New niche: College sports net woos cable carriers

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Brian Bedol is banking that there are enough college sports enthusiasts to launch an ad-supported TV network devoted to the subject.

In fact, he's sinking $100 million into College Sports Television, or CSTV, to be introduced Feb. 23, and has charged Union, a small New York shop with seven employees, with pitching the idea to cable operators.

Union's research found a staggering number of potential viewers. Combined, there are 80 million college students, alumni, parents and fans of collegiate athletics. But selling CSTV to that market will come later.

"The first step of this is branding the network," said Union partner Nelson Martinez. "We've concentrated on speaking to the trade, getting the message out to the affiliates, to the media world. The key is getting the cable affiliates to carry it. Then we'll speak to the consumer."

`easy idea'

"This is not a tough one," insisted Randy Van Kleeck, who along with Union partners Matt Aselton and Mr. Martinez, worked at WPP Group's Y&R Advertising for more than a decade and have done branding work for News Corp.'s Fox Sports Net and Viacom's TNN this year. "If you think about what's going on in the network world, there are some stations out there that are undefined. Brian and his guys should be given credit for a nice, simple, easy idea."

CSTV is positioned as the nation's first 24-hour all-college sports cable network. Mr. Bedol founded the network along with investor Stephen Greenberg and former Nike executive Chris Bevilacqua. The plan is for a digital channel since it is far easier to find space on a cable operator's service as a digital network than to fight for a slot on standard service.

CSTV has deals in place with nearly every college conference. While the big networks have gobbled up premiere sports like football and men's and women's basketball, CSTV will offer exclusive programming, regular-season and championship games from more than 25 other sports. The network's plans for "ESPN SportsCenter"-style newscasts, studio shows and coaches' shows will still allow it to cover football and basketball.

filling a void

Consultant and former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson thinks the concept will work. "If this was another channel like ESPN, then you'd raise your eyebrows," Mr. Pilson said. "But this is almost like a niche network. It fills a very specific void."

Convincing advertisers is another matter. Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing for Omnicom's media planning group OMD, New York, said, "The concept is there. But this might be a difficult sell."

Mr. Bedol co-founded Classic Sports Network, a venture so popular it was sold in 1997 for a reported $175 million to ESPN, where it is now known as ESPN Classic and owned by Walt Disney Co. Reluctant to launch another network, Mr. Bedol was persuaded by Mr. Bevilacqua.

"When Chris first presented the idea, what struck me was there not only was this great established college sports marketplace, there was this other segment out there as well,"he said. "When Chris started talking about it, it got my juices flowing again."

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