Marek Warszawski

Want to watch college basketball? Better get used to digital streaming

Could the Mountain West cut the cord with cable TV once its current contracts with CBS and ESPN expire? MW commissioner Craig Thompson says the idea is being discussed.
Could the Mountain West cut the cord with cable TV once its current contracts with CBS and ESPN expire? MW commissioner Craig Thompson says the idea is being discussed. The Associated Press

Fresno State lost at Texas Christian University on Wednesday night in the first round of the NIT tournament, but the game wasn’t being televised.

At least not in the traditional sense.

While not on cable TV, the game was streamed online by ESPN3. Meaning those with an internet connection watched on their computer, tablet or cell phone – or if they owned one of those “smart” TVs.

For fans who don’t already consume sports online, this would be a good time to test the waters of streaming video. Because in a few years the Bulldogs, along with the rest of the Mountain West, could be playing exclusively over the internet.

That’s the tone Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson sounded during last week’s conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, and it’s an idea that merits consideration.

As things currently sit, the MW has TV deals with CBS and ESPN that grant those cable networks complete control over what games are televised and their start times.

It’s why the MW men’s semifinals tipped off at 7:10 and 9:52 Saturday night, giving the winner of the second game (Colorado State) barely 13 hours until it had to take the floor for Sunday’s 3 p.m. final. (The Rams trailed 9-0 after 2½ minutes and lost to Nevada 79-71. Hmm.)

It’s why Boise State, which has a separate ESPN deal in football, hasn’t played a home game during the day since the 2013 opener. (By no small coincidence, season ticket sales have been in decline.)

It’s why Fresno State can’t make the slightest fuss when its marquee football games are constantly switched to Friday night. (Fair warning: This year’s Boise State game is a near lock to be played on the day after Thanksgiving.)

What do MW schools get in return for letting CBS and ESPN dictate the times and dates? They each receive about $1 million per year. Which is nowhere near the $20 million (or more) that Power Five conference schools bank from their TV deals.

At some point, these institution must ask themselves whether the benefits of being on cable TV, both financial and intangible, are worth inconveniencing and potentially turning away their own fans.

Judging by what Thompson told the San Diego Union-Tribune, those discussions are already taking place.

“We spent about seven hours with the presidents and ADs talking about our TV package,” Thompson said. “We’re playing at 8:15 or 8:30 consistently in football, we’ve even had some 9 o’clock tips in basketball, we had three Sunday afternoon (basketball) games in San Diego this year. What are we doing? What’s the return?

“They hear it from fans. They go to the games themselves. Presidents are saying, ‘Wait a minute. I have a 6 a.m. breakfast in the morning, and we have an 8:30 p.m. kick?’ The question becomes: Is it worth $1 million per school to have all these disenfranchised fans?”

The MW’s contracts with CBS (the conference’s primary rights holder) and ESPN are locked in through 2019-20, so until then the question is moot.

But after that, Thompson suggested the MW could take the drastic step of cutting the cord from cable TV. While the conference already provides some internet broadcasts on CampusInsiders.com and Themwc.com, this would mean streaming every game exclusively.

There are no time slots in cyberspace. So instead of having to play when CBS or ESPN wants them to, schools could set their own start times. Certainly, they wouldn’t make as much in rights fees. But those losses, you’d expect, could at least be partially recouped by an increase in ticket sales.

It’s an idea that sounds a little radical now but might not in 2020 as our sports viewing habits evolve and the amount of content available online continues to expand.

Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko, who was in the room for those lengthy discussions, isn’t entirely convinced.

“Right now, as we sit here today, I would say ‘No,’ ” Bartko said. “In three years, though, the TV format is going to change in some capacity. That’s kind of what we were talking about. But the thought of going all digital, right now we have a little heartburn with that.”

Cutting the cord would require a certain amount of Alka-Seltzer. Schools that play on ESPN2 or CBS Sports Network can be assured of at least some audience beyond their own fan base. Can the same be said for a digital feed?

Also, there remains a large percentage of fans whose idea of watching sports means flipping on the TV in their living room – not launching an app.

“People who are over the age of 40 don’t like watching games on their phones,” Bartko said.

As someone firmly planted in that demographic, I wholeheartedly agree. That’s why I viewed Wednesday’s NIT game on my laptop, which was a little easier on the eyes.

In 2017, the concept of having to watch Fresno State on the internet still seems a little foreign. In a few years, it might be the norm.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

Up next

FRESNO STATE VS. TEXAS CHRISTIAN

  • Wednesday: 5 p.m. at Schollmaier Arena (8,500) in Fort Worth, Texas
  • Records: Bulldogs 20-12; Horned Frogs 19-15
  • NIT seedings: Bulldogs No. 5, Horned Frogs No. 4 in the Iowa quadrant
  • Online/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940)
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