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UMBC Hoping Conference Deal With ESPN3 Leads To Higher Profile

September 15, 2016
For college athletic departments, getting their sports on TV is pretty much the Holy Grail.

That's not something the "Power 5" conferences have to worry about.

Games in nearly all sports in the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference are televised somewhere -- either on the conferences' networks or a regional carrier.

But for most of the so-called "mid-majors," it's another story. It's a big deal when one of their basketball or football games is on ESPNU or ESPN2. And don't even think about swimming or field hockey or lacrosse.

The America East Conference, which includes UMBC, is hoping to change that, though, with a deal being negotiated with ESPN. With the deal, America East member schools would have the ability to have any and all of their games streamed on a dedicated online channel on ESPN3, and ESPN would have the option of televising any of the games on one of its networks.

According to Matt Bourque, senior associate commissioner of external relations for the conference, the deadline for the agreement is Sept. 23. But, Bourque said, that is the third extension to the deadline "as legal counsel for both sides continues to work through details." 

Bourque said conference officials are prohibited from commenting on the deal until it is signed. 

But UMBC athletic director Tim Hall said he is excited about the possibilities the potential deal could bring.

"Being able to say that we're going to have all of our games on the ESPN network will be beneficial to us," he said. 

"Recruiting has become more competitive and more global. Let's say we're recruiting a basketball player from Australia, and we can tell parents that they can get on their iPad or their laptop and watch all of their son's or daughter's games."

Hall, who has been the athletic director at UMBC since July 2013 after six years as athletic director at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the Retrievers' priority will be televising men's and women's basketball, men's and women's lacrosse, and men's and women's soccer.

"For the America East to be able to come out and say all of our games are on ESPN, that's a big selling point for us," Hall said. "For recruiting, credibility, marketing. It really legitimizes what the conference is doing."

And, Hall said, it's a good deal for ESPN.

ESPN has similar deals with the Missouri Valley Conference and the Horizon League. The MVC has a dedicated channel on ESPN3 called "The Valley on ESPN3." The conference and ESPN signed a 10-year extension of an existing media rights agreement in July 2015.

An important aspect of the ESPN deal is the network works with the conferences' member schools to develop professional-level, in-house production facilities.

Most colleges -- even at the Division II and III levels -- have the ability to stream their athletic contests. If, for example, you have a son or daughter who plays soccer at Division III Stevenson University, you can watch many of their games online. But the quality may or may not be up to ESPN standards.

That's the case -- for the moment -- at UMBC. Hall said the quality of UMBC Retriever TV isn't up to ESPN's snuff. The network told the university what it needed, and UMBC will invest in the technology.

Hall said the university is working with their mass communications department and is thinking of adding sports broadcasting as an academic minor.

"We can have a workforce of kids who are interested in having this as a career," he said. "The synergies become twice as impactful."

All of the America East member schools will have the same equipment.

 "We will be producing our games the way ESPN wants them, so there will be continuity among the conference," he said.

Hall said if the deal gets signed, as expected, UMBC will start with just men's and women's basketball and will do an assessment at the end of the year.

"There are no mandates as to when the other sports will start," he said. "It will be left up to each school.

"We may choose to put swimming on because we have a good program. Albany and New Hampshire have field hockey programs, so they may choose to put that on."

It's a big step for UMBC and the America East.

"We're getting in the TV business," Hall said. "We're excited to produce these games."

Issue 225: September 2016