Missouri Valley Conference Scores With Home-Grown TV Network
While the major college conferences may be the ones grabbing headlines for their blockbuster television-network deals, several mid-major conferences are quietly making a profit by producing games in-house, and have been doing so for quite some time. The Missouri Valley Conference, the second-oldest athletic conference in the nation, has produced a television package in-house since 1993. Over the past 17 years, the production has grown from a dozen games to 36, televised across Fox Sports Midwest, Fox College Sports, and Comcast Sports Chicago.
“We’ve been told that we are the gold standard for mid-major conference networks because of our ability to generate ad-sales revenue and clear the games on a regional network,” says Joe Mitch, associate commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference. “Everything is done in-house. For the production, we work with a group out of Kansas City called Metro Sports. We’ve been with them since day one. We also hire the talent and sell the advertising.”
A Perfect Marriage
That advertising is now generating $1.5 million annually, providing an excellent revenue stream for the conference as well as significant exposure for its 10 member schools. The games can be seen in six states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.
“That matches our footprint exactly,” Mitch says. “We have schools in each of those states. We’re a 10-member conference so it’s a perfect marriage between the two.”
The 36 games covered in the Missouri Valley Conference network package focus primarily on men’s and women’s basketball but also include championships for volleyball, baseball, softball, and men’s and women’s soccer. The lone exception is the men’s basketball tournament championship game, which airs nationally on CBS. Separate from the MVC Network, 10 MVC games air on ESPNU over the course of the season.
Success in Outsourcing
Originally, the conference kept three sales people on staff to handle the ad sales, but beginning this year, Learfield Sports will handle that aspect of the network.
“It’s a way to lighten the load for some of our staff and also assure the conference a guaranteed revenue stream,” Mitch says. “Certainly, the toughest part for us has been reaching out and finding new national sponsors. We’re not dedicated to selling 24/7. That’s why Learfield is attractive to us, because they can reach out to those national-type companies that we just wouldn’t have access to.”
The conference maintains two full-time staff members who are dedicated to the network, one on the sales side and one on the production side. Assistant Commissioner for Marketing and Television Jack Watkins oversees the productions and hiring of the talent and works with Fox Sports Midwest to ensure that each broadcast meets its specifications and guidelines.
Working closely with Fox takes much of the burden of building a network off the shoulders of the conference.
“We don’t have to worry about clearing cable systems because Fox Sports does that,” Mitch says, noting that Fox Sports Midwest is in more than 6 million homes in a six-state region. “They’re a very successful regional sports network. They carry all the Cardinals and Blues games so they have to find a way to balance their schedule and include not only those pro teams but MVC games, Big 12 games, and other programming. We have been able to secure some good primetime time slots during the week as well as a weekend package.”
HD on the Horizon
A major challenge for this mid-major has been the increasing costs of production, mostly on account of a shift to HD.
“The costs have come down, but HD is still an increased cost,” Mitch says. “We’re gradually moving to HD. All four of our tournament games are going to be in HD this year, and, eventually, we’d like to get our regular-season games into HD as well, but it’s quite costly.”
The conference TV network has been fortunate to recruit some remarkable talent over the years.
“In the early days of our network, Joe Buck was the lead announcer for our games,” Mitch says. “We’ve been very fortunate to have good talent handling our games and broadcasts since the beginning.”
In fact, the broadcasts have been of such high quality that Learfield approached the conference about securing the multimedia rights as well, and a new-media deal beginning this fall should open another set of doors for the conference in terms of exposure and revenue.
“We’re very excited about moving forward with Learfield,” Mitch says. “They’re going to help us with guaranteed revenues, and we’re going to be able to increase the number of games that we do.”
A Model for Mid-Majors
To create its successful television network, the Missouri Valley Conference relied on commitment, partnerships with successful partners like Fox Sports and Learfield, and the passion of its staff, all of which, Mitch says, are available to other mid-major conferences.
“I think we’re a model for what mid-major conferences can do in television,” he says. “If you’re really committed to providing additional exposure for your member schools, it can be done internally, but you do have to have staff committed to carrying this out. We’re very pleased with how our network has grown. I know some conferences have not had the luck of being able to produce a package, and we feel fortunate that we’ve had people and partners that are committed to making it happen.”