ESPN Launches Digital Mid-American Conference Channel: What Does It Mean For Fans?

A mock up of what the ESPN MAC Digital Network looks like. - Phil Burwell, Mid-American Conference Communications

ESPN announced that it's launching 15 new digital conference networks, including a MAC network, on its popular WatchESPN service. But what does this actually mean for MAC fans?

If you're a fan of #MACtion you may have just received one hell of a late Christmas gift. Thursday morning ESPN announced that it was launching 15 digital college conference channels as part of its WatchESPN brand of services. The move will allow ESPN "to better serve the fans" according to Rosalyn Durant, ESPN's vice president of college sports programing.

The large list of partner conferences ranges from the America East to the  Mid-American Conference. The digital networks currently provide users with live men's and women's basketball broadcasts, just in time for conference tournament action. Currently, users can also watch replays of mens and women's games from as recently as Wednesday night. According to the release, replays of football games from the 2013 season are also in the mix. Each conference channel is currently available for streaming on Apple TV and Roku devices.

The MAC confirmed the news in an official release Thursday afternoon, though it provides little in the way of new details.

But what does this all really mean? As fans of the MAC how does this announcement impact us? Well, though there are still some questions that will need to be answered in the coming months, on the surface this appears to be the sort of thing we've been clamoring for for some time. If ESPN does wind up adding more live content, as well as on demand replays of games, news, analysis and feature content specific to the MAC this will be huge for fans, and for the conference, providing it with a nationally accessible and polished network. Of course it's not that simple though, and there are a few catches to the whole thing

Let's take a look at some basic questions fans may have:

Q: The channels are currently only available on Apple TV & Roku versions of the WatchESPN app, what if I don't own either of those devices?

A: The release does say that the conference channels are only available on the WatchESPN apps for those two devices, but it also says that it plans to make the channels available on "computers, smartphones, tablets and other connected devices". In other words, if your device currently allows you to use the WatchESPN or ESPN3 services you will eventually be able to view these conference specific digital networks on there as well. No official date for that rollout has been announced, but expect it to happen sometime this summer.

Q: What kind of content will be available on this new ESPN MAC Digital Network?

A: Currently, live men's and women's basketball broadcasts are available, as well as replays of recent games. The release also says that replays of football games are available, though at the time of this writing, there are only a handful of old events available, all basketball games from this week. Eventually the digital networks will provide countless hours of live game content, including football and non-revenue sports (volleyball for example), as well as highlights, news pieces and analysis. Yes, this means that the ESPN3/ESPN2/ESPNU broadcasts of games will also be available on this digital channel.

It doesn't appear that any new content (outside of games) will be created for this network, so any hopes of a MAC-branded reality series is out the question (though we have ideas if that ever changes). Basically, this network will just be a portal to all the MAC-focused content already provided, such as highlights that may already appear on various parts of ESPN.com, as well as some additional live game content. Think of it as ESPN providing you with a built in filter so you can see content only relative to the MAC, and not have to sift through SEAC football and MVC basketball to find Bowling Green vs. Central Michigan women's games.

Q: Will I be able to watch the MAC men's and women's basketball tournaments in a few weeks using this service?

A: Absolutely. In fact, that's one of the main reasons it appears ESPN pushed it out before it was available on all of its platforms, to ensure that at least some users would get to take advantage of it in time for the tournament season. So if you can't make it to Cleveland, and you have a Roku or Apple TV, this is could be an incredibly easy way for you to follow the action. Of course it's always better to see the games in person, and who doesn't love Cleveland in early March?

Q: How do I get access to this content? Is it free?

A. No, it is not free. WatchESPN & ESPN3 is an online service ESPN currently provides to people with valid cable subscriptions. Here's the catch though, not every cable provider has a deal in place with ESPN to provide its customers with access to ESPN's digital streaming services.

The companies whose customers have access to it are technically paying for it along with their regular cable bill because their provider has already worked out a deal with ESPN to provide those services as part of the cost of also getting their networks. Plenty of cable providers have deals in place, including Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Charter, Google Fiber, AT&T UVerse and Verizon Fios (among others).

