers which, is in Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner territory. An increase in a cable TV footprint means more cable TV revenues from subscribers. Comcast can put the Big Ten Network on any of the company's systems outside of the Big Ten and carries the network on systems with the Big Ten territory so New Jersey would get the network if Rutgers joins the conference.
But adding Rutgers does not necessarily mean that the Big Ten will "get" all of the New York market as neither Charles Dolan's Cablevision nor Time Warner, the other big New York area MSOs are locks to take the channel.
Granted, Rutgers fandom doesn't start or stop at the NY/NJ border... but Comcast's service does. And if the Big Ten tries to big-time TWC or Cablevision into picking up the channel--especially at the 70 cents/household rate they've been pulling in the BXI footprint--they're probably going to encounter even more resistance than they got during negotiations with Comcast and Mediacom. And this time around, they're not going to have the ace in the hole of a beloved local team; nobody watches Rutgers.
So if TWC and Cablevision decide they're not gonna pay a lot for this muffler, the Big Ten's pretty much stuck, right? The only thing that could swing the balance in the conference's favor is an emphasis on--you guessed it--national brands like Nebraska, Notre Dame, and/or Texas. Like, come on. Do we really think the NYC cable companies are going to look at the Big Ten plus Mizzou, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and either Pitt or Kansas, then say, "no way, not without Rutgers!" C'mon.
Now, if the Big Ten really wants to get in on the NYC market, we know just the way to do it: stand-up comedy and indie rock. They love that out there! So I'll bust out some zingers, then Hawkeye State and RossWB can wear some hipster pants and sing along with some synthesizers. New York gold, baby. Our going rate is $8 million a year.
[NOTE: Many thanks go to @DonCheech on Twitter for his help on this article; follow him or die violently at our hands.]