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Dear ESPN, It’s Time To Grow Some Balls

“Don’t pretend like there aren’t hours of video of some of these guys bemoaning the idea that their players may one day not have to be poor. Don’t ignore the fact that some of these guys have looked into your cameras and told your reporters that NIL legislation would kill whatever sport it is they coach.”

Demetri Ravanos

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I am on vacation this week. I am not supposed to be writing or thinking about sports media, but NIL legislation took effect across the country last week and the NCAA chose to get out of the way and let players make a little money off their fame. So, here I am, sitting on the porch of a cabin in Navajo Nation, typing on my laptop as I look out at Monument Valley.

Coaches across all college sports are going to have to learn to work in this new environment. Reacting to the world around them and innovating solutions are what they are paid to do. Right now, they are all saying the right things. They may acknowledge that this will be a challenge, but they will all add that it is about time we le players make money off of their name, image and likeness.

Come the fall, ESPN will run packages every week on College GameDay noting what companies are giving money to which high profile players. The reporters will talk to coaches to get their opinions on valuable Instagram and TikTok posts. Everyone will yuk it up as Lee Corso slaps Desmond Howard on the back and asks how much he could have gotten paid for striking the Heisman pose while holding a Diet Coke can.

That is how things will go. GameDay has become the go to show for guys like Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban to say whatever they want and not receive much pushback.

ESPN, don’t let this happen. Don’t pretend like there aren’t hours of video of some of these guys bemoaning the idea that their players may one day not have to be poor. Don’t ignore the fact that some of these guys have looked into your cameras and told your reporters that NIL legislation would kill whatever sport it is they coach.

There is a veritable greatest hits of things that were said:

  • “This will create a competitive imbalance for smaller schools.”
  • “What will we do about women’s sports?”
  • “After football and basketball, who is really in line to make money?”

ESPN, grow some balls and ask the people who said these things if they still feel good about those statements, how they were received by their players, and how they feel now that NIL legislation has passed and college sports are still standing.

Let me help you out with a quick refresher of who said what.

MIKE LEACH (MISSISSIPPI STATE FOOTBALL COACH)

Mike Leach broke out a classic. “I think there will be a huge imbalance and you’ll destroy college football,” he said during a press conference in September of 2019. At the time, he was the head coach at Washington State University.

I’d love for some reporter to ask Leach when exactly he thought there was a more level playing field in the sport. When have bigger schools in richer conferences not had a leg up on everyone else?

I’d love to know why he thinks college football has continued to thrive even as coaches, say, leave a floundering PAC-12 school in the middle of nowhere for a new job making SEC money. Doesn’t that send the message to players and fans that this is all a business and any emotional investment is a waste of their time? Why hasn’t that killed the sport?

I’d love to know how Mike Leach would respond when it is pointed out that the first college football player to sign any kind of endorsement deal was not from a powerhouse program like Clemson or Alabama or Oklahoma, which are seemingly always in the top five. The first player to sign any kind of endorsement deal wasn’t a Heisman frontrunner like Spencer Rattler or Sam Howell. It was Antwan Owens, a defensive end from the historically Black Jackson State University.

SCOTT FROST (NEBRASKA FOOTBALL COACH)

Scott Frost is a walking disappointment. Each season, his ineptitude at Nebraska proves that his 13-0 season at Central Florida was more about how easy it is to win at the nation’s largest university than it was about anything he is capable of.

In 2019, Frost said “Once you start paying a football player, you have to pay every student-athlete. That’s an awfully big drain on our budget, depending on how much gets paid.”

This is a goos chance to cut ESPN a little slack. It isn’t just the World Wide Leader that doesn’t push back on this line of bullshit. Local media is just as, if not more complicit, in letting these guys spout nonsense and just nodding along. Frost was said this as the University of Nebraska was in the middle of building a $155 million football facility.

I would love for someone to ask Scott Frost how he feels about Olivia Dunn. The LSU gymnast is a social media superstar and expected to turn her more than one million Instagram followers into the single most valuable audience any college athlete has. LSU certainly gets what her brand means for the school.

The idea that big schools and major football and basketball teams would be the only ones to make any money off of NIL opportunities is an old, misguided idea. At best, Scott Frost doesn’t get how the marketing world works anymore. Social media has a much greater reach than SportsCenter. At worst (and frankly probably more likely) Frost is pretending to worry about what is fair for athletes in the Olympic sports, so that he can justify not wanting any college athlete to make money.

MARK FEW (GONZAGA MEN’S BASKETBALL COACH)

Oh buddy, did Mark Few get shrewd. What is the best thing to do when you are asked a question and you know sharing your honest opinion will alienate the people you most need on your side? You pretend to be too dumb to answer.

In a nearly 4 minute rant posted to Twitter in October of 2019, Few called NIL legislation “an incredibly complex issue. It’s like health care in America.”

