MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If you missed or simply shrugged off the media news out of Kansas earlier this week, well, you might want to backtrack and pay it a bit more mind.If you do, what you might see are two things:The future of college sports on television, for one.And, for another, the reason West Virginia is finally, although torturously, attempting to step into the modern age with its third-tier rights.It's rather groundbreaking news, actually, and not just for the folks in Kansas.Again, if you missed it, the University of Kansas on Tuesday agreed to a seven-year deal with ESPN and Time Warner Cable to distribute what amounts to the school's leftover athletics. Those are the ones not already spoken for through the mainstream national deals brokered by the Big 12 with ESPN and Fox.It's the same kind of third-tier stuff that you should be oh-so-familiar with by now since the term is now part of the WVU lexicon. In Kansas' case, third-tier rights mean, as far as TV is concerned, 70 events annually. Most are niche events - soccer, volleyball, softball, even track - along with slightly more high-profile baseball and 16 women's basketball games. But the deal also includes one non-conference football game, six non-league basketball games (two of them exhibitions), the school's annual spring football game and its version of basketball's midnight madness, Late Night at the Phog.So here's how it works. Time Warner Cable has the rights to 50 of those events, including the football and basketball, and will broadcast them exclusively in Kansas City and the state of Kansas. That saturates the school's local market.But then ESPN also shares the rights to those 50, plus 20 more, that it will offer on ESPN3. That's the network's web-based platform, which means that those 70 KU events will also be available nationwide (blacked out in Kansas and Kansas City to protect Time Warner).Now, on the surface perhaps that doesn't seem all that significant. After all, it is the Internet we're talking about here, right? Don't you just hate it when a game that your team plays isn't on ESPN or ESPN2 or Fox - or even Root Sports or one of the local channels - and you have to find it on the web? It just isn't the same. It's as if it isn't important.
But that's where the future of college sports on television comes in. It might not seem important now, but who is to say that a few years down the road streaming won't be, well, more mainstream? Maybe even the norm?Consider that ESPN3 is now available to 85 million people. In order to access it, all you have to have is an Internet or a video subscription through a provider who has joined the party. Most have. If your provider offers it, you can access it on your computer or on your phone or tablet through an ESPN app.Who is to say that, say, five years from now, that won't be the way we watch almost everything? The Kansas deal isn't unique in that the school's sports will be available on the Internet, but it is unique in that it's probably the first school that has jumped into the Internet age with a third-tier contract designed specifically to both saturate a local market on cable and extend coverage nationwide on the web.It's doing it both the old way and the new, and it won't be the last.How that affects West Virginia's third-tier rights isn't quite clear. The Kansas deal, interestingly enough, was brokered by its third-tier rights holder, IMG College, which - John Raese notwithstanding - is likely to be the eventual rights holder for WVU's third-tier package. Like it or not, West Virginia's third-tier rights aren't as valuable as those of Kansas, simply because Kansas basketball is, well, Kansas basketball. But the notion that a similar deal with a local television package (Bray Cary's West Virginia Media and/or Pittsburgh's Root Sports, perhaps) and an accompanying Internet streaming deal certainly isn't out of the question.
The other factor at play here, of course, is the Big 12, which is pretty much the only power conference remaining in which the third-tier rights of its members haven't been sold back to the league. The Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the SEC have all done so in order to form league networks. The ACC is still mulling over what to do.The Big 12 can't ask its members to do the same because of Texas, which isn't giving up the Longhorn Network. That's not to say some sort of arrangement won't eventually be made to consolidate the third-tier rights of the members, but it's not on the table right now.Nor should it be. With the way we watch college sports changing so rapidly - and let's face it, that's what drives everything - who is to say what the best model is? Perhaps when WVU sorts out - and litigates - its third-tier mess, the result will be something unique and profitable. That's certainly the hope, because if the school had no designs on that it would have remained a dinosaur and managed its third-tier rights itself.The Kansas agreement seems to be the latest example of the creative ways a marketing company can maximize those rights. But it's certainly not going to be the last.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.