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Network deserves Year 1 B-minus

by: COURTESY OF PAC-12 NETWORKS - On launch night of the Pac-12 Networks: (from left) President Lydia Murphy-Stephans, Mike Yam, Summer Sanders, Glenn Parker, Curtis Conway, Ashley Adamson, Ronnie Lott and Rick Neuheisel.The Pac-12 Networks’ inaugural year is nearly in the books, an ambitious beginning to what the conference hopes will be a long and lucrative addition to the sports fans’ television yearnings.

I caught up with the networks’ new president, Lydia Murphy-Stephans, during the seventh inning of its 550th and final live event of the year, Sunday’s UCLA-Stanford baseball game at Sunken Diamond.

In Murphy-Stephans’ estimation, the first year has “been amazing. In so many ways, we exceeded all of our expectations.”

Asked to list a few, Murphy-Stephans — promoted from the networks’ executive vice president/general manager role about a month ago, assuming additional duties in the distribution and revenue departments — obliged.

“We executed all 550 events live in (high definition),” she began. “We had a perfect blend — 50-50 in men’s and women’s sports.”

Murphy-Stephans mentioned the cast of commentators, including Ted Robinson, Kevin Calabro, Rick Neuheisel and Ronnie Lott. And that the Pac-12 Networks was one of five nominated for “Best in Sports Media” at the recent awards banquet hosted by Sports Business Journal, a list that included ESPN, CBS Sports, NBC Sports Group and Time Warner Cable Sports. ESPN won.by: COURTESY OF PAC-12 NETWORKS - Ted Robinson (right), working a conference tournament basketball game with Hall of Famer Bill Walton, has been part of a solid corps of play-by-play broadcasters in the first year of the Pac-12 Networks.

“Just to be in that company is a tremendous honor” Murphy-Stephans said. “If we’re going to lose, it should be to the (worldwide) leader in sports.”

During its first year, Pac-12Nets employed more than 1,500 students from the member schools, she says, to help produce the live events.

“There are entry-level all the way to mid-level positions we reserve for students,” she said. “Our production crews and technicians are training the students. They get real hands-on experience and get paid to do it.”

To summarize, “we hit every high point we set out to achieve,” she said.

Before we explore that idea, let’s hear from representatives of our state’s two Pac-12 representatives. Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis judged the networks’ first year as “pretty darn good.”

“The exposure for our programs has been great,” De Carolis said. “To air 550 live events is unheard of. They’re going to make a profit, or come close to breaking even, the first year. The exposure for our Olympic sports — sports like baseball, softball, gymnastics and volleyball — has been off the charts.”

Craig Pintens, Oregon’s associate AD and its Pac-12Nets liaison, is in agreement.

“Having the increased exposure for a lot of our programs has been extremely valuable, for softball and volleyball in particular,” Pintens said. “The amount of coverage for our schools has been unbelievable. It’s been, in that regard, a very successful year.

“The production quality of games has been great, and the studio shows have been great and continue to grow. It’s been a great opportunity for fans all across the country to tune in and watch the Ducks.”

As a casual observer of the networks, I’m going to give them a B-minus. I think there is plenty of room for improvement.

De Carolis and Pintens were quick to point on the most obvious flaw. The Pac-12Nets went through the first year with contracts with several multiple system operators (MSOs), including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Dish Network and Cox. The conference has yet to reach agreement with two other major players: DirecTV and Charter. That has deprived many thousands of potential viewers of watching the networks.

“It’s all about getting more cable companies and DirecTV on board,” De Carolis said. “That’s the next big challenge.”

“DirecTV is a major component of it, a big part of the puzzle,” Pintens agreed, putting the onus on the distributor, not the Networks. “It’s amazing to me that the Big Ten network is available in Pac-12 country. Direct doesn’t have the Pac-12 Networks, which speaks volumes to what they think of Pac-12 fans.

“We know they’ve been offered the same deal other 40 providers have agreed to. We’re hopeful they will soon agree to terms.”

