Lacrosse at 11!

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Eight years ago, how many people thought that tapes of old games like the 1979 Rose Bowl or the 1968 World Series could have much value? Brian Bedol did. As a developer of Nickelodeon's all-rerun Nick at Nite sitcom programming in the early 1980s, he had proved, as he puts it, that "once you take something out of the attic, polish it and put it on display, it becomes an antique." So in 1995 Bedol created the Classic Sports Network and showed that the allure of sports TV is more powerful than most people imagined. ESPN bought Classic Sports in 1997 for $180 million, with Bedol making millions (he won't be more specific).

Today Bedol, 44, is again pushing ignored goods, as a co-founder and the president of College Sports Television (CSTV), the only 24-hour network devoted solely to college athletics. Major broadcast networks, as well as cable outlets like ESPN and Fox Sports Net, already have dibs on big-conference basketball and football. So CSTV, which went on air in April, will field a second-string lineup of college sports, including basketball and football from conferences such as the Horizon League (Butler, Detroit Mercy, Youngstown State), plus track, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and — yes — squash. CSTV joins several niche sports networks — the Tennis Channel, the Ice Channel, Black Belt TV — in launch mode this year. But many analysts vote CSTV most likely to succeed. "College sports fans are rabid, and CSTV holds the category," says Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports.

CSTV has the cash to give it a go. Bedol and co-founders Steve Greenberg (who helped start Classic Sports) and Chris Bevilacqua (who has negotiated TV deals for Nike) started pitching the concept to athletic conferences and cable operators two years ago. Last spring Bedol, Greenberg and Allen & Co., a New York City investment bank (and Greenberg's employer), put up $10 million. In a viewer survey last fall by a big cable operator naming 40 new or proposed channels, CSTV ranked No. 1.

Thus armed, CSTV has secured an additional $90 million, including investments from Constellation Ventures, (a Bear Stearns fund), football legend Joe Namath and Athlon Ventures, a fund whose participants include NBA star Kevin Garnett and Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson. Coca-Cola is in for $10 million, plus a $5 million marketing partnership. For programming, among other deals, CSTV has bought national rights to all sports other than basketball and football from Notre Dame, which has millions of fans. DirecTV, the satellite operator recently acquired (from GM's Hughes Electronics) by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., has agreed to place CSTV on its sports tier, which reaches some 2.5 million subscribers and should benefit from aggressive News Corp. marketing.

Bedol says additional distribution deals for access to 40 million subscribers are pending with eight of the country's Top 10 cable operators. He expects $5 million in total revenues this year and to break even, at around $40 million, in three or four years.

CSTV's early distribution success doesn't mean that people will watch or advertisers will buy. With its cheap programming, CSTV can succeed with half-point ratings; for NFL games, ESPN needs four points (a point represents about 1 million households). But there hasn't exactly been a clamor for local — let alone national — broadcasts of college softball and swimming. "CSTV was not an easy sell" for Bedol, says Michael Thornton, a programming executive at DirecTV. Bedol says he is near deals with several big auto, PC and telecom advertisers attracted by CSTV's young, educated target audience. Today the only ads are conference promotions and direct-response ads for brands like Sports Illustrated and Sony Music.

Hanging in Bedol's modest Manhattan office is an autographed photo of Namath. Unlike Namath, who famously predicted that his Jets would take the 1969 Super Bowl, Bedol offers no guarantees. But his opening drive looks pretty good.