Hand in Hand
CSTV and College Hockey Forge New Ground Together
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It began with little fanfare. If you had a satellite dish, you could have seen it, but probably didn't notice.
College Sports Television flipped the switch last April, and just like that, it was being beamed out over Channel 610 of DirecTV satellite systems. And if you were paying close attention, you may have noticed its first ever original programming event: pre- and post-game shows from the Frozen Four in Buffalo.
That moment, however, was just a dry run for what was to come — a union of lost souls, two parties who wanted and needed each other, coming together for the benefit of themselves and fans everywhere.
It started almost two years ago, when word of an all college sports television network was getting under way. It was hard not to dream about college hockey finally finding a home, but the sport had been burned before, with eager commissioners searching for ways to create a national television package only to find roadblocks at every turn.
But who were these CSTV guys? Yes, the founders of Classic Sports Network, later sold to ESPN. But would guys like this be interested in hockey? What would their approach be?
Those questions were soon answered.
CSTV had it in mind early. The big sports like football and basketball were well covered, but it left so much more out there. It knew what the next sport in line was ... hockey. It was just sitting there, a rabid audience just not large enough for the likes of ESPN, but perfect to be the cornerstone of a fledgling network.
"They didn't make promises right out of gate, which I give them credit for," says CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos, whose league was the first to sign a deal with CSTV. "It's fair to say not everybody took it that seriously [at first]. I said, 'Prove to me you can do what you say you can do.' It's true of any startup business.
"[They] said they received a considerable amount of feedback about hockey."
Chris Bevilacqua, CSTV co-founder and Executive Vice President, was the network's point man. He went out, met with the commissioners of all the hockey leagues, and made deals. One by one it was done. The ECAC was the last to fall into line, late this summer.
"In meeting with Chris, I sensed a sincere interest in the sport. I could see in him his passion for college athletics," Anastos says. "I like doing business with people who are passionate in what they're doing."
Oct. 3, 2003 — St. Lawrence at Miami. Friday Night Hockey was born. Complete with its own 30-minute lead-in studio show.
"It would be easy to tell college hockey, 'Hey, we'll just pick off some games where we can,'" says Tim Pernetti, Director of Programming at CSTV, and a former football player at Rutgers. "Instead, we said, 'If you want to do this right, you'll move the games to Friday night that don't already exist there, we'll give it its own time period, promote it as a national deal, and we'll do it right.' And them realizing that we had the flexibility to make it unique is what caused it to come together.
"It's a great fit because of the flexibility. ESPN, for all its money, could easily do what we're doing with the snap of their fingers. But they've become about a different thing, they've become a pro sports network. And let's face it, they don't have enough shelf space to do something like this anymore."
A match made in heaven.
A National Deal
"We're doing a 30-game package, which has never been done. We've made a national package out of it, we've given it its own night, its own name, its own studio."
Tim Pernetti, CSTV Dir. of Programming
Whenever the powers that be in college hockey had even approached major networks about a national TV deal, they often heard the same thing: "College hockey people know that a game between North Dakota and Maine could be huge, but will it sell to the average sports fan? They want to see rivalries they know from the other sports, like Michigan and Michigan State, Boston College and Notre Dame."
That, combined with the sheer economics of it, meant it never happened.
"The way we approached it was, these are the best programs in college hockey and we had access to everything, except games that were already spoken for or were part of other TV arrangements that preceded us," says Pernetti. "And we just took a 'best of the best' approach."
CSTV doesn't deny that putting on "recognizable names" is a component of their decision making, but it is not nearly the overriding factor. After all, St. Lawrence and Miami were on the opener.
"We wanted to make sure we had the highest profile matchups, the best teams, the best venues with the packed houses so it looked good, and really presented the best of what college hockey is all about," Pernetti says.
Which is not to say schools like Michigan and Boston College aren't well represented. In some cases, very well represented. (Complete schedule)
"We get feedback all the time saying, 'Guys, enough Boston College.' And that's fine," Pernetti says. "People love to complain, but it means people are watching.
"Do Michigan and Boston College have name recognition? Yeah. Are Michigan and Boston College in the Top 10? Yeah. To me this is more about — it can be Niagara, Findlay, Bemidji State — I look at the poll. I look at what teams did last year, how teams are coming back this year, who's gonna be the upper echelon of teams nationally, and that's the games we went after.
"Are we slightly heavy in Hockey East in the first half? Probably. But the reason we are is because Hockey East can't make much available to us in the second half because of their deal with NESN. So name recognition has a certain weight, but for people who are not necessarily hockey fans, they see a game with Denver and Minnesota State and say, 'What the heck is that?' But we have it on (Dec. 19)."