Not landing the two major carriers, among others, played a major role in limiting Pac-12Nets from airing as many as 850 live events, a stated goal when it launched last August.

“There was a clause in our distribution agreements that if we achieved a certain level (of contracts with MSOs) we would telecast as many as 850 events in year one,” Murphy-Stephans said. “The minimum was 550. The result was a number we were able to televise in a highly comfortable and quality way.”

Pac-12Nets officials have been consistent in stressing they have offered the same deal to DirecTV and Charter as to all the other MSOs, and that they would not budge in fairness to the others. Murphy-Stephans said regardless of affiliations, the plan is to increase coverage to 750 live events in year two.

Asked for an update on negotiations with DirecTV, available throughout Oregon, and with Charter, which serves viewers in most of the state’s regions outside the Portland area, Murphy-Stephans offered this:

“We are always negotiating with DirecTV and with Charter. It’s a fluid process. We have an affiliate relations department, and that department is charged with cultivating and maintaining relationships with all MSOs. We are constantly and aggressively seeking more distribution. We have a very fair offer (to DirecTV and Charter). I’m in the process of visiting with each MSO and will continue to meet with our partners and (companies) with which we want to do business.”

Doesn’t sound very promising that deals with DirecTV and Charter are on the horizon.

What were Pac-12Nets’ ratings for the first year of operation?

“We don’t release that information,” Murphy-Stephans said, adding, “we didn’t focus on ratings. We’re too young. Most networks don’t get ratings until year 3 or 4.”

She had a similar take on the matter of revenue.

“That’s information we don’t make public,” Murphy-Stephans said. “We’re on schedule.”

Was the first year in the red or the black?

“I would say we’re in the black,” she said. “It’s been an extraordinary year for the Pac-12.”

Member schools have been told not to budget anything from the Pac-12Nets for the first two years. It sounds unlikely that Pac-12Nets will have revenue to feed back to the schools.

“It would be nice,” Murphy-Stephans said. “We don’t close out our year until the end of June. We’ll have to wait and see. We’re owned by the 12 universities, and we have to work closely to manage expectations. As a start-up business, we need to make sure we’re not going to promise the schools anything we can’t deliver.”

Pac-12Nets was set up as one national network and six regional ones, including Pac-12 Oregon. Whenever I’ve tuned in as a Comcast subscriber, only one network has been available. That is expected to begin to change next fall, I’m told, as the Networks expand its coverage.

The plan is to air 35 live football games in Year 2, the same as Year 1.

The number of live baseball broadcasts will increase “significantly,” Murphy-Stephans said, from about 30 to “close to 100.”

That’s a positive particularly in this state, with abundant interest in the perennially ranked OSU and UO programs.

Alas, Pac-12Nets’ dismal track-and-field coverage will not improve much, if at all. Murphy-Stephans said three meets aired this year, including the Pac-12 championships, and that will increase to eight in Year 2. But I’m told coverage of all the meets, including the Pac-12 championships, were aired on delay.

I watched replay of the Pac-12 championships and was dismayed at the work by the broadcasters, who seemed ill-prepared. In the men’s 5,000 meters, they had the winner mis-identified until just after the finish of the race. No matter how you cut it, that’s not OK.

Neuheisel, who recently signed a multi-year, exclusive contract extension, is clearly a star. His studio work was superb and a highlight upon which to build.

Calabro is one of the best in the business, and Robinson is more than solid in the play-by-play department, too.

The Pac-12 Networks is an important venture that has the potential to be a source of income for the schools as well as exposure for both prospective student-athletes and sponsors. It sounds as if the plans are to pick up the pace as they head into the second year of operation.

The deals with Fox and ESPN already have provided a tremendous financial boost for the future of the Pac-12 athletic programs. Every football and men’s basketball game was aired live on one of the three networks. That’s terrific.

Now the conference needs the Pac-12 Networks to gather steam to fortify that in the years to come.