Fox Sports on Friday announced the broadcast details of Oklahoma's first game of the season, a pay-per-view affair against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.
Aside from the steep price for ordering the game, $39.95, the announcement included a nasty surprise: Dave Lapham will be providing color commentary for the contest.
After resigning myself to the prospect of spending four hours soaking in Lapham's frisbee-sharp wit, I scanned down the page and found a far more intriguing tidbit: "Outside of the state of Oklahoma, viewers can purchase a live stream of the pay-per-view telecast on SoonerSports.tv, OU’s premium digital website, for $44.95 to watch on their computer, mobile device or tablet. The purchase will include three free months of SoonerSports.tv and SoonersIllustrated.com."
OK, we can start by admitting that paying 40 bucks to watch a game on TV sucks, let alone 45 to see it on your iPad or computer. Given the hundreds of channels available now through digital cable subscriptions, shelling out extra dough to see the Sooners' season opener feels extortionary, especially when Baylor-Wofford is being shown on one of the Fox Sports channels at the same time. I get that.
That said, this tiny announcement may speak volumes about the direction of both OU athletics and the Big 12 as a whole.
I've written in the past that I think we may look back on conference realignment eventually as competing visions of an evolving media marketplace. The power conferences now constitute negotiating blocs built to maximize their stroke in the cable industry. To that end, the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 have added institutions with the intent of expanding the reach and allure of their conference television networks.
The Big 12 has slimmed down in the process, thanks at least in part to Texas' lucrative Longhorn Network, which is a burr in the saddle to seemingly everyone not named DeLoss Dodds. Rather than banding together, the Big 12 schools are taking a hybrid approach that essentially requires each school to develop its own strategy for producing and distributing content through ownership of its third-tier media rights.
ESPN's relatively fruitless efforts at this point to gain carriage for the LHN illustrate the difficulties of selling a 24-7 cable channel dedicated to one school in the context of today's media paradigm. Even as ESPN stacks a growing number of UT's live games on the network, the value of the LHN has yet to reach a point that would motivate major cable carriers to strike a deal with the Worldwide Leader.
Yet, while SoonerSports.tv, the LHN and the rest of the school-specific networks may have limited national appeal in today's market environment, they're perfect for customized, on-demand content delivery systems. That's important because, whether or not you believe a la carte cable is coming, there's no denying that on-demand options are proliferating with advancements in online streaming technology.
The growing acceptance of streaming as an alternative to traditional cable is converging with an increasingly competive marketplace for producing live sporting events. In terms of distribution, that could put schools and conferences in position to eventually cut out sports entertainment's dominant middle men, Fox and ESPN, if they so choose. (At the very least, schools can amass more bargaining power in future negotiations for their media rights by developing solid fallback options.)
In that respect, I look at the addition of a streaming option to a pay-per-view televised game as more than just the recognition that more people are now getting their sports content in that fashion. I see it as laying the foundation for a future in which schools with the flexibility to do so can truly maximize the benefits of their media rights.
The conferences that have signed long-term rights deals and/or given equity stakes to Fox and ESPN – namely the Big Ten and ESPN – won't have that option. (Meanwhile, in terms of preparing for the long haul, the Pac-12, which has full ownership of its network, has arguably taken the smartest route of any conference.)
Plenty in Sooner Nation have lamented how things turned out for Oklahoma when the music stopped in realignment. However, it's worth noting that membership in the Big 12 has enabled the school's leadership to take shrewd steps towards preparing for the future media landscape. It ain't sexy, but it should count for something.