First And Ten For A TV Upstart

CSTV challenges the big leaguers in college sports with games on the Web, too

Top college teams may be gearing up for the bowl season, but in the race to bring more sports to American homes, College Sports Television (CBS ) is the scrappy upstart to watch as it battles to play on the same field as ESPN (DIS ) and Fox Sports.

Four-year-old CSTV isharnessing the tribal enthusiasm people have for their favorite college teams to build the first mainstream channel with as many games on the Web as on TV. And with cable and satellite operators jealously guarding the space they give to new channels, CSTV, owned since last year by CBS (CBS ), is quietly building an audience that may give it the heft to compete for the rights to premium events.

CSTV already has the rights to such big-time sports as football from Navy and other smaller conferences. But for the most part, it offers decidedly niche fare--swim meets, women's volleyball, soccer--that will never build a national audience but is calculated to hook local enthusiasts. "Our game plan," says CSTV President and Chief Executive Brian T. Bedol, "is to serve the unserved college sports fan who isn't getting what they want from ESPN or Fox."

He's talking about guys like Ryan M. Knab, New York sales manager for champagne maker Moët Hennessy USA. A Los Angeles native, Knab misses games from University of Southern California and watches CSTV on DirecTV or his laptop whenever he travels. And talk about tribal: Knab can't get enough coaches' press conferences, especially from Notre Dame's Charlie Weis and USC's Pete Carroll.

Despite fans like Knab, CSTV isn't about to mow down ESPN. Yes, the channel has nearly doubled its TV subscribers since last year. But the upstart is seen in only 15 million cable and satellite homes, vs. 90 million for ESPN. CSTV charges $14.95 a month for all-you-can watch Web streams and collects about 18 cents a month from each TV subscriber. But it won't disclose financial numbers, and Bedol says he needs about 30 million TV subscribers to break even.

Then again, CSTV has a formidable competitor in Bedol. He's the man who co-founded Classic Sports Network, which shows old sports clips, and sold it to ESPN in 1997 for nearly $200 million. And 18 months after CSTV's first telecast in early 2003, Bedol went toe-to-toe with ESPN, paying $82 million over seven years to snatch away the rights for games from the Mountain West conference. Bedol helped defray the costs by selling some of the games to a Comcast (CMCSA )-owned channel called Versus and by forming a joint venture with the cable giant to run a regional sports channel, called The Mtn., that carries the conference's games.

`NOT GOING ANYWHERE'

And to get more eyeballs than cable was offering, in August Bedol launched more than 100 broadband channels that feed a network of sports sites that CSTV operates for 250 colleges around the U.S. Students logging onto a school's intranet can click a sports button and get wall-to-wall CSTV coverage of coaches' press conferences, pep rallies, and other events. CSTV makes money by selling ads and getting a cut of merchandise sold on the sites.

Bedol's dealmaking appealed to CBS's notoriously competitive CEO, Leslie Moonves, who also hungered to take on ESPN. "It matched perfectly with our own college sports deals," he says. Moonves aims to use CBS's muscle with cable to boost CSTV's subscribers, while Bedol intends to bid for more conference games to entice even more cable guys to sign on.

Should ESPN and Fox be watching their backs? Both have college sports TV channels, ESPNU and Fox College Sports (FCS), but only ESPNU streams games. "We've got ESPN, the most popular site. We've got the rights to far more major sports," says Burke Magnus, vice-president and general manager of ESPNU. "They can try to get more rights, but we're not going anywhere." For Bedol and CSTV, that means it's game time.

By Ron Grover

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