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Post College football, blogs, and media influence

Wednesday July 25, 2007

There’s an interesting discussion going on about the influence of ESPN in the college football world. We’ll pick it up with Kyle’s post here and then see responses here and here. Interesting stuff, mostly.

I have to admit that it’s good sport to watch the nascent sports blogosphere interact with the sports media. I can understand how the blogs which really began to hit their stride two years ago think that this is new ground, but it’s not. The first generation of online writers in the mid-1990s also butted heads with more traditional media, and we saw much of the same friction. If there’s a difference it’s in the competitive marketplace. Print journalism was (and still is) competing directly with a lot of these online sites. Innovations we take for granted on modern newspaper Web sites such as multiple daily updates, deeper online photo galleries, and even comments and discussion spaces were pioneered first online and adopted by print media in the fight for eyeballs. Inch-deep coverage wasn’t going to cut it as the predecessors of Rivals.com and Scout.com changed the marketplace.

Blogs have taken the interaction to a more granular individual level. Smarter journalists are jumping in with both feet and have built their own personal brands. Newspapers like the AJC have beat blogs with more frequent, brief, and informal updates from their journalists on the news beats. Several professional pundits have embraced the interaction and earned places as authorities and discussion leaders. The competition here has to do with insight, interesting ideas, and access. Unless Ivan Maisel offers compelling content, why read him instead of an interesting blog? We’re all just writers hoping that someone will find our content worth reading. Some do it better than others, and some stake their livelihoods on it.

With ESPN television, it’s a bit of a different story. There simply isn’t the competitive pressure. We have to differentiate between the ESPN punditry and the network itself. The pundits, from Simmons to Schlabach and on down, face the same competition in the marketplace of ideas as any other "print" journalist. But in terms of SportsCenter or Gameday or live coverage of games themselves, the competition (if any) comes from CBS, FOX, and other networks, not from Deadspin or DawgsOnline. ESPN Gameday might be cheesy, overdo the Virginia Tech story, or go to the wrong game. Who cares? We’ll watch anyway. Eyeballs and ratings – not well-crafted blog missives – are what drives ESPN. When someone carries more games or provides a better alternative to Gameday, the competition will tell the tale.

We complain about the influence of ESPN in college football, but what we might have seen is the Law of Unintended Consequences at work after 20 years.

Prior to 1984, the NCAA had strict control over which schools appeared on television:

Under the old NCAA plan, which had been in effect since 1952, teams were limited to six appearances during two seasons.

Schools which attempted to organize their own deals were threatened with banishment from the organization, and it wasn’t until Georgia and Oklahoma successfully sued the NCAA in that landmark 1984 case that things began to change. The CFA replaced the NCAA as the distributor of television coverage, but even that proved too restrictive for the membership. The moves by Notre Dame (NBC) and the SEC (CBS) in the early 1990s brought control of television deals down to the conference and even the individual team level.

But while NBC and CBS settled on those valuable broadcast rights, ESPN attacked with breadth. So CBS has the best SEC game of the week; ESPN will take the second-best…and the fourth-best. It’ll also add another game on ESPN2. They might even convince a couple of SEC teams to play on Thursday night. Combine that with the national and regional reach of ABC, and you have quite a network. NBC will have their Notre Dame game, CBS will have one or two games, but there’s a lot of action left over and a lot of demand for college football. Spread it beyond Saturdays, and there are even more opportunities to broadcast games with programs willing to sacrifice the tradition of Saturday afternoon for national exposure.

Think about what some of this additional coverage has meant to the game. Back in the days of few networks and NCAA limits on television appearances, would stories like Boise State or Rutgers ever catch on? Would anyone have seen all but a glimpse or two of the West Virginia backfield? It’s likely that a displaced fan in Oregon can somehow catch the UConn-Pittsburgh game. Through broadcast networks and pay-per-view, almost every Georgia game is available on television. Were such things even imaginable 25 years ago?

Increased coverage has done its part to make things more democratic. With more and more games showing up on television, there are fewer and fewer excuses for pollsters and the punditry to be provincial. Even more, it’s easier and easier for the college football fan to catch the BS and have their own informed opinions about the national landscape.

This widespread availability of games has come with a cost, and obviously networks are not bringing us more games out of altruism. Without the oversight and restraint of the NCAA or even the CFA, television networks can dangle some pretty juicy plums in front of conferences. Teams, particularly those mid-level programs who will do anything for a little more exposure, have begun playing on all days of the week. It’s hard for me as a fan of a program with plenty of exposure and cash to criticize this development, but I wouldn’t like my team taking a spot in one of those games.

There is a concern that ESPN is crossing lines in brokering out of conference games. Arranging games is nothing new. It’s how college football’s most cherished tradition and most valuable brand came to be. The Senator is nervous (with good reason) that the media conglomerate might take a greater role in the evolution of the college football postseason, yet we hold on to a postseason where matchups are already brokered well in advance by conferences and local chambers of commerce.

College football has brought a lot of the current state of affairs on itself. The 1984 decision gave greater negotiating power to teams and conferences, but it also transfered power from the NCAA to the networks. Some suggest that we’d have the same breadth of televised games regardless due to the growth of cable and satellite television, but I have to think that at some point the NCAA would have put a stop to things like Friday night college football. It could be argued that such limits would be to the detriment of smaller programs, but that’s a moot point; the CFA ship has sailed a long time ago.

We also fret over ESPN crossing over the news/entertainment line, but that’s not as big of an issue with me. I rarely rely on ESPN as a news organization. I never watch EOE productions. I watch sports. If ESPN has too much influence, it’s the tradeoff we make by giving media opinion such a prominent role in college football’s ultimate prizes. Again, media influence is hardly a new development. In recognition of that long-standing fact, ESPN and the AP withdrew from their participation in the BCS.

So what are we left with? A self-promoting media organization that brings us dozens of good college football games. Of course they have some awful commentators and analysts; that’s kind of unavoidable anywhere these days. I’ve had my criticisms of the coverage before, but it’s because I want a better product to watch and not because ESPN/ABC is leading us all down the path to prepackaged hell. I will close with this: with the NCAA more or less hands-off when it comes to the college football postseason, someone else will guide the process. The networks and their sponsors already have a large role in the BCS, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see them at the forefront of future changes.

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