After Wichita State University’s men’s basketball game at Missouri State earlier this month, John Brewer received a six-minute voicemail on his office phone.
The fan let Brewer know that showing a game on ESPN’s Internet platform isn’t good enough for the nationally ranked Shockers.
The caller, Brewer said, didn’t leave a phone number. That is unfortunate because Brewer is happy to explain WSU’s television situation, complicated as it may be.
With the rising prominence of ESPN3.com, ESPN’s Internet-based network, this is a time for education and adjustment.
“He believes that with the growth of Wichita State basketball, every game should be on national telecast,” said Brewer, WSU’s associate athletic director for marketing. “We feel the same way. Unfortunately, that’s just not reality.”
Compared to other Missouri Valley Conference schools, fifth-ranked WSU enjoys a wealth of exposure. Shocker fans increasingly, though, prefer to compare their basketball program to high-profile schools that are regulars on national television.
But despite its recent success, WSU isn’t there yet. Shocker fans are dependent on a hodgepodge of national, regional and local broadcasts. Add in the Internet option and it is easy to see why fans are frustrated.
At least 24, and likely 25, of Wichita State’s 31 regular-season games will be shown on ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox Sports Kansas City, CBS Sports Network and Cox 22, which is available only to Cox cable customers.
Four other games are exclusive to ESPN3.com (one remaining on Feb. 25 at Bradley). Those games, not available on traditional broadcast TV and cable outlets, irritate some fans. So do the 13 games available only to Cox subscribers.
On Wednesday, Wichita State plays at Illinois State on Cox 22.
With the Shockers one of the nation’s three unbeaten teams, demand is peaking. When a game isn’t easily available on TV, fans are unhappy.
Even coach Gregg Marshall is looking into a way to allow his mother, who lives in South Carolina, to watch ESPN3.com games.
“I’m trying to get her to get one of those Apple television things,” he said.
The Missouri Valley Conference requires each of its 10 schools make one ESPN3.com appearance, with a limit of three conference games. The contract allows ESPN3.com to make those games exclusive to that website, meaning WSU cannot put those games on its Cox 22 package as it likely would have in past seasons.
Because the Shockers are the Valley’s big name, ESPN requested the max, as it did for Indiana State, Missouri State and Northern Iowa. While WSU would prefer the minimum, Brewer understands the importance of reaching the growing number of fans who watch on their smartphone or tablet.
“The one school in the Valley that was very against the ESPN3 games two years ago when this contract was negotiated was Wichita State,” Brewer said. “The benefit of ESPN3, however, is that it is a platform that is in 120 million homes. There is a lot of value because it is a national broadcast.”
The MVC placed its games on ESPNU, which launched in 2005, from the start. Now ESPNU is in around 74 million households. The MVC wants to ride the growth of ESPN3.com, as well.
“We believe in the ESPN3 mantra of television anywhere,” associate MVC commissioner Jack Watkins said. “ESPN is committed to it, and it’s important to be on it.”
Watkins and Brewer think fans will catch up to the technology and learn to appreciate the portable nature of ESPN3.com for phones, tablets and laptops. ESPN3.com also archives games and allows fans to watch games from around the country.
At home, fans can use devices such as Apple TV, Roku, Xbox and Google Chromecast to show ESPN3.com on their TV sets.
“Some of these are very inexpensive that can plug into your TV,” Brewer said. “Obviously, a lot of fans feel they cannot watch it because they can’t get to it from their cable remote. There are other options to get to those ESPN3 games.”
Working with Cox
WSU and Cox are finalizing a contract that will extend their relationship for five years or more, according to Cox programming manager Mark Ewing.
While Cox will not release its number of subscribers, it is available in 94 communities in Kansas, according to public affairs director Sarah Kauffman.
WSU’s local package with Cox is superior to other MVC schools, none of whom put more than eight men’s basketball games on local cable and broadcast outlets, according to Watkins. Cox also includes women’s basketball, baseball and volleyball games, in addition to 24 editions of the Shocker Sports Report.
Cox pays for production costs for the games, Brewer said, which generally run around $20,000 to $25,000, regardless of the sport.
That arrangement can’t please all fans. Fans who subscribe to satellite, AT&T U-Verse Internet TV are left out. So are those without cable and those in parts of Kansas not served by Cox.
Cox, at the request of WSU, does share its broadcasts with ESPN3.com but blacks them out in Kansas and parts of Missouri. Those fans can watch replays of the blacked-out games.
While Brewer said local over-the-air stations did express interest in discussing WSU’s TV package, they can’t match Cox’s willingness to pay production costs and the amount of games offered.
“For them to share the expense of telecasting three women’s basketball games and three volleyball games where the return on the investment in terms of commercial and advertising revenue is low, that’s one of the reasons we feel they are a very good partner to extend the brand of, not just Wichita State basketball, but Wichita State athletics,” Brewer said.
“I don’t think any affiliate in Wichita would want to take on the magnitude of telecasts that 22 brings.”
Cox 22, Ewing says, views itself as a community channel willing to make investments in WSU and other local sports coverage in ways over-the-air stations cannot. Cox also broadcasts high school, small college and junior college sports and University of Kansas athletics.
“To produce those (WSU) games and distribute them state-wide and with a high-level production, I can’t see anyone stepping in and trying to match it,” he said.
KWCH general manager Joan Barrett said her station bid on the WSU rights after carrying games, sometimes in partnership with Cox, for several years. Broadcast windows on over-the-air stations are usually limited to weekends because the parent networks are reluctant to pre-empt prime-time shows for local programming. KWCH, for example, could shift games to KSCW.
“Would we be interested – absolutely,” Barrett said. “It would all depend on the economics of the arrangement for us.”
With that investment, Cox is unwilling to make WSU games available to nonsubscribers on a pay-per-view basis.
“If Dish (Network) or somebody else wanted to step up and produce those games, I guess they would do it themselves,” Ewing said.