It’s been nearly six years since the Mountain West Conference debuted the first-ever conference-specific sports network. The MountainWest Sports Network (The Mtn.) debuted September 1, 2006 and I’m pretty sure there are still a whole host of college sports fans who have never seen a single minute of sports programming on The Mtn.
As a network solely dedicated to one conference, The Mtn. was a revolutionary idea that, on the surface, seemed very promising. Nevertheless, less than six years after the network’s debut, it will officially go dark on May 31, 2012. That’s right, the first-ever conference-specific sports network will cease to exist come June 1.
At the time of the network’s inception, the concept was brilliant. A nine-team conference has schools in multiple states, cities and, most-importantly, multiple viewing regions. What better way to appease fans of specific colleges or universities than to create a network to televise not only football and basketball games, but also the bevy of other sports not normally aired.
From the onset, the collaboration between Comcast and CBS-owned CSTV was heralded as a big step forward for the Mountain West Conference. Comcast’s involvement was a big factor in securing initial network distribution in parts of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
The President-CEO of CSTV, Brian Bedol, lauded Comcast’s reputation and how Comcast’s past experience would help in the managing of a new regional network and the handling of ad sales.
“Not only does (Comcast) have a strong connection with these markets, they understand the value of quality programming and know what it takes to launch and maintain a successful sports network,” Bedol said at the time.
Soon after the Mountain West’s announcement of a conference sports network, the Big Ten conference announced its own plans to start a conference sports network in partnership with Fox Cable.
Six years later, we’ve not only seen nearly every major conference start sports networks but some individual schools have decided to follow suit as well – The Longhorn Network specifically. BYU which has run BYUtv since January 2000, added BYU Television International in 2007 and BYUtv Global in 2011.
Why then, seemingly smack in the middle of the “Regional Network Revolution,” is the “Thomas Edison” of conference-only sports networks powering down and turning off the lights for good? How did the innovator become the outcast?
The problem, aside from the fact that Comcast eventually bought NBC and CSTV was bought out by CBS, was that as revolutionary as the idea was, it allowed the network to become the guinea pig from which other conferences learned what not to do.
Less than one year after The Mtn.’s debut, a couple high-profile schools had already become disgruntled. In an effort to improve the distribution of athletic broadcasts to their fans, Utah and BYU retained a sports broadcasting attorney to explore all options toward improvment.
“We have been patient with efforts to improve distribution for almost a year,” University of Utah President Michael K. Young said at the time. “We are now exploring all possible options available so that all our fans have access to the games on television. Utah and BYU are united in our commitment to solving this distribution problem and bringing University of Utah and BYU sports to our fans.”
Together Utah and BYU hired Kelly Crabb, a partner in the Los Angeles office of the international law firm Morrison & Foerster, who had represented the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee in the negotiation of 20 Olympic broadcasting agreements worldwide.
After just one year of The Mtn. broadcasting Mountain West sporting events and three months before the start of the 2007 football season, Utah and BYU became frustrated that more Mountain West Conference games were not more widely available.
Four days later, after the conclusion of its annual Board of Directors meeting, the Mountain West Conference reaffirmed “unanimous support of its television model and the commitment to working collectively as a unified group to maximize the potential of this unique approach.”
Although the Board of directors expressed concern that TV coverage and distribution hadn’t reached the levels originally anticipated – when founding the network, word was that the conference was in talks with satellite providers to expand coverage in multiple markets.
The conference then decided to retain the same lawyer from the same law firm as BYU and Utah had hired just days earlier to “delineate the distribution strategies available to the Conference and work directly with Commissioner Craig Thompson and an ad hoc committee of the Board in representing the MWC in ongoing negotiations.”
That all took place back in the summer of 2007, when BYU and Utah were still part of the conference. Clearly the strategies to improve distribution were not as successful as the conference had hoped.
BYU left to go independent in football and join the West Coast Conference in all other sports while expanding BYUTV. Utah jumped to the Pac-12, which started its own network upon expanding to 12 schools thus bringing in more television revenue for schools involved, including Utah. TCU is leaving for the Big 12, which has a network of its own with a greater television presence in each schools’ regional market. And, most recently, Boise State (which just joined the conference last year) and San Diego State are both leaving to join the Big East (for football only) which will also provide each school with more television revenue.
It is no surprise, really, that The Mtn. is going under. It’s been five years since the MW Board of Directors unanimously supported the TV model and they are still having distribution-related problems. In San Diego, home to San Diego State, The Mtn. is not carried by any of the major cable providers in the standard cable package. It’s no wonder the more high-profile programs are all ditching the conference.
While few will lament the dissolution of The Mtn. Sports Network, for those who are afraid that Mountain West sporting events will never be televised, don’t fret. What is allowing the Mountain West Conference to shut down its regional sports network is a pending agreement with CBS College Sports Network to televise conference sporting events.
With CBS Sports Network trying also trying to expand its cable presence at the same time that the Mountain West and Conference-USA are combining forces to form a “super conference” it makes sense for both the conference and the network to ensure Mountain West sporting events are showcased in some form or another.