Big Ten, Comcast going long

Deal makes games available to 50 million homes

After almost a year in existence, the Big Ten Network is finally getting a big-time cable distribution deal that will boost its visibility in all but one of the conference's markets.

Comcast Corp. said Thursday that it will put the channel on expanded basic in such Big Ten Conference areas as Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio beginning in August and running through at least early 2009. Then the channel could go to what Comcast calls a broadly distributed digital service following the football and basketball seasons.

The deal would give the Big Ten Network 12 million homes in the Big Ten region, up from 6 million. Nationally, it would go from 30 million to almost 50 million potential homes. Comcast is said to be paying about 70 cents per subscriber.

Despite what had been a sometimes contentious battle between Comcast and the joint venture between the Big Ten Conference and Fox Cable Networks, Fox National Cable Sports president Bob Thompson said the two parties never stopped talking. In the end, he said, it was both parties' willingness to be flexible that made the deal happen.

The flexibility can be seen in the per-sub price as well as the fact that Fox was willing to let the channel go to a broadly distributed digital service after its initial run as long as it met certain benchmarks. The deal also will likely help to make the Big Ten case with such other big MSOs as Time Warner Cable and Charter.

"It's a good template going forward in discussions with other operators," Thompson said.

The Big Ten Network also will be available in Philadelphia on digital and possibly available in other Comcast non-Big Ten markets on a sports tier. The deal calls for HD, broadband, portable and wireless rights as well as VOD of condensed games. The Big Ten Network, a joint venture of the conference and Fox Cable Networks, already has distribution pacts with DirecTV, Dish, Insight and many smaller units.

Meanwhile, NBC Sports and the University of Notre Dame have come to a five-year deal to carry home Notre Dame football games through 2015. NBC will have carried Notre Dame games for 25 years by the end of this agreement.

Financial terms of the deal weren't announced, but NBC will air seven home games and an additional game in primetime that will be played elsewhere. That's up from six in the previous contract, which all have been five-year deals.
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