FARGO — At almost the halfway point of a 10-year contract, the Missouri Valley Football Conference appears content with its television deal with ESPN. The general public’s awareness that video streaming continues to become more accepted as mainstream television is a major reason why.
Like last season, almost all Valley football games this fall will be aired on either ESPN3 or ESPN Plus. In other words, you need an internet service to watch them.
“Fans are learning the digital space,” said Mike Kern the associate commissioner for the Missouri Valley.
The digital space is a fluid, changing world. Walt Disney Corporation, for instance, announced this spring it will likely sell its subscription services that consist of Hulu, ESPN Plus and Disney Plus as one standalone streaming service. Industry analysts believe Disney, which owns 80 percent of ESPN Inc., will be going head-to-head with video streaming giants Netflix and Amazon Prime Video at perhaps a lower monthly price.
That could mean North Dakota State football games currently aired on ESPN Plus would be available to a wider audience.
ESPN launched ESPN Plus last year at a cost of $4.99 per month on the same ESPN website as its free ESPN3 telecasts. The numbers took a dip, Kern said, but that was probably due to fans being unfamiliar with the new ESPN Plus platform.
“I think we’ll take a more aggressive approach this fall with advertising as to where to find it and how to get it,” Kern said.
Technically, Kern said, ESPN3 is not free anyway because viewers need either a cable subscription, student or military identification to access it.
“The extra $5 a month isn’t a lot if you think about it but it’s one more thing for people to understand so I can understand why people didn’t get all excited about it,” Kern said.
All of NDSU’s regular season games were carried on ESPN Plus.
The reason, of course, is Bison games generally have a bigger audience than most other FCS schools and ESPN tried to capitalize on it.
Kern said the Valley likes the fact fans know on a weekly basis where to find league games. That’s not the case, he said, with leagues like the Big Sky Conference or the Colonial Athletic Association.
“They are two major FCS conferences, and they’re all over the map with their television deals,” Kern said. “If you’re a fan trying to find a particular game or a particular school, you’re not sure where to look on a week-to-week basis. I think our fans have learned the process.”
Kern said streaming technology has improved thanks to ESPN’s partnership with BamTech Media, which has since evolved into Disney Streaming Services. “It was better in the last year in terms of no buffering and a steady content of delivery,” Kern said.
Locally, Bison games this fall will still be carried by the North Dakota NBC Network with the exception of the Valley Game of the Week that is produced by the conference. Of the other 56 home games, 43 were carried on ESPN Plus and 13 on ESPN3.
Most of those were produced and transmitted by networks like North Dakota NBC or Midco Sports Net. Kern said that’s been another benefit of ESPN streaming — the fact a few schools that previously didn’t air games had to find a way to do it.
He said the 10-year Valley football contract is connected to an overall arching Missouri Valley Conference deal for all sports. The league has an option to review it after five years, but Kern said he doesn’t see any changes in the foreseeable future.
“It’s more about the exposure and the content being in the same place than about the money,” Kern said.