Well, just like health care in America, this IS NOT a complicated issue. The people at the bottom deserve to be treated fairly. The only reason you are calling it complicated is because you are not at the bottom and treating people fairly could cut into your own personal bottom line.

The Spokesman Review outlined some of the most appealing Gonzaga athletes to potential advertisers. Do you think Mark Few is going to hold up any potential deals for these kids and let recruits weighing life as a Bulldog see that the program is lead by a guy that is going to stand in their way? Or do you think that all of the sudden, this is going to get real simple for the guy?

The college basketball version of GameDay features Jay Bilas, the lone voice in the sports media that has been a bulldog (no pun intended) from day one when it comes to how athletes are treated by the NCAA. You know what would be great television? Make Mark Few sit down with him and revisit these comments. Let someone that will actually call the guy out ask Few to explain himself.

DABO SWINNEY (CLEMSON FOOTBALL COACH)

Ah, the granddaddy of them all. Dabo Swinney wasn’t the first to say that student athletes shouldn’t be paid. He was just the loudest and most steadfast.

“We try to teach our guys, use football to create the opportunities, take advantage of the platform and the brand and the marketing you have available to you,” he said in a press scrum in 2014. “But as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.”

Dabo Swinney, I’ll remind you, makes more than $9 million per year. He ain’t going to “do something else.”

Like a pastor at a megachurch, Li’l Ol’ Dabo just needs those that believe in his message to stay poorer than him. In fact, it’s a sin for anyone playing for him to make a dime, because getting paid what you are worth is “entitlement.” The joy of helping him put a pool in his backyard with a waterslide and the Clemson logo on the bottom is payment enough!

Moving company offers glimpse into Dabo Swinney's 15,000 sq. ft. 'castle' |  News | foxcarolina.com
Courtesy: Tiger Moving

So shouldn’t the very first College GameDay of 2021 open with a segment about how Dabo Swinney is enjoying life in retirement?

It should, but it won’t.

Dabo is a media star. ESPN is in business with the ACC. Rather than have someone ask a tough question, ESPN will send Kirk Herbstreit, who’s sons played for Swinney, to lob softballs and ignore that these words were ever said like some kind of sycophant blogger. We will have to rely on the Internet to hold Swinney accountable.

I don’t even want the guy to quit. He is good for college football. I just want to hear Dabo Swinney say “My comments in 2014 were ridiculous and tone deaf. I was wrong.”

RON HOWARD VOICE FROM THE FUTURE: Dabo Swinney won’t say that.

College athletes are the most valuable members of any school’s marketing department. The University of Alabama went through four football coaches during the four years I was in school there and enrollment stood at just over 20,000 when I graduated in 2003. Eighteen years and six national championships later, enrollment is hovering just under 40,000. The campus looks NOTHING like where I went to school. You cannot tell me that is not thanks in part to people like Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, and Mac Jones landing the campus on national TV every week.

Alabama still planning to fill Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall, AD says - al .com
Courtesy: Ben Flanagan/AL.com

I don’t expect any of these coaches, or any member of the media that stood loudly against college athletes ever making any kind of money to admit they were wrong. I don’t expect to see anyone go on ESPN and say, “Well, NIL is here and college sports didn’t turn into a pile of flaming rubble like I said it would.”

What I do expect is some journalism, some context to where we are now. There is nothing rude or unprofessional about not letting these guys forget what they said two, three, or seven years ago. Grow some balls. Hold some feet to the fire. That is part of the job description right now.

BSM Writers

The Big Ten Didn’t Learn ANYTHING From the NHL’s Mistake

However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me.

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ESPN, Big Ten

My favorite moments in life involve watching someone/something on the verge of a great moment and after a lot of struggling, get to the moment that makes them happier than you cam imagine. You can feel your scowl shift from tepid observer to interested party and then finally transition to open fandom. I was on the verge of another one of those moments coming into this week until the Big Ten decided that they would make biggest mistake since the Legends and Leaders divisions.

The conference was closing in on a brand new set of media rights to go into effect starting with the 2023 football and basketball seasons. The discussions were near a climax when the USC and UCLA called Big Ten commish Kevin Warren. Then, the negotiations relaunched and something special was about to happen. The Big Ten was inches away from declaring themselves the richest and most forward-thinking conference in the entire country and if they could win a few football games, they’d be head ahead of the SEC.

You can argue until you are Gator Blue in the face but the fact is, the Big Ten was about to explode and pass the SEC. The conference was about to have games on FOX, ABC/ESPN, CBS and NBC. All of the networks. ALL OF THEM. They were also developing a package for a streaming service to test the waves of the web. It all sounded so damn smart.

Then, the Big Ten went dumb.

