Cable companies playing hardball with Big Ten sports fans

First it was football. Now, if a deal isn’t worked out soon, millions of Big Ten sports fans may miss out on basketball as well. Viewers are caught up in a real-life game of hardball between the Big Ten Network (BTN) and some of the nation’s largest cable television operators. It’s a scenario that’s also playing out for other sports channels (such as the NFL Network) across the country.

When it launched last Aug. 30, BTN, a new sports network devoted to Big Ten sports programming, had no contract with Comcast and Charter, Michigan’s major pay television providers. As a result, BTN’s programming has been missing for sports hungry viewers.

Initially created through partnership between the 11 universities in the Big Ten Conference and FOX, BTN is finding tough going with cable operators in all eight states devoted to Big Ten sports.

The sticking point with the cable operators, as reported by the “Grand Rapids Press,” is BTN’s asking price for carriage. The network wants to be part of the expanded basic cable package and collect a monthly fee of $1.10 per subscriber. The newspaper said that Comcast, Charter and the other major cable providers are balking, contending that BTN’s fee is too high.

Arguing that BTN has a limited audience, the cable operators want to make the network part of a special package of sports channels priced at a premium over basic service. Of course, limited appeal hasn’t stopped cable companies from including networks on their basic packages in the past. BTN cited the Food Network and Golf Channel.

That said, BTN’s $1.10 asking price is higher than that charged by the majority of cable networks. By comparison, the NFL Network’s asking price is about 75 cents per subscriber.

As the dispute continues, fans are finding some relief from games carried on national television. The Big Ten has deals with ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 to show its top football games, and CBS carries some basketball games. And, of course, many games can be found online, opening the possibility that at the end of the day, the Internet could be the big winner in the dispute.