When Yale football coach Jack Siedlecki goes on a national recruiting trip, he hears the same questions over and over from parents.
“They always want to know, ‘Are you on TV? Can I get the games?’ Siedlecki said.
With the exception of the game against rival Harvard, the answer is usually, “No.’ The big TV networks simply aren’t interested in the little Ivy League.
But the Ivy League and other small college sports conferences might have found a way around that–the internet.
Many schools, and now even some conferences, have begun showing football and other sports on their web sites.
“We can produce our own television and reach, literally, the entire world on the web, without having to go through the issues of, is there cable availability? Is there satellite availability? Is there advertising support?’ said Jeff Orleans, commissioner of the Ivy League.
He expects most of the league’s sporting events will be online within seven years.
Big Sky Conference’s Northern Arizona offered webcasts of home football games last year. Using the four cameras already set up to provide replays on the stadium scoreboard, the school added audio from its radio broadcasts, along with continually updated statistics.
“Our fans love it,’ said Steven Shaff, a spokesman for the school’s athletic department. “We had people in Alaska, parents of students in Canada, watching our games last year.’
This season, the entire nine-school Big Sky Conference will webcast all football, basketball, and volleyball games, using technology from Salt Lake City-based SportsCast Network LLC.
Fans will be able to choose which team’s audio feed to listen to. Games will be archived and can be downloaded to portable devices such as Apple’s iPod.
“This is the future,’ Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said. “The fans will decide what they are going to watch and when they are going to watch it.’
Contrast that with television, where only a handful of games each week are chosen for national broadcast, primarily featuring Top 25 Division I-A teams.
The financial setup is different from traditional television contracts, in which networks pay a flat fee for broadcast rights. In the Big Sky contract, the schools keep the rights and provide feeds to SportsCast, which processes the video for viewing online.
The schools sell advertising and charge a subscription fee–it’s $60 to follow one Big Sky school all year. The schools share profits with SportsCast.
Until recently, putting sports online had not been practical. Not enough people had high-speed internet connections.
That’s changed. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 62 percent of U.S. internet users now have broadband at home, compared with 21 percent just four years ago.
Online video technology also has improved, allowing for bigger, sharper pictures that take up much less bandwidth, said Michael Begley, the CEO and founder of SportsCast.
SportsCast isn’t alone.
The NCAA last year contracted with Charleston, S.C.-based Penn Atlantic LLC to help show some of its Division II and III basketball championships. The Division III semifinal games last March had 49,000 people log on, said Jack Pennington, the chief executive of Penn Atlantic.
His company will be webcasting 39 Western Athletic Conference football games this year.
Fans of larger schools will see more games as well.
This fall, ESPN’s new online channel, ESPN 360, will show 30 football games, 10 of them–involving teams such as Virginia Tech, Purdue, Miami, and Minnesota–exclusively on that web site. The site, available to about 6 million homes, also will have such features as chat rooms, statistics, and online polls.
“It truly is interactive television,’ said Tanya Van Court, ESPN’s vice president and general manager of Broadband and Interactive Television. “It really gives you all the best things about the internet, with all the best things about television.’
For several years, ESPN also has offered games that are televised only regionally to cable and internet viewers on a pay-per-view basis.
Van Court says the network is not concerned about losing revenue to schools that decide to produce their own broadcasts.
“Even with the number of networks that we have on television, we still don’t have the capacity to put on every sporting event that we think our fans want to see,’ she said.
She said schools’ willingness to show their own games online indicates demand not only for the games, but also for the new platform.
The schools also don’t see the web replacing television. Major conferences make millions of dollars from their football and basketball television contracts, but many also plan to webcast other sports, such as volleyball or swimming.
The Big Ten Conference announced plans this summer to create its own cable channel for minor sports. The Big Ten Channel also will be available through the internet, iPods, cell phones, and other technologies, the league said.
“There’s still nothing like sitting in your chair and watching high-definition football on TV,’ said Jon Kasper, a spokesman for the Big Sky Conference. “But for our fans who don’t have that option, this is the wave of the future. It’s what everyone will be doing in two, three, or five years.’
Big Sky TV
Western Athletic Conference Video