When the Tennessee men's basketball team takes the floor against Western Kentucky in Nashville on Saturday, it will make the eighth consecutive Vol game to be televised on no fewer than four different networks.
Some of the cable networks—Versus, Sports South, and ESPNU—are so obscure I wasn't even aware of them until just recently. Indeed, ESPNU is hidden from view in Knoxville, which is to say that Comcast doesn't even include the channel among the hundreds that it offers. So the only way to watch the Western Kentucky game will be via satellite, if you've got DirectTV, or maybe at a sports bar.
Still, the nearly pervasive presence of televised Vol games is a testament to two things:
The enormous popularity that charismatic coach Bruce Pearl and his stellar team have brought to Tennessee men's basketball; and
A proliferation of college basketball TV coverage generally that makes a dozen or more games available for viewing just in Knoxville on a winter Saturday and many times that number nationally on a region-by-region basis.
Before the regular season concludes in early March, all but one of the Vols' 21 remaining games will be televised on a total of eight networks, including CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, Lincoln Financial Sports (LFS), FOX Sports Network (FSN), and the aforementioned VS, SS, and ESPNU. The sole exception is a game with Auburn on Feb. 20, and UT's assistant athletic director for sales and marketing, Chris Fuller, is still looking for a way to get it on the screen as well.
Then, of course, comes March Madness, starting with the SEC and then the NCAA tournaments. How many more TV appearances and how much revenue will be derived from them depends on how far the Vols progress in tournament play. Because of the complexities of major network contracts with the Southeastern Conference, which controls them and then makes equally complex allocations of revenues among its member schools, Fuller can't readily say how much money UT gets from men's basketball television rights. But especially if the Vols go deep into the NCAA tournament, let alone win it, it seems a good bet that these revenues could equal or exceed the $4 million in men's basketball ticket sales this season at newly renovated Thompson-Boling Arena. That total, from a nearly sold-out arena, is double what it was three seasons ago before Coach Pearl burst upon the scene.
Fuller also reckons that the number of regular-season Vol games being televised this season has doubled from three years ago. Even more impressively, the number being carried nationally by CBS or one of the ESPNs is now in double digits, up from a number that could be counted on a few fingers three years ago.
While the SEC headquarters in Birmingham decides with the major networks which conference teams get televised in what time slots, Tennessee has come to the fore as the team in most demand. The conference also negotiates the television package with LFS under which it has regional rights to games that aren't nationally televised and are carried on different network channels in different markets, including CBS affiliate WVLT in Knoxville.
Only after the national networks and LFS get through making their selections with the conference does UT get directly involved in negotiating TV rights for remaining games. This season, it broke away from a long-standing relationship with Comcast's CSS (Channel 33 in Knoxville) to cut what Fuller considers a better deal with FOX-affiliated SS (Channel 58 in Knoxville), which he says will put the Vols into 700,000 more households.
But Comcast is by no means out of the picture when it comes to televising college basketball locally. CSS still airs a lot of games of other schools. And Comcast also offers, at a premium, an ESPN-selected set of other games that are billed as its FullCourt package. For a seasonal fee of $109, FullCourt subscribers get a lot of choices of other games to watch, but none of them are UT games.
The perverse part of this is that Saturday's Western Kentucky game on ESPNU can't be bought from Comcast through GamePlan or otherwise at any price. ESPN got the rights to this game and also a recent UT-Chattanooga game for ESPNU as part of its overall contract with the SEC. That contract's exclusivity precludes UT from finding another outlet for these games even though Comcast doesn't offer ESPNU. Placing them on this channel is viewed by some as a ploy to generate demand for the cable company to carry it and this increases its market penetration. But ploy or not, when one looks at Comcast's almost mind-numbing array of offerings, it's hard to fathom why it can't find a place for ESPNU on one basis or another.
If you share this view, a telephone call to Comcast at 637-5411 might help encourage it to do so.