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Original Issue

Well-Schooled An ambitious new cable network hopes to hook viewers with a menu of all college sports, all the time

Chris Bevilacqua can't remember exactly when he caught his
raging case of college sports fever. It may have been as an
undergraduate at Penn State, when he watched Joe Paterno lead
the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel to a deafening roar from
85,000 Happy Valley partisans. Or perhaps it was at a wrestling
match against Iowa at Penn State's Recreation Hall, when
Bevilacqua, an All-America in the 150-pound class in 1984 and
'85, stared across the mat at his opponent and experienced the
electricity of the home crowd. "I felt what it meant to me and
my teammates," says Bevilacqua, "but you could also tell what
wrestling meant to our fans." That passion prompted the
38-year-old Bevilacqua, a former NBC Sports producer and Nike
marketing executive, to team with cable sports veterans Brian
Bedol and Steve Greenberg, who launched the Classic Sports
Network in 1995, to form a 24-hour cable channel devoted to
college sports.

Due to launch early next year, the National College Sports
Network (NCSN) is the latest in a line of sports specialty
channels to find its way onto cable systems. The success of
networks such as the Golf Channel, Speed Channel and Outdoor
Life Network, and the upcoming launch of the Tennis Channel--to
say nothing of Classic Sports, which ESPN bought for $175
million in 1997 and renamed ESPN Classic--proves that sports
fans will support such niche programming. Bedol, Bevilacqua and
Greenberg see a huge market of fans and alumni who want to watch
events that the major networks don't or won't present. "When you
look at what has worked in cable programming, it's networks that
tap into preexisting passions," says Bedol. "Tens of millions of
people define themselves as being college sports fans."

Bevilacqua first approached Bedol and Greenberg with his idea
for the network in 1999, but it wasn't until last July that
Bevilacqua began visiting universities and conference
headquarters to lay the groundwork for rights agreements. (That
was familiar turf for Bevilacqua; while working for Nike from
1995 through '99, he spearheaded the company's move into
licensing contracts with schools.) Earlier this month NCSN
announced a multiyear agreement with the Big Ten to cover sports
for which rights deals didn't already exist. Bevilacqua says
that NCSN now has contracts in place with more than a dozen
other conferences and has several more agreements nearing
completion. In the meantime Bedol and Greenberg are hammering
out deals with cable operating giants like Comcast and Time
Warner Cable (owned by SI's parent, AOL Time Warner).

Unable to procure rights to top-shelf men's football and
basketball events (they are locked up by the major broadcast and
cable sports networks), NCSN aims to show everything else.
Expect to see the best available lacrosse game each weekend in
the spring, plus Big Ten swimming, Pac-10 gymnastics and a
cornucopia of college hockey. Bevilacqua also might go after
Division II and III football and basketball, and his old sport,
wrestling. The network plans to produce news and interview shows
and is looking into televising events such as coaches' clinics.

NCSN also wants to be the TV home of NCAA championships in
nonmajor sports, but first it must acquire the rights. In 1999
CBS locked up the NCAA men's basketball tournament with an
11-year, $6 billion contract (running through 2013) that also
gives it the rights to all sports championships in every
division not already under contract. While some of this
programming has been sold to ESPN, two thirds of it never makes
it to the air, and the NCSN team believes that its network would
be the ideal place for these compelling events.

Many movers and shakers in college sports concur. "So many great
stories go unnoticed each year because there isn't enough
space," says Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White. "This
network can be a great vehicle for the promotion of college
athletics at all levels."

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL SUGRUE COLLEGIAL The NCSN team of (from left) Bevilacqua, Greenberg and Bedol is lining up conferences and cable operators.


High on HDTV

Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner who made a fortune
pioneering audio and video broadcasts on the Internet, is
banking on high-definition TV as the next big thing. Last
September he launched HDNet, the only national network to
broadcast exclusively in high definition, and sports events make
up 25% of his programming. HDNet carried 65 NHL matches and a
handful of NBA games in 2001-02. This season 80 major league
games will be aired. Says Cuban, whose channel is available only
on DirecTV, "We can redefine how people watch sports. Watching
hockey, basketball, baseball, football and boxing are completely
different experiences in HDTV." --J.O.