CBS Sports Network: The Frugal Success Story?

I have watched the CBS Sports Network more in the past month than I have in the past decade. I don't think I'm alone.
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While millions of words have been devoted to the rebranding efforts of the NBC Sports Network and last year's launch of Fox Sports 1, hardly any have been devoted to the CBS Sports Network. And why would they? The network has operated largely under the radar, while the other two networks made ill-fated attempts to compete with ESPN.

So there are four major broadcast networks. There are three major sports networks. It doesn’t seem to add up.

It is even more puzzling when thinking about the evolution of the channel, which began as CSTV -- College Sports Television -- more than 10 years ago. It was essentially the forerunner to what ESPNU has become, but without the crucial agreements with big-time sports like SEC football or ACC basketball.

My first real exposure to CSTV came in 2006 when Notre Dame, led by Brady Quinn and firmly in the Top 10 during the faux Charlie Weis revival, faced Air Force. The game attracted a lot of press but not for good reasons— it was the first time since 1992 that a Notre Dame game had not aired on NBC, CBS, ABC or ESPN. It spoke to the power of Notre Dame football and to the thorough lack of power of CSTV.

Purchased by CBS in 2005, it was rebranded as the CBS College Sports Network in March 2008 as it aired the two late, west coast afternoon NCAA Tournament games that tipped off around 5 p.m. in the east, but went unaired, except in select markets, as CBS signed off for local station commitments. And boy, doesn't that sound like that should have happened in 1978, with how the new Turner/CBS partnership has revolutionized coverage.

In 2011, the network's name was shortened to CBS Sports Network but the channel continued to languish. Like the Big Ten Network, the channel does not subscribe to Nielsen so there are never any ratings released. Like the Big Ten Network, it's a good indication very, very few people are watching.

Over the past few years, the price of sports has exploded exponentially. ESPN is paying nearly $2 billion every year for Monday Night Football. College conferences are paying its members more than $20+ million every year. Fox Sports overpaid by an order of magnitude to create the doomed Big East Conference to give itself programming during the winter months.

And that last nugget seemed like it would be the death knell for the CBS Sports Network. Instead, it has invigorated it.

When CBS won the rights for the NFL's new Thursday Night package, eyebrows were raised since CBS had the Big Bang Theory and didn't need it. More importantly, CBS has shown an unwillingness to overpay for sports rights. They have relied on a model of sharing, which is partly why the relatively cheap $250 million price tag for 8 NFL games makes sense.

CBS is the most-watched network and it is the most profitable thanks to shrewd business decisions. When the NCAA Tournament came up for bid several years ago, they balked on footing the entire bill – so they partnered with Turner and the ratings for the entire tournament have skyrocketed. In a move of pure brilliance – CBS still shows the same amount of games in the same timeslots for the first two weekends of the tournament. They still get their ratings, but pay far, far less. They will give up the Final Four this year and the title game next year, but it is a small price to pay.

For the college football and college basketball regular season, CBS cherry picks only the best games. It airs one SEC football game a week, spending wisely and letting ESPN, and now the conference, air all the others. They air weekend coverage of the PGA, but let the Golf Channel handle the weekdays and rain delayed coverage. They don't own sports – they pop in and out through the year. They focus on big events and once those events became too expensive, say the US Open in tennis, they gladly step aside.

This is a long way of explaining why the CBS Sports Network never made a move. They air small conferences. The Mountain West Conference, particularly in basketball, and Navy football have been their biggest draws. They've added “bumper” programming, as they call it in the industry, with shows focused on CBS properties, like the Masters or the NFL, with top personalities like Phil Simms. It is interesting but nothing Earth-shattering.

In the end, sports networks are defined by live sports. No one needs ESPN on their cable for the 3 p.m. SportsCenter, they need it for Michigan/Notre Dame in football and Duke/North Carolina in basketball. For years, CBS Sports Network rarely, if ever, had games that anyone other than fans of the two teams involved would care about.

But then came the new Big East. And then came the television negotiations with the newly-formed American Athletic Conference. To create the Big East, Fox Sports promised the Big East unmatched exposure. To keep the AAC and match a bid from NBC, ESPN had to guarantee national exposure for every single conference game.

It led to a problem. Fox Sports and ESPN simply didn't have enough timeslots on enough channels to make this happen. They needed a solution.

CBS Sports Network is available in 96 million homes, though it's likely far less actually have it. For most that do, like myself, it is part of a sports tier. I need the sports tier almost exclusively for the NFL RedZone, though it includes the Big Ten Network, ESPNU and it is worthy my extra $8 a month. So I've had the CBS Sports Network for a while and I never watched it.

Then came the 2013-14 basketball season. Suddenly, my UConn Huskies, the men and women, were playing on the channel. The channel was now regularly featuring ranked teams, whether it was Creighton or Villanova from the Big East or Memphis, Louisville and Cincinnati from the AAC. It felt, almost overnight, like a real sports network.

Thanks to the destruction of the old Big East and the new leagues raised in its place, CBS Sports Network has benefitted tremendously while spending a pittance. The network is sub-licensing games from ESPN and Fox Sports 1 and doing so from a position of tremendous power. Think of the AAC – ESPN needs to air all the conference games. There have no choice. And while they have started to use ESPNews as an outlet, they still don't have enough room with its other basketball commitments. So CBS has a sports network that has shown a reluctance to spend money, yet is now regularly showing Top 25 basketball games at a fraction of the cost that, say, Fox Sports 1 is.

It's a brilliant strategy that will likely pay off even further when AAC football joins the lineup for the 2014 season as the ESPN contract, like in basketball, states every conference game must be nationally televised. There are many barriers to success for the American Athletic Conference but exposure, as of right now, is not.

This is not to imply that CBS Sports Network will suddenly usurp NBCSN or Fox Sports 1 in the battle for #2 behind ESPN. But for the first time in its existence, it has a pulse. People are watching. Fans of UConn, or Cincinnati, or Georgetown, or Villanova, are being exposed to a channel they are almost certainly never watched before.

The network looks the part. The game announcers may not be up to par but are no worse than what Fox Sports 1 trots out past Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery. Using the CBS graphics you see on the broadcast channel, it feels like a major-league operation – and if you watched CSTV or the CBS College Sports Network in the past, you'll know what that difference means. The channel has also lined up an impressive roster of analysts and writers, from Doug Gottlieb and Jon Rothstein on the college basketball coverage to Bruce Feldman on the football side, which is simply far superior to the carousel of idiots that Fox Sports 1 has mostly delivered.

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The CBS Sports Network may potentially have a coming out party on Labor Day weekend – it controls the rights to Navy's home opener, in Baltimore versus a preseason title favorite and ratings behemoth Ohio State. Even more than Notre Dame/Air Force, it would prove to be the biggest game in the channel's history.

Fox, NBC and ESPN are forking over billions of dollars for the rights to air live sports. CBS has kept its cable network quiet, looking for scraps and leftovers. Could the frugality finally be paying off?

I'm writing about the network. I'm watching the network. I wasn't doing either last year.

Maybe we are slowly approaching the era of four broadcast networks – and four major sports networks.

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