An interesting article about the new, secret deal signed by the MAC and ESPN:
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Have to register for site to work. Can u copy n paste?
I heard about an extension in August of last year, but nothing recently
Norrthern Illinois shooting guard Anthony Johnson's 3-pointer had barely dropped through the net when Patrick Gorman, perched in a cramped TV control room just off the arena floor, fired a string of commands.
"We got a second angle?" Gorman said. "Ready B. Freeze, dissolve. Roll it. Ready three? Roll it. Very nice."
His orders produced a well-crafted instant replay sequence for those watching the action via the website of sports media colossus ESPN.
But this was no ESPN production — from high-definition cameras to racks of blinking servers, virtually everything involved in broadcasting the game was provided by NIU. Even Gorman, a video producer, is a university employee.
MAC schools' athletic subsidies versus other conferences
MAC schools' athletic subsidies versus other conferences
As part of a new TV rights deal between the Mid-American Conference and ESPN, NIU and the 11 other conference schools receive significant infusions of cash. But they also have significant new obligations — producing more than 100 nonfootball sports events each year for ESPN3, a website available to the network's subscribers.
The arrangement runs through 2026 and is designed to give national exposure to MAC teams and TV production experience to students at MAC schools, while generating a gusher of content for the network's burgeoning Internet ventures.
But left unstated since the deal was announced in August have been the overall value of the agreement, how much money schools receive and their production costs. Interviews and documents show details were hammered out in conference calls with athletic directors and commissioners, leaving no paper trail.
A Tribune review of hundreds of public records shows that MAC schools did not specify ESPN3-related costs in their athletic budgets, all of which are heavily subsidized by student fees and university funds. Most athletic officials declined to answer questions related to the deal, often mentioning it is between ESPN and the MAC, not the colleges. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the MAC is not subject to public records laws.
Dave Hollander, New York University assistant professor of sports management and former TV producer, said increased exposure obviously benefits teams but the lack of public information was troubling.
"Certainly they would tell you all about if they were spending a lot of money on building a new library," Hollander said. "They would tell you how much money if they were upgrading the student center. Because (with) those things no one can say, 'That's a bad idea or awful for the school.' "
Though MAC schools would not say how much they're receiving and whether that money will cover the costs of their new production obligations, public records suggest annual payouts will start between $830,000 and $845,000 per school — eight times more than the previous deal.
Central Michigan University athletic director Dave Heeke said cash wasn't the point of the deal — it was exposure, the chance to remain visible in a college sports landscape that is becoming more digitized and stratified.
"Any time we can deliver our product and our events to our alumni, our fan base and to the parents of our student-athletes, we want to deliver that content," he said. "To expand our reach, to expose our brand, that was very important to us. If we had the opportunity to generate revenues, that would be an added benefit."
Added MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, "We think we're able to do this at a reasonable cost yet increase the quality of it significantly — not to mention the chance to enhance and continue to build our branding through ESPN."
But consultants, economists and two MAC athletic directors contacted by the Tribune said no one should expect the new revenue to lessen the need for university subsidies to these athletic departments; rather the money likely will be funneled back into the sports programs. At 11 MAC schools, more than 60 percent of the revenue is from student fees and the universities.
In 1946, the MAC formed as five schools playing basketball and has grown to a dozen mid-size universities in the Midwest and upstate New York. They compete in 21 sports and have enjoyed periods of national success: In 2012, for instance, four MAC football teams were nationally ranked, and seven went to bowl games.
But in the sea of college sports, schools their size are minnows compared to leviathans in the Big 10, SEC and other major conferences. Flush with cash, mostly from lucrative media contracts, these teams rarely need revenue from student fees.
Those 65 schools — including icons such as Ohio State, Notre Dame and Texas — soak up most of the roughly $3 billion in TV money college sports generate each year, said Len DeLuca, a consultant who formerly worked at ESPN and CBS.
That leaves dozens of other schools scrambling for the leftovers. Lucky for them, the ever-accelerating migration of viewers from TV to the Internet has made the networks desperate, too. Other conferences have also partnered with ESPN to produce athletics events.
