Comcast cuts Big Ten Network viewership from New England to the West Coast
The tech giant is reckoning with the soaring programming costs of live sports as it narrows the distribution of the Big Ten Network to its core television markets.
Comcast Corp. is sacking the Big Ten Network in many parts of the nation.
Comcast viewers who live in states with colleges that are part of the Big Ten Conference — which include Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland — can still watch the college-sports network on their Xfinity TV package. But millions of Comcast subscribers in New England, the West Coast and Southern states will be out of luck as the pay-TV industry deals with huge costs for live sports in an era of low-cost streaming services.
ESPN has been shedding millions of subscribers as people seek out "skinny bundles" without the 24-hour sports channel and the Pac-12 Networks that airs colleges games in the Pac-12 Conference in the Western United States has been struggling financially. Experts expect that more leagues may see their distribution reduced as pay-TV firms seek to rein in costs to thwart cord-cutters.
People are also likely to choose entertainment options for cable or streaming without sports.
"The next five years will be a little more difficult for sports rights than the last five years," said Neil Pilson, the former head of CBS Sports and now a consultant for sporting events and media companies. Pilson said he was surprised by Comcast's decision because Big Ten football games – which would include the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Michigan State Spartans – could draw big audiences in New York and around the country.
Comcast says the costs were high and viewership low in parts of the nation without Big Ten colleges, leading to its decision to narrow the Chicago-based Big Ten Network, which waged a public battle about a decade ago to be carried by the Comcast cable systems. The network will now be limited to core Big Ten television markets, where it's broadly available.
Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Moyer said in a statement that "we regularly evaluate our channel lineups and sometimes make changes to ensure we're offering customers a wide variety of content at the best value. We look at a number of factors when making these decisions, including the costs programmers charge us to carry their channels, viewership information and available alternatives."
But many sports fans were upset, taking to social media after initial misinformation from Comcast that it would drop the network everywhere.
A Big Ten Network spokesman said on Monday that "outpouring of concern and outrage from fans nationwide speaks for itself – BTN is a valuable part of Comcast's sports lineup, and we share their frustration at Comcast's decision to deprive them of hundreds of exclusive games and programming featuring some of the most iconic universities in the country."
Comcast's decision also seems likely to put the brakes on the Big Ten Network's national subscriber growth.
According to research firm Kagan, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, the Big Ten Network had 57.2 million subscribers in 2017. Three years earlier, the network had 54.3 million. The per-subscriber cost, or what it cost per customer for a cable distributor such as Comcast to distribute the network, was 48 cents a month in 2017.
Despite its name, the Big Ten Conference has expanded beyond just 10 universities and colleges as it sought to build a television network. There are now 14 schools in the conference and the Big Ten Network will be carried on Comcast in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, along with Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Delaware, northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C.