Welcome to the 21st century, Ivy League.
This July, the eight-member conference finally agreed to create the Ivy League Digital Sports Network. It officially launched on Aug. 21 with a variety of viewing packages available for even the most passionate Ivy League sports fans. Little information about programming, formatting, and on-air personalities has been made public, so it is too early to critique the new network, but one thing’s for sure: The arrival of the Ivy League Digital Sports Network is, well, shockingly late.
Let me preface all comparisons between conferences by explaining that the Ivy League should not be held to the standard of universities in the “power six conferences.” Columbia is not Alabama, whose games are distributed by the recently-formed SEC Network and a variety of other national and regional networks. Moreover, Columbia is not the University of Texas, which has its own television channel, the Longhorn Network. But how does the Ivy League compare to, say, the Mountain West Conference, which is home to San Diego State and the University of New Mexico among others? Even the Mountain West Conference has had a television network since 2006!
The Ivy League has hesitated to adapt to the changing landscape of college athletics. In this new era, universities receive millions of dollars annually from television deals. When a particular university has the opportunity to earn more money—and greater national exposure—in another conference, that university will almost certainly leave. The result is a sort of arms race between conferences, jockeying for the favor of universities and of television networks. Consider that the Big 10, long at the forefront of the television movement, has grown from a 10-team conference into a (soon-to-be) 14-team conference. The Big East, on the other hand, balked at negotiations with television networks and slowly watched its member universities depart for other conferences. Once the most competitive basketball conference in college athletics, the Big East no longer holds that title.
The Ivy League will not wither away into multiple conferences like the Big East. Loyalty exists in the Ivy League—a trait that is extremely rare in college athletics today—because the eight member schools have both unique scholastic and athletic bonds. (The conference nickname Ancient Eight speaks to that relationship.) The Ivy League does not have the same type of visibility as the Big 10, but the eight-member conference needs to be available on television to its niche audience.
Sure, NBC Sports Network and even ESPNU may have been reliable sources for Ivy League sports coverage in 2012, but that was before NBC Sports signed a $250 million multi-year contract with the English Premier League, arguably the top soccer league in the world. As a result, after the 2013-14 season—the final year of the TV deal between NBCSN and the Ivy League—the network could well cut out mid-major sports from its weekend lineup and concentrate on soccer. ESPNU, which doesn’t carry many Ivy games to begin with, will receive significant changes to its programming in 2014 thanks to a television contract with the SEC. It’s hard to see it televising Ivy games beyond Harvard men’s basketball (a borderline top-25 team) and maybe some lacrosse.
The reality is, the Ivy League in a year or two may no longer be a presence on major television networks. The only way to secure its future on television is to start its own TV network. While a television network is more expensive to operate, the difference in fees between a digital network and a television network would be covered by the additional exposure. It’s much more likely someone stumbles across Ivy sports while flipping channels than while surfing the web. More people watching Ivy League athletics means more applicants to the universities, and, of course, greater selectivity only improves the quality of schools. Furthermore, greater exposure should motivate alumni or other wealthy fans of Ivy League athletics to donate to schools.
College athletics is a commodity. To take full advantage of the presence of college sports, a full-time digital network needs to be just an auxiliary outlet—not the only one.
Daniel Radov is a Columbia College first-year. Free Advice runs biweekly.