"They need content," said Aaron Moore, a Rider University journalism professor and TV consultant. "Content is what drives all our new media outlets, but there's not enough content out there."
In July 2012, the MAC began renegotiating its 10-year-old contract with ESPN. Worth around $1 million, it guaranteed each school about $100,000 annually and gave the conference a prime-time window — Wednesdays in November — to showcase its football teams.
When the new ESPN deal was struck last year, the MAC distributed "talking points" to schools instructing them to describe the agreement as being worth "nine figures."
Steinbrecher has said he is "contractually prohibited" from disclosing its value, but records give a glimpse into what schools will be getting.
The athletics budget at Eastern Michigan includes $845,000 in ESPN revenue. And last July, a Western Michigan official was told by the MAC that the deal would deliver $830,000, according to an email obtained by the Tribune under an open-records request.
ESPN still produces the MAC's football games under the new deal, and all men's basketball games now air on an ESPN platform, including one of its cable channels or ESPN3. So-called Olympic sports such as gymnastics and wrestling, which previously had no exposure, will air on ESPN3. The online channel lets the network air live events concurrently, a perk cable lacks, and reach tablets and smartphones.
"It is legitimate exposure for content that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day or would only be housed on a conference or athletic streaming service," said ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions Brent Colborne.
Experts say sports are an advertisement for colleges. Games that include numerous mentions of a school's name and shots of its campus allow them to control their content, hold the public's attention and improve their brand.
"Colleges are in the business of attracting students and sports is a way of helping out," said Joel Maxcy, a sports economist at Drexel University.
On a more practical level, streaming games under the ESPN banner can also help an athletic program recruit players and keep the parents of current players happy, said NIU men's basketball coach Mark Montgomery.
"We used to send DVDs (to parents), or they'd have to watch our feed, which was not as good," he said. "This is a clear, quality feed you can watch with good commentators who know our players, who know our conference. I think it's a win-win thing."
Exposure comes at a cost, one that appears to vary among schools because broadcast facilities at each need different upgrades.
CMU, NIU and the University of Buffalo already stream games for ESPN. CMU's Heeke said the school was streaming for its own website, so upgrade costs were low. School records show equipment purchases totaled about $70,000, while Heeke estimated another $40,000 in staff costs. The MAC reimbursed CMU, he said.
NIU athletics spokeswoman Donna Turner said the school built its video facilities before the ESPN deal was reached, so its new investment was minimal. The MAC said those costs were $80,000. NIU, however, did not provide documents outlining those expenses.
Buffalo didn't provide any records related to sports broadcasting — not even its basic athletic budget.
As for schools still gearing up to produce events for ESPN, most did not specify any expected expenses. One exception was the University of Akron, whose athletics spokeswoman initially said ESPN had estimated its upgrades could reach $2 million. The school said last week that its current estimate is $300,000.
Chris Williams of the broadcasting consultancy WJHW, which has helped other universities create production facilities, said schools starting from scratch face minimum equipment expenses just shy of $1 million. That doesn't include the cost of staffers, freelancers and student workers needed to keep the cameras rolling, he said.
The MAC schools' reluctance to reveal the costs is consistent with the opaqueness that has marked the deal from the outset. None of the schools said it has a copy of the contract, and the MAC declined to release it.
Emails released by some schools indicate that the contract was finalized after the parties reached a memorandum of understanding, but the schools said they didn't have that, either.
A University of Toledo offical said the document "was distributed and reviewed during (a) meeting but participants did not keep copies of the record when leaving the meeting."
MAC official Ken Mather in January alerted schools of Tribune inquiries about the deal, suggesting they defer questions to the MAC. In the email, he reminded them of conference policy prohibiting financial disclosure and urged them to "limit your comments in general discussion toward the additional exposure this deal and specifically the campus productions will provide your athletic department and various programs."
Contacted by the Tribune, many of the MAC schools deferred to the conference, even on questions related its own documents.
Bill Rich, Akron University's faculty senate chairman, said he was concerned about how schools did not document their responsibilities to the MAC and ESPN.
"I can't think of any reason why this arrangement between the MAC and member universities was not reduced to writing, other than to keep it a secret," he said