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ESPN to launch college sports network

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Posted 08 September 2004 - 06:27 PM

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Ol' College Try for New ESPN Offshoot
Wed Sep 8, 2004 02:02 AM ET

By Paul J. Gough
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - ESPN is going to college.

The all-sports-all-the-time channel is leaping into the already crowded college sports net pool, planning to launch ESPNU in March.

The network will entirely focus on college sports, broadcasting about 300 live events - mainly Division 1 football and men's and women's basketball - in its first year, along with studio shows and replays of games that originally aired on ABC, ESPN/ESPN2 and ESPN Regional Television.

"We've been in college sports literally for 25 years. It has tremendous roots in our organization," ESPN president George Bodenheimer said Tuesday. "We think there's a tremendous opportunity between the amount of product out there as well as the outlets that we have."

The announcement, timed to ESPN's 25th anniversary Tuesday, had long been rumored. There are no carriage deals and, unlike rivals College Sports Television and Fox's newly launched FCS, ESPNU isn't vying for a spot on the premium sports tier.

Bodenheimer said the company will seek "flexible carriage options" for ESPNU. "We're not seeking at all to be on a sports tier," he said. "What we're looking for is the most widely penetrated digital tier."

ESPNU serves as a way for ESPN to put more college sports on the air, particularly because the channel has been criticized for holding on to the rights to games that it doesn't air. ESPN has reportedly been the subject of an investigation by the Department of Justice into the practice of "warehousing," which is when a network has the rights to a game but doesn't telecast it.

Some might think ESPNU is a reaction to that criticism, but TV consultant and former NBC executive Mike Trager disagrees. He thinks it's good business.

"ESPN has had this treasure chest of inventory that they haven't been able to utilize," Trager said.

ESPN's announcement is the latest of several in the hot college sports media world. This year, Fox rebranded FCS, which launched Saturday with a focus on college sports, and CSTV not only announced millions in new funding but also its first big rights deal with the Mountain West Conference. But ESPN isn't worried.

"We stayed focused on what our goals are and what we're doing," Bodenheimer said. "We see college sports as a continued growth area ... Competition is part of our life."

The network will be produced from ESPN Regional Television, which is located in Charlotte, N.C. But the effort is being launched across a number of ESPN units, including a college sports Web site within ESPN.com, inserts within ESPN the Magazine and programing on ESPN Radio.

In a statement, CSTV president Brian Bedol said ESPN was following his network's game plan.

"Our commitment is to continue to build the connection between college sports and college sports fans as opposed to building another avenue toward branding," Bedol said. "My partners and I would like to congratulate ESPN on its 25th anniversary as the new worldwide follower in sports."

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