It is hard to believe today, given the announced the imminent dissolution of ESPN and the Big Ten Conference, but once upon a time, this relationship was believed to be strong enough to decide who won the Heisman Trophy.
Twenty-five years ago, during what might have been the most controversial and controversial Heisman run of all, a large part of the Tennessee fan base was convinced that the fix was in place: ESPN reportedly pushed Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson to win the award over Volunteers quarterback Peyton Manning.
It’s unlikely there was a concerted effort by ESPN to help Woodson become the first (and only) primarily defensive player to win the Heisman. But his candidacy and ESPN’s Disney-owned programming had a comfortable marriage of convenience in 1997. Six Michigan regular-season games were televised by an ESPN platform and the other five were broadcast by ABC, which Disney bought in 1996 and started integrating ESPN. . Meanwhile, more than half of Tennessee’s games aired on something other than an ESPN or ABC outlet.
Additionally, eight of Michigan’s games in 1997 started at noon or 12:30 p.m. ET — straight out of the network’s “GameDay” show. It’s TV Promotion 101 to try and keep an audience for as long as possible, so it only made sense to talk a lot about the undefeated Wolverines and Woodson on “GameDay” as a hook for viewers. (“GameDay” was broadcast live from Michigan’s two games that season, the home opener against Colorado and Oct. 25 at Michigan State. Tennessee’s Sept. 20 game at Florida was also a “GameDay” location.)
What often followed all those midday games was a 14-hour cascade of Michigan highlights. The Wolverines won the games, won the news cycle, and eventually Woodson won the Heisman.
The 1997 season shows just how deep the ties between ESPN and the Big Ten were back then, and how little that matters now. It’s a dusty exhibit at the conspiracy theory museum. For the past few years, cynics have said ESPN is in bed with the SEC, not the Big Ten, and now those folks have been fresh fodder.
The Big Ten released a statement on Tuesday stressing that nothing is finalized in its negotiations on media rights. But multiple reports indicate that the oldest and richest sports conference will not re-sign with the broadcasting giant that pioneered immersive coverage of college sports.
No one could have seen this before 2021, when Texas, Oklahoma, the SEC and ESPN shook the ground under everyone’s feet. When the Big Ten and Fox Sports responded with ripping off USC and UCLA less than six weeks ago, the new demarcation lines were drawn.
In the new world order, it’s Fox and the Big Ten versus ESPN and the Southeastern Conference for college sports supremacy and piles of cash, with plenty of collateral damage elsewhere. In the past, networks had to coexist in media rights agreements with conferences. Today, the largest of these joint ventures would be disappearing.
This is where we are now, in an age where TV dollars drive every decision. College athletic conferences are little more than television stations, and the biggest of them have chosen sides in an unprecedented way.
Let’s hope the major networks don’t go the way of internal affiliates — the Big Ten Network and the SEC Network — and choose on-air talent based on where they went to school. It’s understandable at this level, but shouldn’t go any further.
Big Ten alumni Kirk Herbstreit (Ohio State) and Desmond Howard (Michigan) are mainstays of “GameDay,” and breaking up that group to further elevate SEC alumni would hurt credibility (although the former quarterback of Alabama, Greg McElroy, is more than capable). Likewise, USC and Notre Dame products Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and Brady Quinn should stay with Fox Sports’ “Big Noon Kickoff” show without fear of being replaced by the Big Ten guys.
But in this climate, who knows how these things will play out. Network objectivity seems more disposable than ever.
The Big Ten’s likely move toward a tiered deal with Fox, CBS and NBC carries some risk. ESPN may be losing cable subscriptions by the bushel, but it’s still the default first viewing option for many sports fans – walk into a bar of any type, and it’ll almost certainly be on more TVs. than any other channel. Additionally, ESPN has built its first brand in the college space and remains the place that televises the most college content.
Renouncing this 40-year affiliation could come with a price of audience and a degradation of the exposure via ESPN.com. (One wonders if Fox Sports will try to update the college content on its website, which it dismantled several years ago in the infamous “pivot to video” and slowly began to replenish.)
The added ripple effects of the Big Ten’s breakup with ESPN could be good for the Pac-12, who is still trying to survive after being gutted by the loss of USC and UCLA. ESPN now has a new programming need, and the rights to the Pac-12 are up for bidding, and there are still attractive West Coast markets and Saturday night play windows (#Pac12AfterDark) to maximize.
Discussions are also underway about a potential Pac-12 broadcast partnership with the ACC that could leverage the ESPN-owned ACC Network. It might come to nothing – details have been scarce and data has been kept under wraps – but it could also deliver a revenue boost to two Power 5 leagues left behind in the race for revenue. ESPN might have a new incentive to pursue this, given the Big Ten-sized hole in its wallet.
Either way, a lucrative and mutually beneficial era of proliferating Big Ten games on ESPN appears to be over. It will take some getting used to. The broadcast battle lines are drawn for the foreseeable future, and there is a fading middle ground for cooperation between power brokers.
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