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BTN, The SEC, And Principles: College Football’s Media Day Mess

A third of a century ago, in 1981, college football wasn’t televised wall-to-wall on Saturdays. The courts had not yet busted open the television landscape, changing forever the way Americans consumed college football as a product… and the ways in which broadcasters presented the product over the airwaves.  Therefore, while media coverage of college football has regularly been an issue in the sport’s history, the ways in which media coverage is most centrally felt have been altered to a considerable degree.

Preferential treatment toward a conference might not be a brand-new reality in the world of college football. Conferences died, switched names, and transferred exiled teams for much of the 20th century. Yet, the intensity and centrality of this subject is what sets apart the past 20 years from the 1980s and previous decades.

College football fans are more conscious of media dynamics than they were in the past. Part of this reality is rooted in a higher level of media literacy, if only because of the pervasive, incessant flow of content during each week of the year. Part of the present situation has also been shaped by the felt need to be attentive to what’s on television. Until the mid-1980s, televised offerings of college football were so comparatively meager that there weren’t enough debatable decisions to contest in the first place.

The way rankings questions and Heisman Trophy competitions are talked about today is markedly different from the 1980s. (Whether voting patterns have remained the same or not is a different question.) Much has changed over the past 30 years, and this forms the basis for today’s commentary on conference coverage, media-day events, and the college football climate in which we process various issues through the lens of television.

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In today’s college football environment, saying anything particularly forceful about the Southeastern Conference — for or against — can lead plenty of fans to identify pundits as being SEC homers or haters. Right or wrong, the SEC has become that much of a lightning rod in contemporary college football discussions. It’s why my colleague Bart Doan’s piece last Thursday on ESPN and the SEC Network generated a robust debate and a lot of activity in my Twitter mentions.

What’s important to understand, though, as Big Ten Media Days conclude today in Chicago — marking the end of every power-conference media-day event — is that one can compliment the SEC and still be critical of the way in which it is covered by ESPN on a national level. What’s just as significant in all this is that one can criticize ESPN for overhyping the SEC and yet point out that non-ESPN networks bear a large share of the responsibility for this “hype gap” (one could also call it a “perception gap”) between the SEC and the other four power conferences.

That last point has been emphatically affirmed by these past two and a half weeks of media-day events, which began with the SEC’s party in Hoover, Ala., on Monday, July 14.

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Here’s a summary of media-day coverage from the five power conferences:

1) SEC

SEC Media Days received extended coverage on ESPNU, including the presence of an anchor desk on site in Hoover. This was not part of any other media-day event for ESPN. SEC Media Days also received four days of coverage, not the two days that applied to the other conferences’ media gatherings. On several levels, there’s very little the other conferences can do to compete with SEC Media Days. This and other related points are not being contested.

Let’s sharpen that last statement: This commentary is not seeking to advance the idea that if other television networks covered their media-day events in a better way, the fight for improved conference perception would take a decisive turn. No — that’s not what’s being claimed here. The SEC would still own more advantages.

In summarizing the past few weeks of media-day coverage, the far more important point is not the set of built-in advantages the SEC already owned. What matters is that two conferences with their own house-organ networks did not cover the signature aspect of their own media days in real time. Those two conferences are the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Before getting to them, however, let’s examine two other conferences in connection with media days.

2) Big 12 and ACC

Where ESPN deserves a great deal of criticism over the past few weeks of media-day coverage is in its handling of the Big 12 and especially the ACC.

Last Monday (July 21), ESPNU didn’t show Big 12 Media Days live. (Fox College Sports Central carried the event live, but no fully-available national network offered live television coverage. Fox Sports 2 showed a live feed of Big 12 Media Days, but FS2 isn’t available on Comcast/XFINITY and doesn’t have the reach of Fox Sports 1.) Later in the day, with coverage ostensibly devoted to media days until 4 p.m. Eastern, ESPNU failed to show Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher speaking live at ACC Media Days, even though Fisher appeared before the assembled press in Greensboro, N.C., at 3:40 p.m. Eastern.

