TV Upfront

Big Ten Network Suits Up for Campus Upfront Tour

Spring Road Trip Includes a Stop at Michigan's Big House

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The Big Ten Network's lead studio host Dave Revsine with analysts Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith with Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave.
The Big Ten Network's lead studio host Dave Revsine with analysts Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith with Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave. Credit: Big Ten Network
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The spring semester may be winding down, but Big Ten Network is hitting the books, prepping an upfront road show that will give clients and media buyers a head start on Homecoming.

In order to underscore the close ties it has established with the Big Ten Conference's member schools, the network will take its upfront pitch to a half-dozen campuses, offering advertisers and TV buyers a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities at some of the nation's top athletic programs. The tour begins April 12 and will include visits to Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Northwestern.

At each stop on the tour, Big Ten Network VP of Ad Sales Jim Reeder will make a brief pitch about the channel's record-setting year and what lies ahead for the 2016-17 season. That he'll be addressing advertisers from venues like the Big House in Ann Arbor or Lincoln's Memorial Stadium -- sacred ground, depending on whether you're a Michigan or Nebraska alum -- should go a long way toward engaging clients with a rooting interest in the host school.

"It really allows us to demonstrate the unique access we enjoy and the scale of our operations," Mr. Reeder said, adding that each visit will be enhanced by a meet-and-greet with a head coach or administrator. For example, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who in 2012 steered the Wildcats to their first bowl game victory in 64 years, will speak to guests from Chicago-based agencies such as Starcom and Spark.

Big Ten Network is a joint venture between the Big Ten Conference and 21st Century Fox's Fox Networks, which holds a 51% stake in the venture.

The chance for Big Ten Net advertisers to rub elbows with administrators and coaches would seem to be a particularly enticing prospect for attendees who also happen to be alumni. And the immersive experience is designed to drive home Mr. Reeder's sales pitch in a way that transcends the quotidian boardroom hustle. "It's hard to translate why we matter when we're sitting around a conference table," Mr. Reeder said. "But when you're in front of a group of auto execs and you're in the Big House, you don't have to do a lot of explaining. The atmosphere will say it for you."

As the Northwestern campus visit is expected to draw a cohort of local agency types, so the Michigan leg of the tour is likely to over-index on visitors from that big auto town an hour east of Ann Arbor. Mr. Reeder said he has extended invitations to representatives from the Big Three automakers, and while the Wolverines' khaki-clad cult figure/head coach Jim Harbaugh won't be dropping by, the network has secured a commitment from former All-American lineman (and native son) Jon Jansen.

In addition to the campus tour, Mr. Reeder and his team also will host clients in major markets like New York, Los Angeles and Dallas.

Big Ten Net heads into the upfront market with the wind at its back. According to iSpot.tv estimates, the network last year put together its strongest sales performance in its nine-year history, generating some $59.9 million in TV spend. That marks an 83% improvement versus its 2014 ad sales tally, and reflects a significant increase in investments by national advertisers like Buffalo Wild Wings and State Farm.

Other top advertisers include T-Mobile, Wendy's, Reese's, Dr. Pepper, Quicken Loans, Home Advisor and Sleep Number.

Not surprisingly, the expansion of the network's national footprint coincides with its beefed-up sales portfolio. "When we first launched we were in 30 million homes, and now we're in 65 million," Mr. Reeder said. "Buffalo Wild Wings is a good example of the symbiotic relationship we have with many of our advertisers. At the time we launched, they were a relatively small business; since then we've both grown exponentially -- to the point where they are now an NCAA partner. As we got lager, they got larger."

Per SNL Kagan estimates, Big Ten Network collects a carriage fee of $1 per home per month for subscribers within its member territories (a swath that now stretches from Nebraska to New Jersey) and $0.44 in areas that lie beyond those in-market territories. Altogether, the channel's annual affiliate revenue hovers around the half-billion-dollar mark, making Big Ten Net a tremendously lucrative property for the conference and Fox.

Along with the expansion angle, Mr. Reeder also plans to get Big Ten backers fired up about the network's expanded football pregame show which, like ESPN's "College GameDay" before it, will be produced live outside the stadium hosting that week's marquee matchup. Last fall, the network aired its first-ever live pregame show in advance of its Penn State-Rutgers telecast; a second on-campus production was scuttled by the threat of a hurricane.

Big Ten Net will produce seven regular-season on-campus pregame shows and a special edition leading up to Fox's coverage of the Dec. 3 conference championship game.