Stadium's studio is located at United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks. (n/a/Stadium)

CHICAGO — One night in mid-February, the marquee college basketball game on the schedule was Duke vs. Virginia, two ACC powerhouses, both ranked among the top teams in the country, both of whom would later earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The game was broadcast by cable giant ESPN, which beamed the action into some 85 million homes around the country.

For some college hoops fans without cable and lacking access to the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” there was a consolation prize: Old Dominion against Middle Tennessee State, a Conference USA matchup that was broadcast over the air on a network called Stadium.

Launched in 2017, Stadium is part-owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group and Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox. Major League Baseball, the NHL and Meredith Corporation, a media company that owns Sports Illustrated, also have stakes. In addition to some second-tier college sports rights — Patriot League football and West Coast Conference basketball, for example — the network offers several hours of live studio programming every weekday. A mix of highlights, debate and analysis of the day’s news, it’s a lo-fi facsimile of what you might find on ESPN.

Last year, Stadium made a few splashy hires: News breaker Shams Charania covers the NBA, and former ESPN reporters Jeff Goodman and Brett McMurphy are on college basketball and college football, respectively.

But more than anything, Stadium, which reaches some 25 million homes — the majority of them on free TV — is a bet on the future of broadcast television. It is a bet that as companies invest in direct-to-consumer subscription products such as ESPN+ and Turner Sports’s B/R Live, there is an untapped sports audience that can be reached via 1950s-era technology: the rabbit ear antenna.

“Our end goal is to be the most widely distributed and available sports network in America, far surpassing the 85 million in cable,” Stadium CEO Jason Coyle said. “Everyone is going behind a paywall; we’re going the exact opposite direction.”

The cord-cutting phenomenon has been brutal for the cable industry. In 2011, for instance, ESPN had more than 100 million subscribers. Earlier this year, analysts at MoffettNathanson Research reported the number of pay TV subscribers dropped 4.1 percent from a year before, the highest rate of decline since the trend of cord cutting emerged in 2010.

The number of broadcast homes, meanwhile, is growing. In 2018, 16 million homes had only over-the-air TV, up from 12 million in 2014, according to Nielsen.

“It’s the fastest growing segment of TV,” said Scott Ehrlich, Sinclair’s vice president of emerging platform content. “People like free."

Here, it’s important to note scale. Cable TV still dwarfs the reach of broadcast-only households by around 70 million homes. And even less-distributed cable networks such as MLB Network (56 million) and the Big Ten Network (57 million) are in vastly more homes than Stadium.

But the difference, Stadium executives point out, is the trend lines — and the potential of the free TV experience. In 2017, the FCC announced a new broadcast standard for free TV that essentially expands the digital bandwidth of each channel. Over the next five years, each over-the-air station could broadcast as many as 25 individual digital sub-channels. (An imaginary Channel 2, for example, could have different programming on channels 2.1, 2.2 and so on.) If there are now 12 free channels available in a given market, multiply that by 25, and you would have some 300 channels.

“Listen, obviously some of these channels are going to suck,” Ehrlich said. “But the point is that what’s available over the air could be extraordinary.”

For Stadium, the connection to Sinclair, which owns nearly 200 broadcast TV stations, makes the tie-in to free TV obvious. The network strikes distribution deals with individual broadcast networks and station ownership groups — it is on many Sinclair stations (and some not owned by Sinclair), but is not in every major market — and appears on a digital sub-channel in 86 markets.

And Stadium’s live game broadcasts have appeared on some of those Sinclair stations. If Sinclair, which has expressed interest in purchasing a group of regional sports networks from Disney, expands further into sports, the opportunity for Stadium to reach more fans is apparent. Stadium is also available through several streaming services, including both packages offered by Sling TV. (Asked about Sinclair’s politics — the network has been criticized for its conservative-leaning programming — Coyle said Stadium is a separate editorial operation.)

Still, sports fans are drawn to live broadcasts, and Stadium doesn’t have any premier offerings. As of today, the network doesn’t have a big enough audience to qualify for Nielsen ratings. Asked how many people are watching Stadium, Coyle said the number was difficult to quantify. Another obstacle is the studio programming, which is filmed inside United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks. Stadium’s shows do not have the slick production value of anything on ESPN or other leading outlets, and the programming has something of a generic-brand feel.

“They need to build exposure, and you can’t do that over the air,” said Dan Cohen, who leads sports marketing company Octagon’s media rights consulting practice. “The live rights they have just aren’t being marketed or watched, and the studio programming isn’t a destination, so I don’t know where that leaves them.”

Cohen added that larger networks are adapting to the over-the-air TV growth, too. For example: ABC, which like ESPN is under Disney’s umbrella, is expected to be part of ESPN’s bid to keep or perhaps expand its NFL rights.

“The hurdle is being known,” Coyle acknowledged. But he added: “We need a certain number of people to watch us, but the bar isn’t very high. We’re not writing checks like ESPN.”

Thursday night, Stadium will air a nearly two-hour-long documentary about Minnesota Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose that includes intimate footage of his life, from growing up on the South Side of Chicago to his rehabilitation from two serious knee injuries.

The film, which is executive produced by Rose, represents Stadium’s largest editorial project to date and hints at the network’s ambitions. It also represents a classic conflict-of-interest quandary. Rose is an athlete Stadium intends to cover, but he is also now a business partner.

“Derrick Rose has been working on the documentary for decades,” Coyle said. “And the lines between coverage of editorial and content are so far gone as far as I’m concerned.”

He added: “We want to be a place to watch, and a lot of that is which coach is getting hired; which one is getting fired; here’s who I’m hearing info from; here’s who’s getting traded. We don’t want to be too far from that.”

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