Not showing the head coach of the national champions despite an expressed commitment to offering coverage of media days represented a clear unforced error on ESPNU’s part. It was and is the exact kind of decision which enables a nation of college football fans to claim, with considerable justification, that the deck is stacked in favor of the SEC and against other power conferences.

When the Big 12 and ACC are compared to the SEC, the WorldWide Leader’s treatment of the three conferences gives the “SEC bias” crowd a potent new supply of hard-to-refute arguments. These are the kinds of dynamics that make non-SEC college football fans angry because one outlet (ESPN) is perceived to play favorites and give too much love to one conference.

What happened the past few weeks in the Pac-12 and the Big Ten is something altogether different… but it feeds into the perception of a pro-SEC media landscape just the same.

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3) Pac-12 and Big Ten

Urban Meyer, a superstar head coach and a national figure in college football, spoke at Big Ten Media Days on Monday in Chicago. Big Ten Network did not provide live coverage of his session with the media. ESPN deserves plenty of criticism for how it elevates the SEC and undercuts the levels of exposure it gives to conferences such as the ACC and Big 12. However, when BTN can't provide live coverage of Meyer, Mark Dantonio, and the coaches of its other big-name programs, the collection of factors that feed into conference bias becomes a lot more complicated. It's not just about ESPN loving the SEC too much; it's about BTN and Pac-12 Networks being markedly inadequate when covering their own conferences. Conference bias is, in other words, a two-way street and a multi-source problem. ESPN's competitors have to do a better job.

Urban Meyer, a superstar coach and a national figure in college football, spoke at Big Ten Media Days on Monday in Chicago. Big Ten Network did not provide live coverage of his session with the media. ESPN deserves plenty of criticism for how it elevates the SEC and undercuts the levels of exposure it gives to conferences such as the ACC and Big 12. However, when BTN can’t provide live coverage of Meyer, Mark Dantonio, and the other coaches of its big-name programs, the issue of conference bias becomes a lot more complicated. It’s not just about ESPN loving the SEC too much; it’s about BTN and Pac-12 Networks not covering their conferences as well as they need to. Conference bias is, in other words, a multi-source problem. ESPN’s competitors have to do a better job. There are multiple reasons the SEC gets favorable treatment on TV.

In these final days before the official launch of SEC Network, the Pac-12 and Big Ten are still the only members of the five power conferences with their own cable networks. As such, they should have a comparatively easy time showing their own media-day events and giving their own fans what they want.

What do fans of conferences want? They want to see their coaches speaking live, that’s what.

Last week, the Pac-12 Network did not show its coaches speaking live. For some odd reason, the Pac-12 set up its media days in such a way that journalists were asked to gather around coaches, creating a less television-friendly event. However, Pac-12 Network still had the chance to put a camera on these events and stay with the centerpiece of any media-day gathering. It punted, instead choosing to fill its media-day coverage with friendly chats involving on-air talent.

Yes, P-12 Network might not have been entirely at fault for the way in which Pac-12 Media Days were (not) covered, but didn’t the network have the ability to insist on shaping the event so that it could easily cover the coaches’ public sessions with the media? Who in Pac-12 offices thought the rugby-scrum coach-session setup was a good idea? Why didn’t anyone veto the stupid suggestion?

With the Big Ten and its in-house network, the coverage of media days on Monday in Chicago took a slightly different but almost as irritating turn.

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To its credit, Big Ten Network did show all 14 coaches speaking to the media. However, like Pac-12 Network, BTN didn’t show these sessions live (with one genuine exception — Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern — and two partial exceptions, Darrell Hazell of Purdue and James Franklin of Penn State, on minimal time delays). Once the Monday program at Big Ten Media Days hit the fourth or fifth coach on the schedule, BTN’s tape-delay approached 10 minutes. The network offered Gerry DiNardo’s studio analysis in between each media session, creating a backlog that was later reduced by the time Franklin came to the podium. After Franklin’s session, BTN once again lengthened the delay between coaches’ sessions, starting with Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, who immediately followed Franklin on the schedule.

