When I was a youngster living in the suburbs of Washington, rivalry weekend did not mean the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, but Florida-Florida State. I could watch Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles punish the Gators without purchasing a special cable TV package. Such access not only taught me to hate the Gators but also connected me to the greater Seminole nation. Eventually, similar weekly access to Maize and Blue football turned me into a Wolverine fan and a Michigander. In light of the Big Ten Network’s de facto blackouts in Ann Arbor and other parts of the country this season, I wonder if our team’s significant community cultivating power is in jeopardy.
Before I speculate if BTN will bring Armageddon for Wolverine nation, we must first address the reason millions of Wolverine loyalists are blacked out in the first place. Athletic Director Bill Martin and Rupert Murdoch, the man who unleashed Bill O’Reilly on the world, can be blamed for putting an invisibility cloak on Michigan’s prestige. Although BTN is billed as the network of all 11 Big Ten schools, Murdoch’s News Corp, the parent company of Fox, owns 49 percent of it.
I concede that News Corp’s stake in BTN is a shrewd business decision, and you cannot really blame Fox for taking advantage of a lucrative opportunity. However, Fox’s willingness to use BTN to boost its own market share comes at the expense of nationwide Michigan football pride.
Let me explain what the Athletic Department won’t. We know Comcast – the largest cable provider in the country and the only one in Ann Arbor – does not carry BTN. Neither, however, do other cable titans like Time Warner, Charter and Mediacom. Who does carry BTN? Among others, DirecTV, also owned by News Corp.
It’s no coincidence that BTN could not come to an agreement with the likes of Comcast. BTN will tell football starved Wolverine, Buckeye and Badger fans that all it wants is $1.10 per subscriber on expanded basic cable. Comcast’s objections may sound irrational because $1.10 seems like beans, but to put it into perspective, the NFL Network charges only 70 cents.
When was the last time two companies drummed such a direct publicity campaign to justify their “expanded basic cable” coverage policy? Martin himself recently sent out a 2,151-word e-mail to the University community about the perils of Comcast and why we should all support BTN. Seemingly oblivious to the outrage among Michigan fans in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, Martin took his lobbying one step further by trying to mobilize the Michigan Student Assembly against Comcast. In the most egregious display of his lack of respect for Michigan students and fans, at a recent Michigan Student Assembly meeting, Martin openly appealed to MSA to motivate students to switch their cable service from Comcast.
The University clearly has a vested interest in the success of BTN, but as it is Michigan fans stand to lose the most. Being trapped in the crossfire of multimedia brinksmanship may even threaten our program’s recruiting power in parts of the country where Comcast or other non-BTN cable providers are dominant. Does Martin understand the vital role constant coverage played in building a Wolverine nation?
Not everyone can attend a game at the Big House, but anyone with access to a TV can become a fan by watching a game. Political philosopher Benedict Anderson describes this homogenizing effect as the same phenomenon that stirs nationalistic feelings. The shared act of watching Mike Hart on Saturdays contributes to a “collective consciousness” of Wolverines fans. We may not be able to meet the millions of other citizens of Wolverine Nation, but the “complete confidence” in their simultaneous act of watching the game unites the janitor and the MBA in a single cause. Recruits and prospective students can feel this aura, and it often plays a role in their choosing Michigan.
First luxury boxes and now the BTN. Martin’s decisions to ignore tradition and run Michigan like a telecom giant truly tarnish the University’s legacy. Worse yet, they could jeopardize the unquestioned national prominence of our athletic programs.
Mike Eber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.