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Volume 21 No. 6

Media

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SPN’s top programming executive said that the network is not agitating to expand the College Football Playoff, saying he is content with the current four-team format.

Clamor to increase the number of teams invited to play in the CFP from four to six or even eight increased this year when the University of Central Florida finished its season undefeated and did not receive a CFP invitation or even any serious consideration. A championship game with two schools from the same conference also created angst from people who would like to see a bigger playoff field.

But speaking on this week’s SBJ/SBD Media Podcast, ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Scheduling Burke Magnus said ESPN is “not at all” advocating for the current four-team format to expand, worried that any expansion could weaken college football’s regular season.

Because so much of its fall schedule is dominated by college football, ESPN finds it especially important to keep the regular season relevant. Magnus pointed out that ESPN has invested more in college football than “any other category that we do,” given all of the rights deals the network has with various conferences.

“I would worry a little bit that conceivably any change might bring with it some unintended consequences relative to the regular season,” Magnus said. “I also look at the totality of college football and making sure that they don’t unintentionally water down the competition during the regular season such that playoff bids are determined in advance or that we go back to the automatic qualifying business of the BCS, which was not the sport at its best.”

Magnus reiterated that ESPN has “nothing to do with” any decision on changing the CFP format, saying that those decisions rest with conference commissioners, university presidents and CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock.

But Magnus said ESPN would be happy leaving the CFP at four teams. He said the debate about who should be included in the four-team playoff creates even more interest in the games, which usually rank among the most-viewed shows in cable TV history. This year’s Rose Bowl, for example, brought cable TV’s fifth-largest audience of all time, Magnus said.

This year’s College Football Playoff has brought fresh calls for expanding the field of teams.
Photo by: ESPN IMAGES
“Part of the beauty of the College Football Playoff is that four teams is going to, quite arguably, exclude somebody who might have a very good case,” Magnus said. “Whether that’s Ohio State or UCF or whoever it might be — USC was the champion of the Pac-12 and they were out this year, too. By design, there’s going to be people on the outside looking in.”

Magnus hyped ratings for all of ESPN’s bowl games, which are up this season. He said ESPN is not affected by low attendance figures for some bowl games and suggested that it’s not a problem in general.

“Every year, what I call the ‘there’s-too-many-bowls’ crowd starts agitating on things like how many people are in the stadium or do these teams at 6-6 or 7-5 ‘deserve’ to be playing in a bowl game,” Magnus said. “College football is unique in that there’s great reward for teams to play and to experience a bowl environment.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.


ESPN’s Burke Magnus spoke about the aftermath of John Skipper’s departure.
Photo by: ESPN IMAGES
ESPN executives and staffers are trying to maintain a kind of tunnel vision on their work in the face of swirling uncertainty that has engulfed Bristol since John Skipper’s shocking resignation.

On this week’s SBJ/SBD Media Podcast, ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Scheduling Burke Magnus spoke of how surprised he was by Skipper’s Dec. 18 resignation, when the former ESPN president cited a substance addiction problem as his reason for leaving on such short notice.

But Magnus, who is among the first of ESPN’s senior executives to discuss Skipper’s departure publicly, said that it’s been easier for ESPN staffers to focus on business since Skipper’s move came during one of the network’s busiest times — right in the middle of college bowl season. Magnus referenced a four-week schedule that saw ESPN carry live events that included everything from the MLS Cup and an NFL Wild Card playoff game to the NBA regular season and a big Top Rank boxing card.

“Despite the news about John, the mood up here is pretty good,” Magnus said. “People are focused. People don’t really have the luxury of slowing down during what is really one of the busiest times of the year for us — and best times of the year for us.”

Former ESPN President George Bodenheimer agreed to step in and replace Skipper on an interim basis for 90 days, during which time Disney chief Bob Iger will identify a new president. Magnus credited Bodenheimer’s steady leadership style with helping ESPN staffers focus on the business rather than Skipper’s departure.

“I’ve been referring to George as a first-ballot hall of famer in the category of interim CEO,” Magnus said. “He bleeds ESPN. He knows our culture. He knows our people. He knows our business. He’s a steady hand.”

The day after Skipper’s announcement, Bodenheimer was on the Bristol campus meeting with employees and re-introducing a feeling of calm.

“He’s come in already and kept everybody on task,” Magnus said. “His best contribution will be continuing to keep us moving forward and keep us looking for opportunities to grow.”

Magnus spoke in glowing terms of the departed Skipper, who he said was well liked and still has a lot of personal support from the company.

“My primary thought, and I know the thought of many people at ESPN, is just for John,” Magnus said. “We love John. He was a great boss and an unbelievable leader for the company. We just hope he gets healthy, and we hope that he comes through this with flying colors.”

The ratings performance for last month’s “EA Madden NFL 18 Challenge” on The CW was good enough that the league is prepared to move forward with the concept in coming years.

Chris “Dubby” McFarland was among this month’s competitors.
Photo by: CARLTON BEENER / EA
The show averaged 653,000 viewers on Dec. 27, a figure that doesn’t seem all that big in overall TV terms, but one that the network says makes it the most-watched esports competition on any network for the year. Electronic Arts produced the one-hour special for a Wednesday night prime-time slot.

“In the world we’re in right now, platforms where you can be authentic to your sport but reach younger audiences and engage them and have the right content are paramount,” said the NFL’s chief strategy officer, Chris Halpin. “This is a great one for us.”

The NFL launched its competitive gaming “Madden” program in 2016, and is happy with its growth so far. Later this month, the NFL will host a “club championship,” where representatives from all 32 teams compete against each other at the Pro Bowl. A winner will be crowned the following week at the Super Bowl.

“With The CW, we saw the power of high-quality, highly produced competition on a platform where it can reach casual fans, avid fans and younger esports fans,” Halpin said. “Our theory was that ‘Madden’ fans, gamers and football fans will recognize what they’re watching and know the teams and know the players. If it’s a high-quality enough experience told in the right way, it will be immersive and engaging.”

John Ourand