For a long time, Connecticut public broadcasting executives found that the popularity of UConn women's basketball was the answer to an awful lot of their questions. It was an amazing source of viewers of all ages and that translated to high visibility and mucho contributions, particularly as those talented teams kept winning, including seven national championships.
Ongoing financial problems resulted in CPTV cutting back on lots of its local political and magazine shows even as its commitment to women's basketball was growing. Those contracts with UConn were very costly for an operation running on an annual budget of close to $20 million.
"It was an expensive proposition for CPTV," says Rifkin. "We turned ourselves into a sports station," he explains, and that required mobilizing almost everyone on staff to do something UConn related. The organization's stationery was even emblazoned with the slogan, "The Home of UConn Women's Basketball."
The public station's contract with UConn was up for renewal this year, and the state Attorney General's Office ruled that it should be put out for competitive bids.
CPTV's final bid was $4.537 million for four years, and it wasn't enough. The New York-based cable channel SNY took the rights for $4.55 million — a difference of only $13,000. Jerry Franklin, president and CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting, complained that UConn never even gave his station the chance to match SNY's bid.
"I just got up and got the UConn tread marks off my back," a bitter Franklin told the Connecticut Post last month after it was announced that SNY had won.
But it really wasn't about the money for UConn. It was about the 14 million viewers and the national exposure SNY could provide the university's women's basketball program.
Rich Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University and an independent producer of documentaries that have aired on CPTV, believes it was inevitable the public station would eventually lose the UConn deal. He insists the point of no return was reached long ago when the university and state lawmakers decided UConn should "dive headlong into big-time college sports."
As a national basketball powerhouse, coach Gino Auriemma's program recruits nationally and hungers for the increased national exposure SNY can offer. He told The New London Day that the SNY contract could make UConn "the women's basketball equivalent of Notre Dame," a sports phenomenon bigger than any particular league or region.
"We made CPTV the most watched public broadcasting station in America, and the most profitable," Auriemma told Day columnist Mike DiMauro. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to pay us what they paid us."
He made it clear that the relationship with CPTV just wasn't going to have a future, no matter how great it had been in the past. "It just wasn't going to be possible, no matter what CPTV did," he said. "This is strictly about the exposure of UConn women's basketball. It's one million homes [with CPTV] vs. 14 million [with SNY]."
Rifkin doesn't think UConn's departure was inevitable. He points out that UConn's women won seven national championships during the CPTV years, suggesting Auriemma didn't seem to have that much trouble attracting talent while his games were being broadcast on Connecticut's public station.
The UConn deal could be a big gamble for SNY, Rifkin says. "I never thought SNY would put up this kind of money," he adds. There's no certainty cable viewers in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere will be as devoted as Connecticut fans, according to Rifkin.
"I don't think anyone is going to get the kind of value that CPTV got out of it," he says.
Those UConn games (CPTV has broadcast more than 400 of them since 1994) were a linchpin in their fundraising drives. And it was more than the games, with season-ending documentaries that were also popular.
"This was a sustained winter activity, week after week after week," explains Hanley, who says all of it was "wrapped in a fundraising envelope."
There were warnings years ago that depending too much on that one amazing vehicle could lead to trouble.
In 2004, Peligian conducted an internal review of CPTV's fundraising policies, and his report caused quite a stir when it was leaked to the Hartford Courant.
In it, Peligian concluded the station had succumbed to a "short-term pursuit of cash through aggressive pledging and underwriting spot sales at the expense of building viewership."
"It is tempting to try and exploit this [UConn] audience for all the pledging that can be wrung from them," Peligian warned back then.