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At 5, Big Ten Network has grown up fast

Friday - 8/31/2012, 4:33am  ET

By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - At 5 years old, the Big Ten Network has grown up fast.

The network marked its birthday on Thursday _ and it's been giving the Big Ten plenty of reasons to celebrate since its difficult birth in 2007.

Commissioner Jim Delany said the 24-hour network devoted solely to the conference is now available in 90 million homes nationwide.

"I think we have exceeded expectations both on a distribution basis, on a quality of production basis, on an art basis and on a financial basis what our plan called for," Delany said in an interview with the AP on Wednesday. "But it wasn't without some risk, and difficulty for our fanbase. But they stuck with us."

Delany's idea was to take the Big Ten games _ not just football, but football was the key _ that were being locally syndicated and give them a home.

The league found a partner in Fox to take on the financial risk, while letting the Big Ten brand the network.

At first, the idea was not well received _ or understood.

"We needed to explain all the content," BTN president Mark Silverman said. "Why this was a network you would want to have. It was struggle that first year."

The two major satellite TV providers, Dish Network and DirectTV, were quick to agree to pick up the network. Many small cable providers followed, but the major distributors in the Midwest such as Comcast, Time Warner and Charter, took a lot of convincing to get on board.

"Typically what comes with new networks, it takes a while to gather distribution," Silverman said.

BTN caught an early break, though it came at the expense of one of its signature members.

The first football game on the Big Ten Network was Appalachian State's 34-32 upset of No. 5 Michigan on Sept. 1, 2007.

"One of the major criticisms of the network was we had games that nobody cared about," Silverman said. "All of sudden there's really interest in us."

It took about a year, but eventually Delany got what he wanted. All the major cable providers carry the Big Ten network, and if you live in a Big Ten state, you can get it on the same level of service as ESPN.

The Big Ten Network quickly became a cash cow for the conference and a model that other leagues have looked to emulate.

"Now it's basically printing money for the schools. It's been far more profitable than anyone anticipated," Jeremy Gray, Indiana University's assistant athletic director for broadcast services told the Indianapolis Star. "It's simply put us at another level financially."

Delany, who has led the conference for 24 years, would not get into specifics about what the Big Ten Network has been worth to its members, but put it this way:

"Before the Big Ten Network, we had 11 institutions sharing about 150 million (dollars). Now we have 12 institutions sharing about 300 million. And BTN has been a big part of that."

As the network has grown, though, the public's expectations have been raised.

The Big Ten Network was criticized heavily for having no live coverage of the release of the Freeh report about the Penn State scandal, a major news event.

The reality is BTN is not ESPN. It doesn't have a news team and simply wasn't not prepared to cover that story.

"We should have covered it," Silverman said. "We earned that criticism. What it did is it made us realize that we have to adapt to this world where information comes and you have to react quickly."

And as with any network, there are still conflicts over distribution and rates with providers.

The network is currently in testy negotiations with Dish Network that could lead to the satellite provider dropping BTN when the contract expires at midnight Friday.

That could leave about 2.4 million Dish customers who usually have the Big Ten Network without it on the opening weekend of the college football season.

But even with that small storm gathering, the Big Ten has been in a celebratory mood this week, touting BTN's digital network, which launched last year, and BTN2Go.

Delany and Silverman were in New York this week taking a victory lap, the highlight of which was ringing the closing bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange in Manhattan.

Only a few weeks ago, the 64-year-old Delany was in Tanzania, where he was part of a group that hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro. It takes four days to reach the 19,000-foot summit _ and it's not easy.

Delany couldn't help but see similarities between trekking up that mountain _ he reached the peaked _ and getting the network off the ground.

"It was like climbing Kilimanjaro," he said. "Looking back on it you smile. At the time, there wasn't a lot of smiling going on."


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)