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How the Big Ten Network Helps - and how we help them

Time for me to sell out again - this is the first in a series of posts about how technology effects the way we are sports fans, called "Enhance Your Experience".

I have a distinct memory from fall quarter freshman year of college. I went home for Thanksgiving break, and because Chicago is a hellhole and there was a gigantic snowstorm, my flight got cancelled, then delayed, then cancelled again, and I ended up flying out about a day and a half after I expected to go, and I had to cancel a meeting I had with some guy for my journalism class. Bummer.

So I was sitting on a Jetblue flight, kinda pissed off, and just kinda flipping through the channels. And what caught my eye was Welsh-Ryan Arena. There was an out-of-conference basketball game, and it was empty as all hell - there were probably more people on my flight then there were in the student section - but I was watching it on a plane at 35,000 feet. Thanks to the Big Ten Network, I watched this game - turned out to be Kyle Rowley's career high in points, depressing - while in midair. I couldn't stop thinking about how hilarious it was that a game so few people seemed to care about was being broadcast to so many people, even people who were flying on a friggin jet.

Sadly, JetBlue doesn't carry the Big Ten Network - still gets ESPN! - but my point about NU's fortuitous situation with the BTN stands.

Northwestern probably doesn't deserve to have every game on television. Judging from our attendance figures, I'm gonna make an educated guess that of the 11 teams in the Big Ten, NU probably frequently generates the least viewership for the Big Ten Network, both in terms of football and basketball. (The fact that Northwestern is selected to be on ABC/ESPN/CBS in these sports just about as rarely as contractually possible probably backs up this fact.)

But as part of our affiliation with the conference, we have been gifted with an awesome amount of access to NU sports. Wherever you live - even in the my non-Midwestern home, New York - I can walk into a bar with a reasonable expectation that if I ask somebody, they'll be able to put on a Northwestern game, even if they're playing, you know, Towson.

It's gotten to the point where we take this for granted. We flipped a variety of poops over the untelevised Rice game, and rightly so. But I feel the need to highlight why we were so pissed off: having a game on television is disturbingly important to the success of a program. It generates fan interest - you can't support a team if you can't watch them. Fan interest generates fan interest in the friends of people who are fans. Those people might have kids who play football. Football is the sport we like watching and it needs players, players who can be convinced for billions of reasons that NU is the wrong place to go to college. One reason they could be convinced is that, hey, NU doesn't even get all their games on TV. Which is why we were pissed off. Just look at the Blackhawks, who spent years with untelevised home games because their crazy owner thought that it would boost attendance - instead, it caused them to play in relative obscurity. Literally the year after that policy was changed, the Blackhawks led the league in attendance, and two years later, they, uh, won the Stanley Cup. Obviously an extreme example, but, we saw it happen with ridiculous speed in front of our own eyes in our own home market. I feel like we have to acknowledge how awesome it is that 95 percent of the time, someone has us covered. For all the things wrong with the Big Ten Network - like the sometimes comical production values - we can't take it for granted.

And at the same time, they shouldn't cast playing NU games all the time as some sort of horrific obligation, which, to be honest, I get the sense they do - the fact that most of our non-conference basketball games don't even make it on to the legit channel sort of reinforces this. I've already stressed how important it is to a program it is to have someone televising the games to keep them relevant. By that same token, the Big Ten Network helps themselves by helping us. The very fact that they put our games on TV can work wonders for all sorts of things: attendance, recruitment, so on and so forth. By that same token, just by putting our games on TV, the BTN increases the viability of NU sports as being  a major player - and a legit sports option - in this major media market NU exists in. To me, it's a spiral: the more we're on the air, the more it will make sense that we're on the air - and the more the Big Ten Network will be glad they show us.

So, make fun of the Big Ten Network. I won't stop you, because at times, you have to. But acknowledge that it is one of several keys to turning our successful sports programs into successful sports programs that everybody else thinks are successful.