More info. It's a power play between ESPN and Time Warner...
A Crosstown TV shootout
UC-Xavier game set for ESPNU, but few viewers have access
BY BILL KOCH | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
A ticket to the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout, always a prized possession in Cincinnati, may be even more valuable this year.
The annual college basketball showdown between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, scheduled for Dec. 13 at UC's Fifth Third Arena, has been televised on either ESPN or ESPN2 since the 1998-99 season.
But this year the game will be available only on ESPNU, a cable channel devoted to college sports which most Greater Cincinnati households can't access.
Time Warner, the largest cable system in Southwest Ohio, does not carry the channel, which was launched in March 2005.
In Northern Kentucky, customers of Insight Communications can get ESPNU as part of its digital service.
And in Lebanon, Ohio, Lebanon Communications also offers ESPNU as part of its digital service.
Everyone else will need access to a satellite hookup - and a higher-tier programming package - to see the game.
John Long, general manager at WXIX-TV (Channel 19), which owns the local television rights to UC's basketball games, said Wednesday that ESPN has shifted the game to ESPNU in an attempt to force Time Warner Cable to include ESPNU in its basic cable package.
"It's all about ESPN and power plays and trying to get as many UC games on ESPNU so it will force the cable systems to put ESPNU on their cable system," Long said. "That's what this is all about."
According to Long, ESPN officials are counting on UC and Xavier fans contacting Time Warner to protest the absence of ESPNU on its basic system.
But Tilea Coleman, from ESPN Communications, said that's not the case.
"Absolutely not," Coleman said. "The point of ESPNU is to be a 24-hour cable service devoted to college sports. We are within our rights to televise this game. The intent of ESPNU is to enable fans to see match-ups such as this."
Coleman said that ESPN remains in discussions with Time Warner.
"We haven't reached an agreement," she said. "But we're hopeful."
ESPN's contract with the Big East Conference gives the sports channel the right to pick any 12 conference games or nonconference home games from UC's schedule. At this point, Coleman said, there are no plans to allow a local affiliate to pick up the ESPNU telecast.
"That's something that we'll have to discuss with our programming department," she said. "We still haven't finalized our entire schedule."
But Channel 19's Long said it's unlikely that ESPN would allow the game to be shown anywhere except on ESPNU.
"They're not going to let you do that," Long said. "They want everybody realizing the only way I'm going to be able to see this thing is if one of the cable guys picks it up.
"I kept telling the guys at ESPN that you're insulting people's intelligence. You think a cable operation is going to succumb to pressure because of one night? It isn't going to happen."
Karen Baxter, director of public affairs for Time Warner Cable, said Time Warner "would love to carry ESPNU" on its sports tier, a package available for an additional $2.95 per month.
"ESPN insists on (ESPNU) being carried on our standard lineup, which means all of our customers would have to pay for it," Baxter said. "That would impact the price everyone pays for cable. We don't think it's fair to pass that price along to all of our customers."
Baxter said the price a cable system must pay for the programming of a provider such as ESPNU is based on how many customers would receive the channel. She said Time Warner has 640,000 customers in Southwest Ohio, which includes Cincinnati and Dayton.
This is not the only UC game that local fans will have trouble seeing. UC athletic director Mike Thomas said that seven other games have been placed on ESPNU and that the Bearcats are not scheduled to make any appearances on the Big East's Big Monday package with ESPN.
Thomas, who said he voiced his displeasure with the Big East office about the television schedule, said he knows that UC fans won't like the Crosstown Shootout television arrangement, but the school is virtually helpless to do anything about it except to join forces with Xavier, Miami and Dayton to lobby Time Warner to reach an agreement with ESPN.
Thomas said he expects that UC fans will have "the reaction that the ESPN folks want them to have."
"They're trying to select games in certain markets where there's real interest," Thomas said, "so that local fans will voice their displeasure and ESPNU will be added to their local (cable) system."
Said Mike Waddell, UC's senior associate athletic director: "We've lobbied as much as we can lobby. It comes down to the bottom line is that ESPN is in a battle with Time Warner. We're held over a barrel here and WXIX is held over a barrel."