The conference got greedy and asked for too much from what would have been their most profitable partner in cachet, ESPN. Reportedly the conference asked ESPN for $380 million per year for seven years to broadcast the conference’s second-rated games… at best. My jaw hit the floor.

Pure, unapologetic greed got between the Big Ten and smart business. The conference forgot a lesson that the NHL learned the hard way. ESPN dominates sports. ESPN is sports.

I don’t need to go to far back in the archives to remind you that ESPN’s offer to the NHL for media rights wasn’t as lucrative financially as NBC’s was, but the NHL took the short-term money and ignored the far-reaching consequence. ESPN essentially wiped them from the regular discussion. Yes, there were some brief highlights and Barry Melrose did strut ass into the studio on occasion, but by no means was that sport a featured product anymore.

One afternoon I had someone tell me that they were upset ESPN was airing a promo for an upcoming soccer match that ESPN was carrying. He told me, “they’re only promoting it because they have the game.”

That’s kind of how this thing works. ESPN is in business with some sports and not others so it makes a lot of sense to promote those you are in business with, yeah? ESPN doesn’t spend a lot of time promoting Big Brother, Puppy Pals or ping pong either. Why would they? There is no incentive too.

Here’s the sad question. Why would ESPN bother promoting the Big Ten? Why would ESPN spend extra time on the air, on their social platforms, on their digital side, to promote something they don’t have access to? The Big Ten is a big deal, but is it that big of a deal?

I am not suggesting that ESPN will ignore the Big Ten. They will still get discussed on College GameDay. But why would the network’s premiere pregame show for decades go to any Big Ten games and feature the conference?

There will be highlights still shown on SportsCenter, but I’m willing to bet they get shorter.

The Big Ten chose network television and a streaming service over the behemoth that is ESPN. As far as streaming is concerned, consider that over half of all NFL frequent viewers still don’t know that Thursday Night Football games are on Amazon only this year. That’s a month away and that’s people who call themselves frequent NFL viewers and that’s the biggest, baddest league in the land. Good luck telling them Purdue/Rutgers is on Apple or Amazon. Streaming is a major part of the future, but it still isn’t the now.

ESPN may seem like the safe bet, but that’s because it’s the smartest bet. NBC is a fine network that spends a bajillion dollars on America’s Got Talent and The Voice. Fine shows, but tell me where I can watch highlights of the recent Notre Dame/Stanford game.

CBS is a wonderful network that dominated with the SEC package for a long time, but that’s because the very best SEC game each week went to CBS. Will they still dominate if they have the league’s #2 package? Because why wouldn’t FOX, Big Ten Network co-owner FOX, get the best game each week for Big Noon Saturday?

There isn’t a single one of us that has a good damn idea where college football will be in three, five or seven years but I do know that ESPN isn’t going anywhere. I know ESPN has elite talent at every level of production and on-air that’s been in place for a really, really long time. I also know ESPN cares way more about sports than the other networks. CBS would like the Big Ten to do well, but CSI: New Orleans is a priority, too.

The NHL went for quick money and it cost them market share. The sport is still trying to recover after being largely ignored by ESPN for 17 years. It wasn’t out of spite, it was out of business. The NHL once thought it didn’t need ESPN. Where’s the NHL now?

The money the Big Ten will generate is amazing, I will not deny that. It seems like a boondoggle of a lifetime to grab this cash. However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me. The Big Ten is going to get paid a lot now but in the long term, they will pay the most.

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BSM Writers

Will Big Ten Lose Relevance Without ESPN’s Machine Behind It?

Does ESPN’s grip over sports talk and the college football scene affect how a Big Ten team is perceived versus how an SEC or ACC team is looked at? We have yet to determine that but I don’t believe it will.

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It’s a historic time for the Big Ten. The athletic organization is about to become the first college conference to pass $1 billion per year in television rights. The other big news comes straight out of Bristol, Connecticut. ESPN is stepping away from broadcasting its games for the first time in 40 years. ABC will also no longer air Big Ten games for the first time since 1966. 

I became a fan of college football during the Reggie Bush/Matt Leinart era and have so many memories of watching USC on Fox Sports Net and ABC. It’s so crazy to imagine that ABC won’t be airing any USC home or intra-conference games for the first time since 1954. This is a move of epic proportions.

The change could be seen as questionable to some from the Big Ten’s point of view. ESPN is still in 80 million homes. ABC is opening up more slots in prime time for live sports to be available in as shows like Dancing With The Stars begin to transition to streaming exclusively on Disney+. Most of all, ESPN dominates the college football conversation. College Gameday is one of the best studio shows on television and attracts the attention of everyone from the influential to the Average Joe.