To be clear about all this, BTN — the house-organ network devoted to painting the Big Ten in the best possible light — did not (would not) show Urban Meyer live. It didn’t show Mark Dantonio, Brady Hoke, Bo Pelini, or Gary Andersen live. Before saying anything else, just allow those facts to settle into your brain: The Big Ten Network did not show its best or most visible coaches live, despite the platform offered by a conference media-day event.

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As said above in the recap of SEC Media Days, one should not think that the differences in media-day coverage are the central and foremost reasons why the SEC gets more favorable treatment when college football seasons arrive. The Pac-12 plays too many games late at night, for instance. The Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine games, beating each other up to a greater degree while the SEC schedules more conservatively and accurately bets that voters won’t penalize the conference for its comparatively smaller number of losses. There are bigger reasons why the SEC wins the battle of perception at ESPN. Moreover, you have already read in this piece a direct criticism of the WWL for its treatment of the Big 12 and the ACC during the media-day-filled month of July.

However…

If you’re going to criticize ESPN for showering too much affection on the SEC and shortchanging Jimbo Fisher in the ACC (as I have done), it’s both inconsistent and unfair to gloss over the ways in which two house-organ networks failed to adequately cover their own conferences’ media-day extravaganzas.

The simplicity of the fact is the loudest, most damning statement imaginable, without need for added commentary: Pac-12 Network (last week) and Big Ten Network (on Monday) couldn’t be bothered to show their media-day coaching sessions live from start to finish.

The SEC has enough public-perception-based advantages as it is. Pac-12 Net and BTN have only compounded the problem last week, giving SEC fans ample (and airtight) reasons to repeat the claim they’ve made over the past several seasons:

“We simply care more about college football. We take our product more seriously. We devote more resources to it. We buy what we want more readily. We have better television coverage and production.”

It’s not a surprise at all that SEC Network is closing in on a deal with DirecTV, while Pac-12 Network will need a DirecTV-AT&T merger to have any chance at getting its product on DirecTV. It’s not just about the commissioners and their levels of skill (though that obviously matters); it’s about the power and firmness of the customer bases in each case, and what level of revenues a company such as DirecTV can demand from each.

Pac-12 Network and Big Ten Network were supposed to serve as counterbalances to the SEC’s muscle. The two specialty cable channels were supposed to show that college football could be taken just as seriously in the Midwest and West as it has long been viewed in the South. Over the past week of messy media-day madness, they have oh-so-clearly failed.

You can say that this is not a big deal in the sense that this is not a decisive moment in the fight for public perception among the power conferences in college football. To that extent, you would not be wrong.

Yet, when in-house networks can’t cover their own conferences properly, locating and identifying ESPN as the monstrous — and only — source of college football’s media problems becomes that much less tenable and realistic.

It’s the principle of the thing.

Yes, SEC bias is real and persistent. That’s one reason the SEC enjoys not just more — but better — publicity. However, the SEC’s “hype advantage” only grows when conferences such as the Pac-12 and Big Ten can’t get sufficient coverage from their own networks. Bias, you see, isn’t just about the increase in attention devoted to one entity; it also emerges from the lack of quality attention devoted to that entity’s competitors on the other side.

Does ESPN’s weight dwarf the weight of Pac-12 Network and Big Ten Network? Of course it does. Yet, P-12 Net and BTN, by failing to offer live broadcasts of coach sessions at media days over the past week, have lost the ability to make one very specific argument to the SEC and its fans: P-12 Net and BTN offer coverage of their own conferences which is just as thorough and partisan as what the SEC receives when it convenes its own media-day event. That argument just can’t be made after this past week.

It’s the principle of the thing.

That simple sentence might not matter much on a real-world level in college sports, which really isn’t wedded to many principles other than making money. Yet, in a climate of cutthroat competition, the arguments about media treatment of conferences can no longer be viewed solely through the prism of what the SEC gets from ESPN (and also CBS). The Pac-12 and Big Ten have house-organ networks which, through their failures over the past week, have become much more a part of the problem…

in principle.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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