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Volume 24 No. 160
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ESPN's Role In College Football Analyzed By Special Feature In N.Y. Times

ESPN, going "far beyond televising games ... has become the chief impresario of college football," according to the first of a three-part front-page special by Miller, Eder & Sandomir of the N.Y. TIMES. By "infusing the sport with billions of dollars" it pays for TV rights -- more than $10B billion on college football in the last five years alone -- ESPN has "become both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches." The money and programming "focused on college football by ESPN, as well as its competitors, have transformed the game, creating professionalized sports empires in the midst of academic institutions." ESPN is "not the only network that exerts control," but it is the "undisputed leader." ESPN channels this season will "televise about 450 college games." ESPN’s "closest competitor, Fox, will show 50 on various networks." ESPN and the universities "often call each other business partners, and that partnership has been enormously rewarding for both sides." ESPN President John Skipper said, "With college sports, you have enormous volume, great quality, and there is unbelievable passion with the fans."

COVERED FROM ALL ANGLES: Miller, Eder & Sandomir wrote "underscoring ESPN’s special relationship with college football is the fact that it created and owns the software used for scheduling games." The online portal, known as the Pigskin Access Scheduling System (PASS), is "now used by virtually all conferences and colleges, as well as competing networks." The colleges generally "work together to set up nonconference matchups, but sometimes they reach out to ESPN for a suggestion, or even to play matchmaker." As much as "any piece of ESPN programming, 'GameDay' crystallizes the dynamic of exposure, and the colleges’ hunger for it." ESPN also owns nine bowl games, which "generally draw some of the lowest TV ratings of the college football postseason." ESPN-owned bowls have "among the lowest payouts to participants, so colleges can lose money, after travel expenses and contractual bowl bonuses for coaches."

CONSULTING THE ORACLE: Boise State President Bob Kustra said, "To the extent that Bronco Nation is defined by people outside our area and our blue field, it’s ESPN’s coverage over recent years that allowed this to happen." Miller, Eder and Sandomir noted in "less than a decade," ESPN helped "establish Boise State as a national brand." The extent of ESPN’s involvement in conference realignment also "has been the subject of much debate." Skipper acknowledged that conference officials "frequently consulted him." He said, "I had, on occasion, two conference commissioners ask me about adding the same school, and I said to both of them: ‘Yes, you should add that school. If you can add that very prominent school, it would be good for your conference. But I’m not telling you to do it.’ I don’t provide leading advice, and I don’t say, ‘Wink, wink, I’ll pay you more money if you do that'" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/25).

CARDINAL RULES: Miller, Eder & Sandomir in the second part of the series focus on the Univ. of Louisville's relationship with ESPN and write the school "made exposure on ESPN the centerpiece of a campaign to rise above its commuter-school roots and become a powerhouse in college sports." ESPN over the "past dozens years, to feed its unending appetite for live football," has made UL midweek games "a mainstay in prime time." UL AD Tom Jurich said, "If it wasn’t for ESPN, we would be a fraction of what we are today. We owe them so, so much. They were willing to take a chance on us." UL’s ascent is "a case study of how an institution of higher learning can become all but inextricably conjoined with ESPN." The cost to UL was that the school "had to be ready to play whenever ESPN could fit the Cardinals into its schedule." Former ESPN producer Mark Shapiro said, "Louisville came to us and said, ‘We’ll play anyone, anywhere, anytime.'" The arrangement also has "been a boon to ESPN." UL's primetime games "quickly became ratings winners, convincing others that playing at midweek, while unconventional, could be a blessing in the form of exposure." Shapiro said, "It was a programmer’s dream. We already had NFL on Sunday nights, NHL and MLB on multiple nights, Thursday night college football. We were all filled up. So I said, ‘How about Tuesday nights?’ They seized it, and over time their results have been spectacular" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/26).