Big Ten Network: Better than ESPN for women’s sports?

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

The Big Ten Network (BTN) has been in operation for three years, but actually most of us have only seen it for two of those years because it wasn’t being carried by many cable systems, including Comcast locally. Now BTN is in over 75 million homes across the United States and Canada.

Last week, an ESPN official argued that her family of networks is doing its best in women’s sports coverage. BTN also claims the same: 22 volleyball games televised live this fall with 16 additional games shown on a delayed basis; 10 field hockey games, including the Big Ten semifinals and championships; 19 women’s soccer games; and at least 55 live women’s basketball games, including nine league tournament contests in March. Women’s hockey, cross country, women’s gymnastics, rowing, women’s golf, tennis and track and field also are shown.

The network expects to cover between 200-250 women’s events this year, according to a BTN spokesman.

When asked does his network, as does ESPN, appear male-dominated, BTN President Mark Silverman says during a phone interview, “In my opinion, we have significantly more women’s games on our air than any other network in history. There are more Big Ten women sports televised than any other conference by far.

“We will televise live more men’s games [but] is that disrespecting women’s sports? I don’t think so,” adds Silverman, who admits that in order to attract both viewers and advertisers, BTN must have men’s sports, especially football and basketball.

“I am trying to run a for-profit entity,” he continues. “I’m comfortable with the balance we have now.

I think the question is how much is the right amount of programming that really benefits our bottom line, yet [women’s sports] is an important part of our brand. We do considerably more than we are obligated to do.”

This season, BTN premiered its Icons series, a countdown of the conference’s all-time performers. “I was trying to come up with ideas that I thought, outside of games, that Big Ten fans would want to watch,” says Silverman. “We waited until we thought we could produce the show at a high level, and we aggressively sought to get [legendary announcer] Keith Jackson to [be] the host. Icons takes us to another level of quality.”

Many believe that BTN’s existence partly caused the seismic changes over the summer that took place in big-time college sports, including expansion of the Big Ten and the Pac-10, while the O’Jays’ “For The Love of Money” hummed in the background.

“I don’t know if I should take the blame or credit,” responds Silverman in jest. “The percentage of the profit we make goes back to the [Big Ten] schools. I think other conferences now see the benefit of having a network.”

Personally, I prefer BTN over the four-letter network because it offers at least a regular staple of women’s games, even if it is at less-than-desirable times. When I first watched BTN, it looked too amateurish. Silverman admitted his network’s shortcomings when we first talked a couple of years ago in Chicago, where BTN is headquartered.

“Big Ten fans seems to be quite happy with the network,” claims Silverman. “We’re a little further ahead of where we thought we would be, in terms of putting more events on the air and improving the quality of the programming.”

What also separates it from ESPN is its “collegiate” approach. “That definitely is by design,” the BTN president points out. “We are the Big Ten, and I do want us to try and invoke the collegiate feel.”

But it must avoid being rah-rah: BTN didn’t soft-soap the Tim Brewster firing at Minnesota nor the controversial two-point try by Wisconsin in a blowout win against the Gophers.

“All we tell [the studio analysts] is that we want them to be honest and candid but respectful,” says Silverman. “If we are to be credible with our audience, we have to cover it and talk about it.”

Also, how diverse is BTN? The network signed former Indiana guard and longtime basketball analyst Quinn Buckner in October, and Gus Johnson returns and will call 23 Big Ten men’s basketball games this winter.

“We have several executives and many staff who are diverse,” says Silverman. “You’ll see a great deal of diversity in broadcasting our games and doing our analysis. I think it makes us a better network, and [it makes] our programming and marketing efforts better.

“We are going to put more events on the air and try to find more cost-effective ways to put on more events. We are proud of where we’ve come, but we are not where we want to be. We will continue to get better,” he concludes.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to