By Bart Doan
On Twitter @TheCoachBart
Years from now, we’ll probably look back on this and think we all should have known better. The college football year 2004 changed everything, from our first real anger at the BCS having a fatal flaw when three major powers in the sport went undefeated and the title game had room for only two to the Big 10 figuring out the money was better as the newly-branded B1G away from ESPN and into its own network.
The SEC was sitting across the street sipping down Fireball when it saw the guy across the street suddenly stopped coming home, and his hot wife was sitting around with nothing to do and no one to do it with.
Not long thereafter, as the B1G went its route to its own network, the SEC figured ESPN was lonely and decided to help with the landscaping, which eventually made them bedfellows.
College football fans should be terrified about how this could turn out. Unless you have penultimate faith in the ethics of ESPN’s reporting, the sport could be effectively destroyed under a landfill of contrived controversy and pre-edited opinions given.
You see, ESPN owns the rights to the College Football Playoff and every bowl not named the Sun, and ESPN also owns now 50 percent royalties from the newly minted SEC Network, to debut this fall with football driving the entire existence of every single one of these forays into conference television individuality.
Now, how powerful is the pull of having these networks? Look no further than the pioneering B1G, which is basically adding Rutgers for network expansion reasons and network expansion reasons only … even at the caning of a bamboo shoot of the quality of its own product.
This past week at SEC Media Days, ESPN’s Justin Connolly openly admitted that of the SEC Network: “We’re not going to do a lot of investigative journalism” … which basically means that if it’s negative about the SEC, it will be mentioned as a news item but we’ll save the Outside the Lines stuff for entities that have less of a financial stake in our product.
Last year was the crescendo for the issue, when there was a real chance the one-loss SEC champion would miss out on playing for a BCS championship if … of all teams … eternally paranoid Ohio State and the B1G went undefeated. It ended up not happening, but the outrage of the possibility that an unbeaten team from a power conference would get in over an SEC champion with a loss was immense from the four-letter network.
One ESPN blogger for the ACC openly admitted that it was “disconcerting” that the SEC teams’ losses are basically ignored next to the ACC’s, which is the closest the network has ever come to churning out a self-acknowledgement of bias that works in favor of the SEC. Thankfully, ESPN has kept Andrea Adelson in the fold.
This has been a concern for years. None of this is anything new. Nor is it really bad business by ESPN. The network makes more loot when its product succeeds across the board and cross promotes its other product.
When the SEC wins, it’s better for ESPN.
But this is only scary when it comes to college football. Sure, fans can lament all they want about ESPN giving undue coverage to the Yankees and Red Sox during baseball season or Duke and North Carolina during college basketball season, but the fact of the matter is that those sports eventually weed out their winners and if it ends up being Tampa Bay Rays versus Florida Marlins, that’s the way it goes.
College football is inherently different because perception creates reality. To ESPN’s everlasting credit, in a business world where no model is unique for more than two weeks before someone else copies it, ESPN has learned to exist and expand almost without any competition.
Sure, for the smart, dedicated sports fan with a large enough cable package, you can avoid the circuit-training sports coverage ESPN offers and go to the Golf Channel for golf, NBATV for the NBA, the NFL Network for pro football, and so on. But in terms of encompassing them all and shrink wrapping them for the sports fan on the go and in terms of controlling the narrative, ESPN has been unchallenged regardless of the hate it garners.
Fox, CBS, NBC, they’ve all tried to replicate the model and carve out a dent in the ESPN monopoly and to this date, they’ve been nothing but mosquito bites to the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader.
None of it really matters other than in college football. College football’s championship participants are chosen by human beings who have flaws, opinions, eye tests, bed times, and families to work around.
I would never give out the guy’s name, but years ago I ran into an AP poll voter when I was in college as a part-time lackey somewhere. I asked him about his recent college football poll. He laughed and said he doesn’t have time to sit and watch 12 hours of college football and either watches ESPN for highlights or just gives it to an intern to fill out.
Later on, I ran into someone working for a program whose coach had a vote. He said the coach gave the poll to a secretary or student manager because the staff barely has time to do enough film on the teams that they play, let alone everyone else to vote on.
Personally, I couldn’t blame either of them. Voting is a privilege, but a time consuming and free one; normally, things that are time consuming and free aren’t privileges.
If you do nothing but turn on ESPN to find out who has been good, who has been bad, and who deserves to play for a title, you’ll come away thinking that unless it’s in the South, it’s probably not worthy of playing for a title.
In fact, ESPN’s Brad Edwards said last year that Auburn’s finish to the season was “incredible” and resume wise, the Tigers were better than Ohio State. He then laid out a percentage of voters that probably needed to swing Auburn over unbeaten Ohio State for the Tigers to have a legitimate chance.
And in college football, that opinion happens to matter.
ESPN is an entertainment company, but it’s now an entertainment company in bed with a conference and a playoff that decides a championship. What are the odds that gets dealt with ethically?
Even though ESPN currently has deals with more than just the SEC, hashtags like #ESPNSEC float around completely unfettered by #ESPNBig12 or #ESPNACC. The full court press is already on to feature SEC teams, SEC coaches, and SEC narratives (and Texas) only.
The optimist says that we’ll end up being surprised. It says that the inclusion of all conferences makes for a utopian system where we can take the best four teams regardless of anything and have them play one another.
The pessimist says that because of scheduling inequality, time zone differences related to poll voting, and inherent bias by the entity that controls the games and the narrative, that is impossible.
The realist says to bet money on the pessimist. And down a different fox hole college football goes. To them, it’s just a neighbor going across the street to help a lonely lady with landscaping. To the rest of us, it’s not so innocent.