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McFeely: How valuable is the Summit League? Conference wants to find out

The league announced it is partnering with Collegiate Sports Management Group 'to play a key strategic role in formulating their conference media rights strategy under new Commissioner Josh Fenton.'

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Summit League commissioner Josh Fenton says the conference has to do a better job of engaging fans and increase their affinity for the conference and not just their teams.
Mike McFeely / The Forum
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FARGO — The Summit League, in many ways, is a disparate collection of institutions in starkly contrasting markets with wildly different athletic budgets and widely varying fan bases. An island of misfit toys, if you want to use a cliche.

North Dakota State, South Dakota State, North Dakota and South Dakota are statewide universities with generally good facilities that draw good to great fan interest and media coverage. Kansas City, Omaha and Denver are urban schools that draw little interest and media attention in their own communities. St. Thomas and Oral Roberts are religious affiliated schools in large markets. Western Illinois is a directional state university in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

A common thread, maybe the only one among the entire group, is a need for their non-football and non-hockey athletic programs to have a conference in which to compete. It is a relationship of convenience in most cases outside the Dakotas schools, and one that doesn't draw a lot of interest from fans or media locally, regionally and certainly not nationally.

Kansas City vs. Oral Roberts in a men's basketball matchup in the middle of January? Where does one sign up to watch that? The world awaits.

That is why a press release from the Summit League on Tuesday was so interesting. The league announced it is partnering with Collegiate Sports Management Group "to play a key strategic role in formulating their conference media rights strategy under new Commissioner Josh Fenton."

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In the release, Fenton said the Summit League signed with CSMG to work with the Connecticut-based firm on "a media rights evaluation process with the goal to provide broader exposure" for the conference.

A message to Fenton seeking more information was not immediately returned.

The way I read the situation: The Summit League wants to find out what it's worth in the current media landscape and then look toward some sort of league-wide TV and/or streaming deal.

It would be a good thing for fans and league members, generally, to have one-stop shopping for those who want to watch men's or women's basketball games. If a fan in Fargo-Moorhead wants to watch the NDSU men play at Western Illinois on a cold, dark February night, they shouldn't have to search the web to find Western's web site and hope the connection to their TV stays strong enough to stream the game for two hours.

But that's exactly the situation now. Each school has different standards for broadcasting or livestreaming games, usually based on budgets and interest, and the result is a mish-mash ranging from top-notch professional broadcasts (NDSU and UND, for example) to decent in-house productions with radio simulcasts (Oral Roberts) to student-led broadcasts with one camera (sorry Western Illinois).

The Summit's main broadcast partner is ESPN. Men's and women's basketball games are supposed to be given to ESPN+, a paid subscription service, and the conference tournament title game is carried nationally on one of the ESPN linear TV networks. The league's secondary media rights holder is Midco Sports, which broadcasts the tournament games through the semifinals and carries some other league games and tournaments.

NDSU, SDSU, USD and UND all have local media rights deals. NDSU has a contract with Forum Communications Co. while the other three schools are with Sioux Falls-based Midco.

Other league schools stream games mostly through their athletic department websites. Some share their content with ESPN+, some don't. Some charge, some don't.

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Reading between the lines of the Summit League's press release, it seems the conference wants to a) review its current situation to make sure it has the best deal for the league and schools, b) establish what value it has from a media rights perspective and try to get the league a broader, easier-to-access digital platform and c) perhaps get more games on a national linear broadcast entity.

Fenton, who became the Summit commissioner in April, has a history of innovative media rights deals. As the commissioner of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the league launched nchc.tv. The subscription allowed fans to stream all league games, with the revenue shared among conference members.

College hockey, though, has a hard-core fan base willing to shell out money each month to see their favorite team (UND, Minnesota-Duluth, others) and watch other league games.

The Summit League is not like that. At all. Some schools draw few fans to games and there is little interest in what other conference schools are doing, other than in places like Brookings, S.D., or Fargo. It is highly unlikely the Summit has enough broad support to warrant a pay platform of its own.

Fenton's goal, which he indicated in an interview with me back in March at the Summit League basketball tournaments in Sioux Falls, might be to get all the Summit sports in one spot, available to all fans.

"I’m not naive enough to believe that we’re going to have all the Summit League games on an ESPN linear channel because that’s just not going to happen," Fenton said. "So we have to be able to provide a digital option that makes sense for fans. The biggest thing for me is we have to find a way to organize it and aggregate it in a way that is conducive to the fan base. Not just the NDSU fan base, but the Oral Roberts fan base and everybody else. I believe the way to do that is to aggregate the rights and put something together collectively."

CSMG has partnerships with other mid-majors like the Horizon League, the Northeast Conference, the Southern Conference, the Big Sky Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association.

The Horizon League last year announced "a multi-year, multi-platform media rights agreement." Financial terms were not disclosed.

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The conference said at least 500 league events will be available on ESPN+ annually, while ESPN linear networks will continue to be the home of the Horizon League men’s basketball semifinals and championship, five regular season men’s basketball contests, and the women’s basketball championship game.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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