By the same token, the leagues understand the outside influences that pull on a national network, even one with the flexibility of CSTV.
"We want to work with them," Anastos says. "We know part of the lure of creating a national broadcast over several markets is to have a broader approach than just a regional game. We've been told for years, what makes TV more attractive is schools like Notre Dame, Boston College."
The trickiest aspect to CSTV's package of games was in having to negotiate different deals with all the leagues. Because each league was already tied into a variety of regional and local packages, it was difficult to create one national deal. So each conference deal came with a different set of guarantees, and that all had to fit into one season-long package.
"We have a terrific relationship with FOX," says Anastos. "We had to go back into our relationshoip with FOX and get a better understanding. ... But CSTV always said, 'We respect what you're already doing.'
"FOX has been great. ... [CSTV] did it in a manner that doesn't compromise pre-existing contracts."
The details are complex, but CSTV has already proven to the leagues its ability to work with them, individually and as a whole, to provide the best package possible.
"The agreement that we're in with the CCHA or any other conference, they're multi-year programming and marketing relationships. Basically, they're partners," says Pernetti. "They've given us access to games, and we're trying to balance making sure all of our partners gets fair representation in the package."
Once again, hockey's spirit of cooperation has been in full display. The league commissioners are filled with "hockey people" who are not tied into major all-sport conferences — Tom Anastos, Joe Bertagna (Hockey East), Bob Peters (CHA), Bruce McLeod (WCHA), they all played the game. They run their conferences while keeping one eye on the sport as a whole.
"All of us want to do well for our respective leagues," says Anastos. "But what sports is, you're partners and you're competitors. There's not many businesses where your biggest competitors are your partners, even within our leagues.
"We worked as collectively as we could. We share information all the time, we update each other."
CSTV has fit right in.
"It's been great," Pernetti says. "Whether it's Joe or Bruce or Bob Peters or Tommy Anastos or any of these guys ... they've been very cooperative. They have a very difficult job because a lot of their schools have had local and regional TV deals for their hockey for a long time, and now they're asking those guys to co-exist with us in a lot of ways.
"We did a game in North Dakota early in the year, and North Dakota does every one of their games on local TV live. We come riding in, walking on eggshells, and the local people that do the games there embraced us. We shared camera positions, we shared a truck, we took advantage of each other's feeds, and we had our own talent and production, and it worked out great."
The willingness to cooperate has enabled to CSTV to remain as flexible as possible. For example, take the CCHA deal. Anastos could push for every CCHA game in that requirement to include two CCHA teams, in order to maximize the exposure for his conference. But he understood the bigger picture. So the Miami game to open the season filled one of the requirements, even though it was an ECAC opponent in St. Lawrence.
"We would like to have two CCHA teams there, but in the big picture, to grow [the sport], it's not going to happen," says Anastos.
One other thing the leagues did was rearrange some games to make sure they were on Friday night, and to move the start times to 8 p.m. ET.
"If our sport wants to be on TV, it has to be flexible in that regard," Anastos says.
CSTV is also thinking "outside the box," putting a game on from Alaska-Fairbanks at 11 p.m. ET on Feb. 6, as part of a doubleheader with Yale-Harvard, the nation's oldest rivalry. It has the CHA and ECAC tournament championship games, and the Florida Everblades tournament, which should feature at least three Top 15 teams.
"If we had the available funds and resources to produce 80 hockey games, I'd get everybody on," says Pernetti. "But the bottom line is, we're doing a 30-game package, which has never been done. We've made a national package out of it, we've given it its own night, its own name, its own studio; and we've gotten the rights through CBS to the Women's Frozen Four which is the first time that's ever been on live TV."
If you're reading this article, it's more than likely you already know about CSTV — even if you didn't six months ago, and even if you still can't see it.
For now, CSTV is mainly available only through DirecTV's 15 million homes. A petition drive is under way to convince cable entities to pick up the network, and CSTV remains in negotiations with many of them. But many college hockey fans had already latched onto the idea of satellite TV. Through DirecTV's Sports Package, college hockey fans already could see a variety of games through regional stations.
And eventually, CSTV will be on cable networks. Further, CSTV's clout in the television industry is already spreading college hockey into new places. Through outlest like Score and NHL Network in Canada, CSTV has syndicated many of the Friday Night Hockey games, meaning audiences in Canada are getting a taste of college hockey.
And through a deal with InDemand, which provides high definition (HDTV) programming to special cable channels, college hockey is starting to penetrate cable households in unique ways.
"This is a great first step for us in a series of stairs," says Pernetti. "As much as the community embraces what we're doing, as we grow in distribution, there's just going to be more opportunities for college hockey."