The Ivy League announced today a two-year extension to its contract with NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus, etc.). Even though it is an extension, this deal is big news, because it includes the opportunity for NBC Sports Network to televise men’s basketball and lacrosse games as well. This isn’t just football anymore. The basketball brethren are about to get a little more exposure. That’s great, but where does the league go from here? I’ve got a few questions.
1) Are the television schedules going to be balanced? – The release announcing the deal says that between six-to-ten men’s basketball games will be televised each season. Two big questions jump out there. Is NBCSN going to pick the best six to 10 games? Or are they contractually obligated to show a wide swath of schools? Having to put every school on television is how Penn State vs. Northwestern ends up ESPN2 at noon on New Year’s Day. It’s not particularly useful for anyone. Something like Dartmouth vs. Brown on a random Friday in January is the Ivy equivalent and quite honestly, no one would watch. Hopefully, NBCSN has the ability to pick marquee games. Contests like Harvard vs. Yale or Harvard vs. Penn last season deserve to have a bigger audience.
One thing that makes me hopeful about the selection of games? Jonathan Tannenwald posted in his blog post about the deal that it could possibly include non-conference game as well. If you’re thinking about including non-conference games then the focus isn’t on balance. (Could this also encourage the Ivy League schools to play more games against the Colonial Athletic Association, another NBCSN partner? They played six times in 2011-12.) Overall though more exposure is good, it’d just be better if that exposure went to the Ivy League’s most valuable properties.
2) Would NBCSN even be able to show all the Ivy League’s marquee games? – This might seem like a perplexing question, but remember, Princeton has a deal with ESPN and there are other deals as well. Back in February Tannenwald wrote an excellent article (warning: long read) about Ivy television contracts. In it there’s this statement, “With those Versus contracts, once the deals were assembled, the rights for the remaining games reverted to the original schools. That allowed Penn to put games on Comcast, Princeton on ESPNU and so forth.” Does that mean then that NBC Sports Network will get first dibs at the beginning of the season and then ESPNU, etc. can have whatever is left? It sure reads like that to me, but I’d be interested in more information about how that process will work, especially for basketball, for which the intrigue level of games changes dramatically along with the standings.
3) Is it possible that Columbia could get a game? – My guess is yes. Here’s what the Lions have going for them next season: The expectation that they’ll be a top four team in the conference. (Considering returning players, minutes, stats, etc.) A home gymnasium in Manhattan. (Easy access.) Plus Brian Barbour should be an Ivy POY candidate. That adds up to a team that could make some noise. I could definitely see Princeton vs. Columbia or Harvard vs. Columbia ending up on the television schedule next season. Heck, either of those games would’ve been great choices last season.
Finally, where does the conference go from here? This is a great start, but it is only a two-year deal. This is an opportunity for the Ivy League to significantly grow its brand, but it also means that it has to take advantage it. It’d be great if one team could get a marquee opponent to come in during the deal for a non-conference game. It’d be awesome if there was a taut league race in each of the next two seasons. Imagine part of the country searching for NBC Sports Network because they want to see who wins the Ivy League in late February. That’s the dream. Now there’s a chance to make it happen. Let’s see where this takes us.