Some noticeable companies do not have access to the services though, including both DirecTV and Dish Network, so until those providers reach new deals with ESPN to include the WatchESPN access for their customers, you are out of luck if you have service from an unsupported career. Unlike recent digital networks such as the WWE Network, there is no way to sign up for the WatchESPN services on their own. That is unlikely to change anytime in the future as it is cost effective for ESPN to make it part of a bundle for paying for their cable channels.

Q: What does this mean for the MAC's deal with Time Warner Cable SportsChannel?

A: The MAC reached a deal to air some of its content on the newly created Time Warner Cable SportsChannel back in the late half of the summer. The network produces and airs several live basketball broadcasts a week, and has aired some non-revenue MAC sports championships/tournaments as well.

In theory this new ESPN Digital Network deal has no impact on the deal with TWC. TWC's broadcast have been included in ESPN3 and MAC-Sports.com stream's all year, though the ESPN3/WatchESPN versions are blacked out in Ohio. The same rules will likely still apply, with TWC broadcasts being blacked out for Ohio residents on WatchESPN's MAC Digital Network when they include teams in Ohio (I don't live in the other MAC states, but I'd imagine if you live in an area of Michigan or New York that get's TWC SportsChannel, the stream of the game they're airing is also blacked out for you).

However, TWC's production quality has been incredibly disappointing, with poor frame rate quality, bad camera work, and awful graphics. Their pre-produced teasers for games have been known to include terrible factual errors from time to time as well (see the embedded post form Vine). Hopefully this deal, and opportunity for increased exposure, will force TWC to step its game up and produce a better quality product.

Q: What does this mean for the MAC's own Digital Network?

A: For those that don't know, the MAC currently operates its own digital network on its official website, MAC-Sports.com. It's 100 percent free (you don't even need a username) and provides users with live video streams to all men's and women's basketball games, and several non-revenue sports as well as highlights and some feature type content.

The streams are typically house streams done by the athletic department's themselves, with the radio broadcast laid overtop of the video. The quality can be hit or miss, with come schools such as Miami and Central Michigan offering near HD TV quality streams and production values, and others such as Ohio offering subpar shaky top cam streams.

Right now it is unclear if the MAC's own digital network will still exist. In reality it would be very easy, and from a pure infrastructure standpoint, understandable for the MAC to quit offering its own services on its website. Hosting live video is not cheap, and having to keep all that up and running on their official website is a surely a tough task. This new digital ESPN MAC Network would also make the services redundant to a certain extent.

However, with the way ESPN limits the service to customers of its partners, this leaves a growing number of people out of the loop. Millions of people cut the cord each year, going away from traditional cable service for an a la carte model using digital streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, etc. Also, as mentioned, several major providers, including the nation's two major satellite providers, don't have access to these services currently. These people would be out of luck if the MAC does decide to eliminate its own free digital network.

Q: How will this impact the MAC's TV deal with ESPN?

A: There's no telling how this will impact the future of the MAC with ESPN either. It's well known that the MAC's current deal is not the greatest in terms of financial rewards for member schools (it pays the conference roughly $1 million a year for the broadcasting rights to its weeknight #MACtion football games and the conference championship game in Detroit) The current deal runs through the 2016-2017 season. While the MAC may be able to get more money out of a network such as Fox Sports 1, which is desperate for live sports programing, when the current deal expires, no other network currently has the resources to offer the MAC what ESPN is doing here. This is certainly a huge bargaining chip in the Worldwide Leader's back pocket. Not to mention, the MAC has stated before that it is comfortable with its relationship with ESPN.

This is sure to be a key point in the MAC's next stop at the bargaining table. If no other network can provide the level of customized service that ESPN can, it's highly unlikely that we'll see #MACtion on any other family of networks anytime soon.

———————

There you have it, some basic questions and answers about the newly launched MAC Digital Network. On the surface this new venture has the potential to be huge for conferences such as the MAC, providing them with a nationally accessible digital network operated and built by the worldwide leader in sports. This network should mean more reach for the MAC, especially online, where many of the conference's fans  likely have no clue how to stream games currently.

Using the brand power of ESPN, with the technological footprint of its powerful and polished WatchESPN/ESPN3 services, the MAC now has a network of its own with a national reach, albeit online only, and with some catches. This should mean more eyeballs on its football games, as well as some national exposure for its other, less popular sports.

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