Missouri latest school with digital sports network

Sunday, September 4, 2011 | 6:42 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Texas Longhorn Network that pushed rival Texas A&M out the door of the Big 12 has quickly become a model for other conference schools.

Missouri is the latest Big 12 member to join the digital realm, alongside Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas State. The Mizzou Network will be an Internet-based channel with live, multi-camera broadcasts of the school's Olympic sports along with behind-the-scenes glimpses into previously off-limits activities such as football practices or basketball locker rooms.

The network will carry applications for smartphones, tablet computers and Internet-capable TV.

The channel will roll out Dec. 1, and include some premium content but mostly be available at no charge. Turning a profit is secondary to promoting the Missouri brand and its value as a recruiting tool, said associate athletic director Andrew Grinch, a former television journalist who is overseeing the project.

"We want to be a showcase for what's going on at Mizzou," he said. "By doing this as an athletic department, you obviously have access that others don't."

Unlike the Longhorn Network, a 20-year, $300 million cable channel startup from Texas and ESPN, Missouri is taking a more modest approach. The initial goal is to offer Tigers fans a minimum of two to three videos daily, from interviews to game highlights to features on players or coaches.

As for the revenue-producing sports, conference TV contracts give Missouri the right to broadcast one football game live each season, as well as men's and women's basketball games that are not gobbled up by other TV deals. Those events will likely require viewers to pay up.

The school is working with Learfield Sports and CBS Sports' interactive division, companies with which it already works, and also plans to team up with a local television station operated by the university's journalism school.

The lucrative contract signed by Texas could ultimately lead to the demise of the Big 12, with Texas A&M's looming departure followed by public statements from Oklahoma president David Boren suggesting that school may also leave.

But it also "opened a lot of people's eyes" to the benefits of school-specific sports digital networks, Grinch said, a trend that follows the recent rollout of a Big Ten Network and a planned Pac-12 channel.

Oklahoma has invested $5 million toward its SoonerVision HD production, an online offering that the school hopes to eventually grow into a full-bore TV network. And Kansas State has unveiled its own high-definition digital network, K-StateHD.TV, a subscription service that debuted in late August.

"People want to consume (college sports) in all different kinds of ways, not just on the radio or on the official athletic department website," said Andrew Wheeler, a Learfield Sports vice president based in Dallas.

"There's definitely an audience," he said. "It's largely an instrument to expand their brand and to have a wider distribution to more and more people on more and more platforms."

The Missouri channel will also include non-athletic offerings, such as features on innovative campus research or the latest theatrical performance. Such self-promotion is even more important amid the unsettled conference landscape, Grinch acknowledged.

"We see it as something that will evolve and expand. The opportunities for content are pretty broad," he said. "No matter what conference you're in, how are you differentiating yourself to your fans, alumni and constituents?"

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