Big Ten Network head talks about covering women’s sports

During “Hockey Day in Minnesota” in October, announcing the first seasons of two new college hockey conferences, the MSR sat down with Big Ten Network (BTN) President Mark Silverman and talked about his network’s coverage of women’s sports.

“You know what my answer is going to be,” began Silverman, “and I know you know the answer, but I appreciate you letting me answer. Our goal is to represent all of our 12 — soon to be 14 — schools, achieve gender equity…between all of our platforms between men and women, [and] generate profitability and growth.

Mark Silverman Photo by Charles Hallman
Mark Silverman
Photo by Charles Hallman

“As of now, the amount of an audience that we can generate for basketball and football, and “The Journey” [a season-long inside look at Big Ten men’s teams in the two sports] make it a financially successful endeavor.”

In case you are not paying close attention, Silverman was essentially saying that women’s sports aren’t a moneymaker for BTN. Men’s sports primarily make the cash register ring like the angel bell on It’s a Wonderful Life, while as far as women’s sports are concerned it’s Simon and Garfunkel — the sounds of silence.

“We don’t believe, at least today doing “The Journey,” a women’s program would have the viewership to attract any advertisers to bring any ratings that we need to be successful at the network,” continued the BTN president. “The network is set up to be a profitable network. You’ll not always please everybody.”

I appreciate Silverman’s honesty, which is more than I can say when other sports network execs are asked about gender imbalance in sports coverage. People at ESPN, for example, skirt the issue whenever asked.

Silverman added, “To what extent is the appropriate amount of men’s and women’s coverage? That is a challenge. Should it be exactly [the same] in the amount of airtime? How can you manage it?”

Nonetheless he boasted, “We are the one network that televises more women’s sports than any other network in the country. We do a women’s sports report each week. We do features on female student-athletes. It’s hosted by women and produced by a woman. We do what we think is the right thing to do today, given our audiences for the sports.”

Silverman said both women’s volleyball and soccer audience numbers “have gone up,” but not so much for others, including women’s hoops. “I’d love nothing more than to do more [women’s sports] programming, but it’s extremely costly. We want to make sure that if we are going to spend that kind of dollars…we must have some ability to generate some revenue to offset it.

“It’s a longwinded way to say what you thought,” he surmised.

Then our conversation briefly turned to diversity, a regular topic oft-discussed in this column. “I welcome you to come by our office [in Chicago] and take a look,” Silverman suggested. “I think you would be pleasantly surprised. Diversity at the network from day one has been a top priority, and fortunately we have been able to achieve a significant [number] behind the camera, office staff, and in front of the camera.” But when pressed to offer hard numbers, he admitted, “I don’t know the percentages off hand.

“I’m pretty proud of how we look and how we address diversity relative to other networks I’ve been a part of but never have been in control of. Now that I’m in control of it, it’s something I think is crucial to be [a good network],” concluded Silverman.


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