Perhaps adding meaning to the term March Madness, the women's college hockey championship, known as the Frozen Four, received national TV coverage for the first time this past weekend. That's quite a feat, given that the tournament did not even exist five years ago. But since then, three cable television networks, dedicated solely to college sports, have been launched.
"The entire college sports landscape is ripe for this kind of partnership," says Brian Bedol, cofounder of College Sports Television (CSTV), the two-year-old cable network that aired the women's Frozen Four, including Sunday's final between Harvard and Minnesota. "There are so many great stories in college athletics that aren't being told. Now they will be."
Despite this month's annual basketball blizzard of bracket-busting buzzer-beaters, there is, by the account of TV executives and other industry experts, ample room for still more coverage of college games of all sorts - and niche audiences sizable enough to make such ventures profitable.
Beyond CSTV, both ESPN and Fox Sports have recently launched cable networks dedicated to constant campus coverage. CBS is paying $6 billion over the course of its current 11-year contract to carry the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but CSTV and its two competitors (Fox College Sports and ESPNU) have much more affordable targets in mind.
Instead of chasing the better-known college football and basketball games, the three cable ventures are concentrating on cheaper fare. Program lineups include studio shows filled with highlights and analysis of various games, documentaries, replays of classic matchups, and a slew of live broadcasts dedicated to rarely seen college competitions in wrestling, baseball, soccer, swimming and diving, track and field, and, yes, ice hockey.
The advent of three national networks devoted to college sports comes as little surprise to media analyst John Mansell of Kagan Research. After all, he says, in a digital-cable world offering almost infinite channel space, the need for programming is substantial. "You have to remember that, at the same time, there is an insatiable appetite for sports on the part of the American public," he says. "I'm not sure if we're ever going to see The Sewing Channel, but we're getting pretty close to it."
By Mr. Mansell's informal roll call, the number of sports networks easily outpaces those concentrating on news. While many of the new sports ventures will struggle to reach more than a few hundred thousand viewers at any given time, the allure of reaching sports fans - often young men - resonates with advertisers. They like college sports viewers, who tend to be well-educated and especially ardent many years beyond graduation.
With 109.6 million TV households in the United States, the traditional networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox) need to reach huge audiences to succeed. (Advertising rates are based on which programs offer the most viewers). Major cable channels, such as ESPN, which reaches 90 million households, follow similar formulas with the benefit of cable subscriber fees.
CSTV, by comparison, reaches 8 million households, while ESPNU and Fox College Sports trail with 3.5 million homes each. All three networks hope to expand by persuading cable systems to add them to their channel lineups. ESPN and Fox provide ESPNU and Fox College Sports, respectively, with inventory - that is, games their big-sister networks have broadcast rights for, but don't have room for on their schedules - at little or no cost.
CSTV, a $100 million start-up, relies on a mixture of deals with big schools and conferences to air lesser-known sports, as well as deals with small schools to televise traditional fare such as football and basketball. Mr. Bedol also points to a heavy investment in technology, as seen in a new agreement with the NCAA and CBS that allows fans to pay a fee in exchange for the capability to watch every men's basketball tournament game live on the CSTV website, a handy feature when work demands interfere with bracket-monitoring.
When ESPNU launched this month, executives outlined plans for a network reflecting the often obsessive interests of college fans. For example, during next month's NFL Draft, the ESPN spin-off will air hours and hours of coverage dedicated not to which pro teams select which college stars, but instead analyzing how each of the affected college football programs will replace their departed heroes.
"The passion level is so high for college fans and, like everyone else, they live in an era where they want what they want when they want it," says Burke Magnus, ESPNU general manager. "That's what we're here for." As a result, Mr. Magnus and his cohorts promise to feature pep rallies, practices, scrimmages, even band competitions.
While TV coverage of college sports will expand exponentially in the months ahead, most schools' revenues will not. That's because few can demand rights fees for second-tier games and sports. Instead, the primary benefit is greater attention for sports often overlooked by bigger networks.
"The more exposure a sport gets on TV, the more young people see it, the more they want to play it," says Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports executive who now serves as an industry consultant. "If there's more college hockey on TV, then more kids who are 6, 7, and 8 years old will start playing, too. There's no down side."
Some cultural observers see the rise in the number of sports channels moving to a new level - but not necessarily one focused on pro and college jocks.
"I see the day when we'll have something like ESPN9 that shows nothing but high school sports," says Bob Thompson, professor of pop culture and TV studies at Syracuse University. "Look at the drama of high school football in Texas alone. That's where the next frontier is, because amateur sports are like 'American Idol' - you want that first look before someone makes it big."