ODU Athletics

Minium: Conference USA Made a Major Upgrade to its Football TV Coverage by Luring the NFL Network

May 31, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Like several Football Bowl Subdivision leagues, Conference USA has seen its TV profile and revenue dip since conference realignment in 2013 and 2014.

After losing schools such as Memphis, Houston, UCF, SMU and East Carolina, C-USA eventually lost its contracts with Fox and a series of cable networks, only to be picked up largely by lesser-known networks with less of a profile.

As a columnist at The Virginian-Pilot, I was a frequent critic of the league’s TV profile.

But C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod and senior associate commissioner Kelly Carney, who handles most TV matters for the league, deserve a ton of credit for the work they’ve done to improve the league’s TV contracts.

Their recent announcement that they have signed a deal with the NFL Network to begin televising league games is a huge upgrade for Conference USA.

ODU athletic director Wood Selig applauded C-USA officials for their "creative and innovative thinking."

The NFL Network will begin by broadcasting ten games this season, all on Saturday and all in prime time. And the deal isn’t a one-time thing – the NFL Network will televise ten games for each of the next four seasons.

Some FBS leagues have moved games to a Tuesday or Wednesday or Friday in order to land on national TV, so prime time real estate on a network owned by the NFL is a wonderful place for Conference USA to be.

And make no mistake, the NFL Network is a national brand. It is seen in about 65 million homes.

That’s less than the 84 million who are signed on with ESPN and ESPN2. But every fan who watches the NFL Network cares about football. That’s not the case for ESPN, which has a lot of fans tune in for soccer, baseball and basketball.

Old Dominion University athletic director Wood Selig says it marks a much-needed boost to the league’s TV profile and its football brand.

“When you partner with the NFL, that’s big-time,” he said. “Is there a bigger sports brand in the United States? I don’t think so.

“We’ve linked forces with the NFL and all of their branding power. This is a huge step forward for Conference USA.

“I applaud our conference leadership for having such creative and innovative thinking.”

A huge round of applause should go to Merton Hanks, the senior associate commissioner, who played nine seasons in NFL, then worked 13 seasons in the NFL front office. His contacts were invaluable in getting Conference USA into the door.

This gives the league agreements with good TV partners. The CBS Sports Network, C-USA’s primary TV partner, reaches 41 million homes. ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN+ will carry the largest number of C-USA games.

Stadium TV, which is carried on local cable and by streaming services, also has a good chunk of games. Both Stadium and CBS Sports will broadcast some of their games on Facebook.

Adding 10 national TV broadcasts to that lineup is like adding a BMW or Mercedes to your car pool. It’s a big step up in class.

Merton Hanks

Some ODU fans I’ve heard from were disappointed in the TV football schedule released by the league on Thursday. While also disappointed, I wasn’t surprised.

ODU is coming off of 5-7 and 4-8 seasons, and lost 22 seniors. The Monarchs had the league’s worst defense last season and doesn’t return a quarterback with meaningful experience.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that ODU won’t get but a handful of truly national TV games.

An earlier, tentative C-USA TV schedule had ODU on ESPN+ nine times. But the schedules released Wednesday is better.

Three games, including ODU’s home opener against Norfolk State on Aug. 31, will be on ESPN3. It’s  a streaming network and not on cable, but whose games are available nationally. The vast majority of fans know how to find games on the network. The definition of national TV gets squishier every year, but this qualifies.

Six games will be on ESPN+ and ODU fans should be getting accustomed to finding games through that streaming service. An ESPN+ subscription costs $4.95 per month, but there’s a lot more to offer than just Conference USA football. Big 12 and American Athletic Conference football and basketball, as well as some Major League Baseball and NHL games, are moving to ESPN+.

Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod

ESPN+ now has a potential audience of 200 million viewers and more than 20 million per month tune in.  

I think ODU’s football team will be better than prognosticators indicate, and I’ll take that on in a column next week. But even with a stadium undergoing a $67.5 million renovation, CBS Sports, Stadium and the NFL Network didn’t bite.

And, yes, that was a little discouraging.

I think they will bite next year, especially after they contrast an impressive, new S.B. Ballard Stadium filled to capacity with some of the half-empty stadiums you see around the league.

The NFL Network replaces beIN Sports, which has a large soccer following but drew terrible ratings for football.

“No disrespect to beIN, but we trade a soccer based network for an American football based network,” Selig said.

The NFL Network was founded and is owned by the NFL. It was the primary conduit for the NFL draft and broadcasts several NFL games per week and has talk shows and specials on the NFL and college football.

The NFL Network experimented by broadcasting some college football bowl games years ago, but other than the Senior Bowl all-star game, it hasn’t broadcast college games in years.

“For us to be us to be the only conference in America to have its games televised on the NFL Network is an enviable place to be,” Selig said.

Kelly Carney

The deal with Conference USA is a way for the NFL Network to begin appealing to more fans by providing programming on Saturday nights, when the NFL doesn’t play. I’ve seen reports that the league is considering doing C-USA basketball games as well.

The network also made an unsuccessful run at the CFL contract earlier this year.

Selig said the NFL Network deal was presented to athletic directors on a conference call recently, and that the vote to approve was very swift and unanimous.

“The network is very much on par with ESPN,” Selig said. “Their viewers are self-identified football fans.

“Having our games televised on a network whose viewers are entirely focused on football is just a huge step up.”

2019 ODU Football Schedule

Aug. 31, Norfolk State, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Sept. 7, at Virginia Tech, noon, ESPNU

Sept. 14, open date

Sept. 21, at University of Virginia, time, TV TBA

Sept. 28, East Carolina, 6 p.m., ESPN+

Oct. 5, Western Kentucky, 6 p.m., ESPN+

Oct. 12, at Marshall, 2:30 p.m., Stadium TV

Oct. 19, at UAB, time TBA, ESPN+

Oct. 26, Florida Atlantic, 3:30, ESPN+

Nov. 2, at FIU, noon, ESPN+

Nov. 9, UTSA, 2 p.m., ESPN3

Nov. 16, open date

Nov. 23, at Middle Tennessee, 2 p.m., ESPN3

Nov. 30, Charlotte at ODU, 2 p.m., ESPN+

Dec. 6, Conference USA championship, site TBA, 1:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Conference USA Bowl Schedule

Friday, Dec. 20, Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, 2 p.m., ESPN, Nassau, Bahamas

Saturday, Dec. 21, New Mexico Bowl, 2 p.m., ESPN, Albuquerque, N. Mexico

Saturday, Dec. 21, R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, ESPN, New Orleans, La.

Monday, Dec. 23, Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, 2:3O p.m., Tampa, Fla.

Tuesday, Dec. 23, Sofi Hawai’I Bowl, 8 p.m., ESPN, Honolulu, Hawaii

Monday, Dec. 30, SERVEPRO First Responder Bowl, 2:30 p.m., ESPN, Dallas, Tex.

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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