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MACtion goes behind the ESPN+ paywall

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    University of Toledo cornerback Trevon Mathis (6) stops Bowling Green State University RB Josh Cleveland (1) during the 2017 meeting. This year's game will be televised by ESPN+.

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    This year's Sept. 8 game between BGSU and Big Ten foe Maryland at Doyt Perry Stadium will be televised by ESPN+.

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BOWLING GREEN — Mid-American Conference football, which gained a measure of national popularity for its weeknight games on the ESPN networks, will see some of its games televised for the first time on ESPN+, the network’s digital-only subscription service.

Unlike ESPN3, access to ESPN+ is not included with a cable subscription. The platform, which runs on Apple and Android devices, Roku players, Google Chromecast, and Amazon Fire, costs $4.99 monthly, or $50 if customers buy a one-year plan.

ESPN+ will be of particular interest to the two MAC universities in northwestern Ohio — only subscribers to the service will be able to watch the annual Bowling Green-Toledo game this season.

It will be a change from previous years, but one that the MAC has long expected.

“It’s where the industry is going, quite frankly,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in an interview with The Blade. “That’s just the simple economics of it. I think you’re going to see more and more of this from what we think of as linear television platforms. It’s just that ESPN is on the cutting edge of it.”

In addition to the rivalry game, Toledo will play its Oct. 20 game against Buffalo on the platform, while a third of BG’s regular season — four of 12 games — will be shown on ESPN+, including the team’s Sept. 8 visit from Big Ten opponent Maryland.

Bowling Green director of athletics Bob Moosbrugger said the deviation will be an adjustment for MAC fan bases, but one that he hopes is beneficial as more and more live sports move into a digital space.

“I understand their model,” Mr. Moosbrugger said. “I will want to watch those games on ESPN+, so I’ll want to subscribe to it. ... I’m a sports fan, so I’m going to go to where the sports are.”

ESPN, which did not respond to a request for comment, uses the app to show a wide range of sports. ESPN+ shows app-only boxing matches, extensive soccer broadcasts from leagues in the U.S., Italy, and England, and gives access to its library of 30 for 30 documentaries, among other things.

MAC football now will be among the offerings, and time will tell how it is received, Kent State director of athletics Joel Nielsen said. Kent State will play three football games, including its contest against rival Akron, on ESPN+.

“I don’t know if we can really give a true answer yet,” Mr. Nielsen said. “It’s one of those things: they’re partners with us and have been partners with us for decades. If they feel this is the way they need to go, we need to be a good partner on the other end.”

ESPN+ will not be the first instance in which MAC sports goes to a digital-only space. The network regularly shows MAC events, including football and basketball, on ESPN3, a digital-only platform that can be accessed with a cable subscription.

Mr. Steinbrecher, the MAC commissioner, said he expects the ESPN+ venture to be similar in terms of reception.

“I kind of expect the same evolution with ESPN+ that we saw with ESPN3,” Mr. Steinbrecher said. “When we first rolled out our revised deal, our new deal, and it included ESPN3, there was a lot of discussion.

“What we found was that within a year, people really expect it. They were upset when things weren’t on ESPN3 just because of the ease and the ability to get events wherever they are.”

No matter what happens, ESPN and the MAC are tied together for nearly another decade. The pair signed a contract in 2014 that runs through the 2026-27 school year.

Mr. Nielsen said it is important for the MAC and ESPN to be on the same page.

“Good business partners listen to each other and oftentimes they change course in the middle of the race,” Mr. Nielsen said. “That’s something we’re doing here. I was fairly comfortable that [ESPN+] wasn’t a large subscription number as far as the dollars, but we’re just going to have to wait and see how the general public consumes it.”

Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at npiotrowicz@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz

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