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Viewpoint As SNY brings a hockey celebration to our state, let’s hope the partnership with UConn isn’t on ice

March 26, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — This was a Monday to celebrate hockey in Connecticut. Yet it also was an afternoon press conference to celebrate SNY for doing something many years of ducking, dodging, rationalizing and equivocating could not:

SNY has brought together the state’s four major college ice hockey teams for two games each under one roof on one weekend starting next January at Webster Bank Arena.

More imaginative than trying to copy the uncopyable — Boston’s Beanpot — the three-day festival won’t only be Yale, UConn, Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart playing. It will be a three-day festival for youth hockey tournaments, clinics and seminars, an event to grow and revel in a sport that has meant so much to the state.

It will be called Connecticut Ice.

SNY president Steve Raab talked about how the network has weekly idea meetings and much of the stuff never makes it out of those confabs. An idea of the Connecticut Beanpot was heading toward that same fate before SNY folks began to realize there was no great rallying point for state youth hockey.

“What if we could pull together, not a college tournament but a festival that embraced amateur hockey in Connecticut?

“It took some time with the schools.”

The schedules are done a few years in advance, some of the schools already play each other once or twice. We’ve heard all the rationalizations for many years. SNY kept at it.

“Eventually they all bought into the idea it wasn’t just a college tournament, it was something for the state,” Raab said. “They all seemed to genuinely care about hockey.”

The SNY folks know all the athletic directors. They’re a relatively objective third party that also would televise the games. The schools have seen the quality work SNY has done with UConn. Webster Bank and Bridgeport were all in. The result is an initial two-year commitment that Raab wants to last much, much longer.

Bully for the SNY folks. They did right by the state.

Now permit me to use some of that Connecticut Ice to help contain a burgeoning Connecticut fire involving UConn, SNY and ESPN over the 12-year, $1 billion American Athletic Conference television contract expected to be formally announced later this week.

Permit me to demonstrate how cooler heads, good-faith negotiating and persistence can help everyone — save the most incendiary UConn fans — understand there is some common ground to be found when it comes to the ESPN+ portion of the new AAC deal.

After UConn lost out in conference realignment years ago, the resulting $40 million in annual red ink has left State U’s athletic department searching for any kind of life preserver. There has been understandable doom, gloom and occasional panic. The Daily Campus, UConn’s student newspaper, ran a front-page editorial Monday calling for the school to leave the AAC. On Sunday, there was a column in the Hartford Courant under the online headline, “The AAC TV contract with ESPN would be garbage if SNY is pushed out of the picture.”

There are niggling details, of course. Niggling details like fitting UConn into a new conference. Niggling details like not knowing the fine print in the reported AAC deal.

“Neither the conference or ESPN has been in direct contact with us about the details, so we don’t know the details,” Raab said. “I’d like to hope there is still an opportunity. Obviously, I’m biased, but if there isn’t, I think that’s a bad deal for UConn and a bad deal for UConn fans.”

Look, if I wanted to kiss up to UConn and UConn fans, I could paint a picture that would put ESPN in the worst possible lot. ESPN+ costs $5 a month. ESPN+ requires an app. So many UConn women’s basketball fans are senior citizens. That’s not a weakness. That’s a strength. Still, I could paint a picture of octogenarians on fixed income struggling with an app and giving up. Put it under the headline, “ESPN Rips Off Seniors.” I can envision a mob with torches marching on ESPN headquarters in Bristol.

There was considerable gnashing of teeth in 2012 when UConn left CPTV for SNY. Complete with its pledge drives, CPTV played a large and romantic role in putting the UConn women on the map. The hard truth was the time was ripe to move on and SNY, with a viewing audience of 13 million, has done a terrific drive broadcasting games and with all the content beyond the games.

If all the UConn games were behind the ESPN+ app, yes, it would be very bad for UConn. Very bad. Bad enough for UConn fans to go crazy. And ESPN, a state corporation, would have to live with the scorn.

But let’s take a step back.

ESPN, sources indicate, is expected to meet with SNY about the new AAC deal that runs from 2020 until 2032. More than that, according to those sources, the UConn women will have as many as 10 games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. That’s not counting big non-conference games like those against Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville and South Carolina this season. That’s not counting the post-season tournaments.

That certainly quells some of the panic, doesn’t it?

There’s a second point to be made, one that likely will ring hollow with UConn fans. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco was under enormous pressure to land a more lucrative media deal to separate the American from the other non-Power Five leagues. He came up with a $1 billion deal — about $7 million per school, $5 million more than the exiting deal. Why? Football. Not men’s basketball. Not women’s basketball. Football is the engine and a UConn football program that can’t win games or sell tickets hasn’t added diddly to the AAC. You think the conference offices are moving to Dallas because it wants to be closer to SMU basketball?

ESPN, meanwhile, is a business asked to pay a lot more for a similar product and has to find the economics to make sense. So it wants all the content it can get.

And UConn? UConn wants to stop losing so much money and get into the Power Five. One of the great selling points of SNY was to gain a greater foothold in New York and help the school get into the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12. UConn fans wanted at least $10 million from the AAC deal plus $1 million more from the SNY deal. We can sit here and wail, but it just wasn’t going to happen this time around. Let’s swallow a little of our conceit, Connecticut. There has to be some give and take in 2019.

Said Raab: “The distribution we brought to the state, the level of content we’ve brought — games, pre- and post-games, Geno Auriemma’s Show, Huskies’ all-access … I think we’ve raised the level of not just the quality but the quantity and the access.”

All true. Here’s another truth. It’s in ESPN’s best interest to maximize UConn women’s basketball. Good grief, they practically sponsor the entire sport.

There has to be a deal out there to keep SNY involved at some level with the UConn women, while satisfying ESPN’s venture with ESPN+. Streaming and cord-cutting is the future and the future already is upon us. I do feel strongly that the UConn women, with all its senior fans, should have been much closer to the caboose than the engine on that app train. Yet at the same time UConn women’s basketball will not shrivel away behind a paywall and never be seen by recruits.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123