May 14, 2001
Women's hoop team tops national pub TV ratings
By Theodore Fischer
Basketball-wise, Connecticut is hardly a typical place. Basketball may be tantamount to a state religion in other jurisdictions—Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina come to mind—but only in Connecticut is women's basketball, as popular or more popular than men's. Every home game of the University of Connecticut women sells out before the season starts. Players' names—"Svet" "Shea" "Swin" "Big Rig"—are Connecticut household words. Endorsements by Coach Geno Auriemma adorn billboards and magazine ads. Walk into a corner bar or Indian casino on game night and UConn women's basketball is likely be on the house TV.
what's even more astonishing is that all those the sets, and many more, are
tuned to public television. They're enough to score 14 ratings for some big
games and 8s and 9s the rest of the time (close to 150,000 viewers). UConn
women's basketball on Connecticut PTV consistently scores the highest ratings in
all of public television, with an 8.5 average rating since November, according
to TRAC Media Services. Antiques Roadshow is the next most-popular show,
averaging 4.5 in January and February. (In contrast, Ken Burns' Jazz
averaged 3.3 and PBS's primetime average hovers around a 2 rating.)
the network's top programmer, Larry Rifkin, calls a "holy alliance between public
television and women'sbasketball" began tentatively in 1994 when
CPTV telecast the final game in the Big East tournament. "We went on the
air, and the response was just incredible," says Rifkin. CPTV did three
more games in the 1994 NCAA tournament, and next year "lightning struck. .
. . We did 11 games without a formal contract—and the team went 35-0,"
says Rifkin, who had made lightning before by recruiting Barney & His
Friends to the PBS team.
CPTV is contractually obliged to televise at least 17 games a season, for the
last few seasons it has shown every game, home and away, that the networks
decline—23 games during the 2000-2001 season. Although the networks (ESPN,
CBS, FOX) do skim some cream—regular season match-ups against national
powerhouses Tennessee, Notre Dame and Louisiana Tech plus most post-season Big
East and NCAA tournament games—the team seems to thrive on home cooking.
"UConn has lost twice on our air in seven years," says Rifkin.
"Either we're a good-luck charm or we don't get the really tough
games—but in truth this team rarely loses." The UConn Huskies women's
basketball team (don't ever call them "Lady Huskies") won the 2000
national championship and in 2001 finished the season 32-3, reaching the NCAA Final
Mobile Television, the crew that telecasts network sports along the Northeast
corridor, handles production supplemented by five or so CPTV staff members.
ESPN's Bob Picozzi does play-by-play. CPTV's UConn Hoops package includes a
half-hour Geno Auriemma Show before 12 games plus "Rules of the
Game," "On the Court," "Off the Court," and other
vignettes. "We strive to give them as sophisticated a production as CBS and
ESPN – but with local flavor," says Harriet Unger, senior producer. For
contests in remote venues like Malibu, Seattle and Miami, CPTV hires local crews
to produce single-market feeds back to Connecticut.
to a new contract signed last month, CPTV will pay UConn $2.1 million for
broadcast rights to UConn women's basketball games for the next four years, plus
some football games men's and women's soccer, and football games. This
represents a nice chunk of change insofar as, outside of men's football and
basketball, colleges usually pay stations to broadcast their sports.
CPTV gets from this hefty investment is what public stations need most: members
and ratings. "We have about 100,000 members, radio and television, and
about one-third are members because of UConn women's basketball," says
Jerry Franklin, CPTV president. "And then there's the ratings bonanza. It's
the highest-rated show on any public television station so we actually compete
with and sometimes beat the commercial competition on game nights."
basketball, a markedly more teamwork-oriented and sportsmanlike version of the
men's game, attracts a somewhat different audience than other CPTV programming.
"It's young children, newly marrieds, teenagers, senior citizens—and the
racial profile mirrors Connecticut's racial breakdown," says Franklin.
to 14 times a year, CPTV inserts pledge breaks into time-outs and the coach's
show. CPTV occasionally sells broadcast rights to commercial and public stations
in the UConn opponents' market, and it has assembled an enthusiastic team of
underwriters with Phoenix Wealth Management as Team Captain. Team Partners are
First Union, United Technologies, Big Y World Class Markets, SNET, Yankee Energy
System, and the New Haven Register.
keeps UConn on the public TV reservation? The money, partially, and Tim Tolokan,
the UConn associate director of athletics, estimates the new four-year contract
is actually worth something like $4 million to the university once you count the
value of CPTV's production costs (about $20,000 per game for 20 games per
season) and an annual 60-minute highlight reel (at $1,000 to $3,000 per finished
minute). Since every home game in the 10,027-seat on-campus Gampel Pavilion and
16,294-seat Hartford Civic Center sell out pre-season, UConn can get priceless
exposure to alumni donors—of whom 90,000 live in-state—and potential players
without harming the gate.
appreciates that no other women's basketball program (and few men's programs)
receives this much exposure—and neither would UConn if it went to commercial
TV. Truly independent TV stations are extinct, and network commitments curtail
coverage. "When we started this arrangement in 1995, because we're a state
school we had to do an RFP," says Tolokan. "Commercial stations that
wanted to partner with CPTV would say, 'We can't take Wednesday games because we
have primetime programming, but we'll do four on Saturday and you can do the
rest.' The folks at CPTV thought about it for about three seconds and said they
could do it all themselves."
other program in the country comes close to this," says Chris Farrow, NCAA
assistant director of broadcast services. While public television has lengthy
experience covering sports—with Boston's WGBH televising national tennis
tournaments from the Longwood Cricket Club as early as 1963—it remains
something of a 98-pound weakling among the big guys of TV sports. WFUM in Ann
Arbor airs University of Michigan hockey, New Hampshire PTV does University of
New Hampshire hockey, and Maine PBS carries some of the NCAA hockey tournament.
The only arrangement that approaches CPTV-UConn is Iowa PTV's coverage of
college wrestling, now in its 24th year, with nine meets this season.
urges public stations that would emulate the UConn-CPTV alliance to start small,
with maybe five Saturday-night away games from cities where costs are relatively
low. "Figure on spending $25,000 per game and hope to pledge enough to
break even," says Farrow.
has tried to spread the gospel to its public broadcasting brethren, at one point
identifying 15 markets with strong support for women's college basketball and
even finding sponsors to pay all the production costs for four local games a
season. "But we couldn't pull it off," says Franklin. "Two or
three [stations] were for it, but all the others said it's not our mission, or
we can't get permission from the university, or sports won't play in our
And perhaps women's basketball as appointment TV—appointment public TV—can only work in a small state with no pro teams competing for attention. "Bottom line, I don't know if this experiment can be transplanted," says Rifkin. "We happened to hit a chord that resonates magnificently with our audience. And the beauty of it is that at this time of year—the cold months from November through March—viewing is sky-high. It is not frivolous to say it's changed the relationship between this station and the Connecticut public."