SportsCenter is still the sports news show of record and literally faces no other competition besides similar news programming on league owned networks. First Take, as bloviating as it can sound on television, is still one of cable’s highest rated live broadcasts on a daily basis and has a lot of relevancy on social media. Pardon The Interruption is one of the few shows on sports television (if any) that can still draw 1 million viewers on a daily basis. Paul Finebaum is an expert in the game that people trust, watch and listen to on a daily basis and is currently aligned with ESPN’s SEC Network. Finally, the College Football Playoff and Championship still air on the “Worldwide Leader”.

Does ESPN’s grip over sports talk and the college football scene affect how a Big Ten team is perceived versus how an SEC or ACC team is looked at? We have yet to determine that but I don’t believe it will. There seems to be an assumption among fans in forums and social media that all of a sudden ESPN is going to overrun its audience with debate topics and stories across its platforms that are focused solely on the SEC.

While there will be increased attention on the SEC across Disney-owned networks and sites, as there should be because that’s what ESPN is paying for, it is a proven fact that what rates best is a solid product with interesting conversation from multiple angles. Audiences will be able to easily decipher rather quickly whether what they are being served is interesting versus what is being fed to them purposefully and react very quickly. 

There is nothing executives love more than a highly rated, lively, and contentious broadcast that draws attention and contributes to the national conversation. Even though ESPN is more friendly with the SEC now, there is a reason why it is called show business is not called show friends. Why would ESPN want to drain out ratings from their linear programming especially given the already strenuous rope that basic cable is holding onto as a whole? 

Let’s just say Big Ten powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan are both ranked in the top 10 and playing in their traditional yearly game. Despite the fact that Fox will be broadcasting the game, I just don’t see how or why SportsCenter wouldn’t be giving such a prolific game the same coverage it would on a normal basis. There would most likely be no reason for College Gameday to not do their show live from the game or for shows like First Take and PTI to not participate in some sort of debate about it. It’s just not good business for a sports information destination to not engage in the practice of giving out information and analysis about sports even if they don’t own a particular sport or league’s broadcast rights. 

It might be possible to reduce coverage with less popular leagues such as NASCAR and the NHL, which ESPN has been accused of doing in the past, and get away with it without affecting your bottom line. While NASCAR and the NHL each have millions of fans worldwide, their fandom alone can’t compare to the influence which the alumni of major colleges and universities across the country can sway. The Big Ten alumni base is so far and wide that it would be too noticeable after being done consistently not to make some sort of dent. Disney’s own CEO Bob Chapek is an alum of Indiana and Michigan State.

The assumption that Gameday prefers SEC schools has already existed for a long time and could be a determining factor of why Fox’s pregame show Big Noon Kickoff, which has predominantly broadcasted its show from Big Ten schools, is already beating or coming close to Gameday’s ratings week after week.

I also don’t want to underestimate Fox, CBS, and NBC’s impact on the sports conversation. FS1’s “embrace debate” shows may not get the highest ratings but their distribution across social media and the podcast world is well established. The Herd with Colin Cowherd is the 13th most listened-to sports podcast in the country. Replays of FS1 shows are available 24 hours a day on FAST (free ad-supported television) channel apps such as Pluto TV and Tubi that reach millions of people. Fox also recently launched a channel with Fox Sports clips on Amazon’s news app that can reach up to 50 million active users.

CBS Sports has a news network reminiscent of the old ESPNEWS on that same app as well as Pluto TV and is a producer and television distributor for Jim Rome, one of the most listened to sports talk show hosts on radio. It also distributes the highest-rated sports talk morning show in New York – Boomer and Gio – on national TV.

NBC’s sports talk universe exists primarily through their Peacock app (which will reportedly have an exclusive package of its own) and includes Dan Patrick, number 12 on the podcast charts, and Michigan alum Rich Eisen, who has a robust presence on YouTube.

ESPN has more concurrent linear television viewers than its rivals daily. But sports talk content from Fox, CBS, and NBC can still reach a substantial audience through YouTube, FAST channels, streaming services, podcasts, and radio. Fox, CBS, and NBC’s non-sports talk programming throughout the day on their broadcast networks can also serve as a venue to expose the Big Ten’s athletes and schools in a non-traditional way and reach more people not exposed to college sports yet.

The biggest thing we can’t forget is that as of now, for the next 10 years, there will only be one college sports conference whose games are as widely broadcast to the masses as the NFL’s – the Big Ten. Unlike the cable networks, at least 100 million people (1/3 of the country) have a way to access Fox, CBS, and NBC every week. Whether ESPN is talking about the Big Ten or not, the conference will always be able to reach more people than the SEC and other counterparts week after week. Sports fans are already used to flipping between Fox, CBS, and NBC to watch their NFL games on Sundays. They know where to find all three channels and that alone makes the Big Ten the closest comparison that will ever exist to the NFL in our current media landscape. You literally can’t match that.

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Producers Podcast – Nuno Teixeira, ESPN Radio

Brady Farkas

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