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Pac-10 Turns Its Back on ESPN : College basketball: Conference soon will announce a four-year agreement with Liberty Sports Network. Some coaches question wisdom of the move.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

ESPN officials are amazed and several Pacific 10 Conference coaches privately concerned--over the league’s soon-to-be-announced four-year television basketball package with Liberty Sports Network.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, ESPN offered a 23-game schedule (17 games on ESPN, six on ESPN2) that would have paid the Pac-10 about $3 million over the next four years.

Under the proposal, the Pac-10 would have joined the cable sports network’s “Big Monday” lineup, which currently showcases games involving the Big East Conference, followed by the Big Eight Conference. A weekly Pac-10 matchup would have followed the Big Eight game.

Instead, Pac-10 officials and member schools, concerned about the wisdom of late-night tip-offs, chose to sell the television rights to the Texas-based Liberty, a division of Tele-Communications Inc. A formal announcement of the agreement is scheduled as soon as Liberty, which also owns Prime Sports, receives approval from its board of directors.

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Financial terms were unavailable, but it was apparent that Liberty’s flexibility in starting times helped convince league members to endorse the package.

“It was a tough call,” said a Pac-10 official, who requested anonymity. “There’s a lot at stake because ESPN is college basketball. But ESPN is not the only player anymore. With this (deal), the latest we’ll tip off is 8:30 (p.m.). But most of the time we’ll be going off at 6:30, 7, 7:30.”

ESPN, which has an 11-game package with the Pac-10 this season, wasn’t impressed.

“I think sometimes you throw up your hands with them,” said an ESPN official who was involved in the deal, but asked not to be identified. “They’re the only conference dumb enough to do this.”

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Added ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys: “We’re surprised they’re giving up the exposure on ESPN. It would have been a significant increase in exposure for the Pac-10.”

The ESPN deal, while attractive, would have required a 9:30-10 p.m. tip-off for the featured Monday evening Pac-10 game. The late starts prompted concerns among conference members over attendance, fan safety, student-athlete study and travel schedules and the actual national value of a “Big Monday” telecast. After all, viewers on the East Coast would have to stay awake until at least 3 a.m. to see the final outcome of the Pac-10 game.

“I don’t think there’s a coach in the country who doesn’t like the opportunity to be on ESPN because of the exposure,” said Arizona Coach Lute Olson. “The problem is, I’m not in favor of putting on games at 10 o’clock at night, on a school night.”

However, several other Pac-10 coaches, providing background only, said they were unsure if the conference made the correct decision. Their reasons: ESPN provides more national exposure, a higher profile network and a more recognizable recruiting tool.

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“We certainly would like to be on ESPN,” said one coach, hopeful that a three-way arrangement between ESPN, Liberty and the Pac-10 could be arranged.

Too late, said Soltys. The Liberty deal effectively ends the Pac-10’s relationship with ESPN--at least through 1998-99.

“From a Pac-10 standpoint, for the next few years it’s not an option,” said Soltys.

The Pac-10 official seemed to agree, saying “it’s not too likely we’ll be on ESPN in the near future.”

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Added the Pac-10 source: “It’s like (former USC coach) George Raveling used to say, ‘The only thing wrong with this conference is the time zone.’ ”


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