ESPN the Big Player in College Football

ESPN is the biggest and most powerful player in modern intercollegiate athletics. There are very few who would question that. The question that is harder to answer and would cause greater disagreement is whether ESPN's strength is a good thing.

The New York Times has begun chronicling the extent of ESPN's reach. College Football's Most Dominant Player? It's ESPN notes that ESPN gets involved with scheduling and the efforts of conferences to gain more revenue has led to a complete re-shaping of the modern landscape. ESPN's favor can help determine who wins the major awards and who becomes a power.

Boise State, Louisville, South Carolina, and TCU have all seen their fortunes improve in profile, prestige, and recognition by putting together good teams that played well with the network. With ESPN's favor they are all higher profile programs. While the WAC no longer plays football and the Big East that once was a national power basically no longer exists because competing conferences gutted them in their pursuit of more TV dollars.

The second article, At Louisville An Athletic Boom Made For (and by) TV details how Louisville used Tuesday night exposure to build a program that went from C-USA to the Big east to the ACC.

So is ESPN the evil empire?

Conference Stability.
While realignment has been driven by the desire of conferences to increase their revenue, ESPN actually took steps to try to calm down the frenzy. When the Big XII seemed to about to tear apart, ESPN sent a figurative convoy of armed trucks packed with cash to the Big XII headquarters in Irving and to the University of Texas in Austin. The financial guarantees made, followed by a later guarantee to Kansas. ESPN had seen college football rapidly move from six power conference to five and cherry-picking the Big XII would have reduced the number of power leagues to four. Similarly the ACC, the league that made the moves that gutted the Big East seemed in danger of being ripped apart by raids by the Big 10, SEC and possibly the Big XII. ESPN stepped in taking all of the league's television rights, promising to create an ACC network and leading to the creation of a grant of rights agreement that reduced the temperature from the boil-over point.

Presumably ESPN's decision was one of self-interest realizing that further concentration of the top programs would raise their cost of doing business. Also of note, losing key television rights would damage ESPN leaving large swaths of football crazy country where ESPN lacked the rights to the top teams.

Top-Division Stability?
While there is a lot of speculation that changes in the NCAA regarding the governance structure are code for a breakaway of the top five conferences who may or may not be joined by two or three others, this a move that would likely spark concern at ESPN.

ESPN is invested in the programs that would be left out were this speculation to be true. While the MAC and Sun Belt are not a cornerstone of their programming, ESPN has been successful with the Tuesday and Wednesday night programming. The leagues do not possess household names but being top division has value, it is important in branding the product.

If the value for FCS were similar, ESPN could easily plug in FCS programs yet the network's involvement in FCS football comes as a part of other contracts with the NCAA.

ESPN's involvement with smaller bowl games would also be hurt. The network is expanding its ownership of bowl games with two additions confirmed (Famous Potato and the soon to launch Camellia) and another deal to take over the Heart of Dallas reported to being close to final. ESPN has obviously determined that owning bowls is in their best interest given the league is increasing its ownership by nearly 50%.

ESPN stepped in to calm down realignment, it would be surprising if the network failed to use its influence with the power leagues to protect a set of investments that while likely not major profit producers is raw dollars probably produce a very good rate of return on the smaller investment.

As we've seen with the rise of Boise State, Louisville, and even South Carolina and Oregon, being a program that is successful and works well with ESPN can produce big benefits.

The NHL is drawing good crowds and good ratings without ESPN but has found that despite that good news, overall awareness of the league has actually fallen because ESPN has basically banished them from the channel. They've gained an affiliation that has been a big improvement for the fan but has lost access to the casual fan.

The Future.
ESPN has operated basically without competition. Others have nibbled around the edges but no one has dared line up head-to-head across the board until now with the new Fox Sports 1 (Astatenation is affiliated with Scout which is owned by Fox but has no financial stake nor benefit from the performance of FS1).

It will be a long-haul game for FS1. Right now most of their content is either niche interest or regional interest. FS1 was expected to make a strong play for bowl rights but no deals have been announced and ESPN has picked up ownership of three additional bowls. Most bowl contracts this cycle look to be 6 years meaning it could 2019 before Fox gets a big dent in bowls.

If they miss on the Big 10 deal expiring in 2016 and the NBA deal expiring in 2016, it will be 2024 before another major deal is in play. The NFL is locked up to 2023 on ESPN and 2024 on the other networks. The NHL is locked up to 2021.

The MAC, C-USA and MWC also expire in 2016 and Fox makes a big play there the dynamic could potentially change.

The dilemma is that FS1 has two challenges. The first is to get content viewers will tune in to watch. The second and more difficult task is cracking the network of record perception ESPN holds. The folks in Bristol are like the kid who by buying blue tennis shoes suddenly has everyone else in school wanting to buy blue tennis shoes. Being an opinion shaper will be a challenge.

The bottom line.
ESPN has obviously changed the business of intercollegiate athletics in large part because college presidents and AD's facing greater competition and a system that shares little revenue compared to pro leagues have been less willing to push back and set limits on what they will and will not do. The pursuit of TV revenue has damaged college athletics perception by becoming more commercial and has torn apart long-time affiliations in the pursuit of greater revenue. Yet ESPN has taken actions to defuse the turmoil. Their success in the bowl arena has led to increased bowl opportunities for often overlooked programs. In basketball their Bracket Buster program has improved scheduling for the so-called mid-majors and their and earl season football classics have helped offset the tendency of schools to avoid playing weak non-conference slates.

To be fair, ESPN is not quite an evil empire nor is it the benevolent leader of the intercollegiate world. It is simply a powerful force to take into account in building a program.