Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On the Gameday Controversy

For a primer, there's this post at EDSBS. Basics: Gameday allegedly was heading to Knoxville, but Monday they changed things up and decided to head to LA for the USC-Nebraska game, which just so happens to be airing on ABC (rather than the three games between the highest ranked teams, on CBS and NBC).

Some commentators wondered what the big deal was, since people watch the big games no matter where Gameday broadcasts from. That's true to an extent, but to discount the effect upon polls and national attention that Gameday has is naive. When Gameday appears at a particular location, they generally do two or more extended pieces on the teams playing. This is natural, since mere proximity makes it easier and cheaper for ESPN to do stories on the immediate teams. More interviews and special interest stories directly contribute to how well known a team is. Remember, college football is a regional sport. Voters in polls stationed in one part of the country do not receive the same coverage, which is often consumed via osmosis or saturation. Gameday is one of the few easily available outlets for gaining information about teams across the country. That's why it's important when Gameday makes editorial decisions to avoid particular teams.

But though it's important for college football fans to notice that ESPN might be ignoring particular teams, or at a minimum lowering coverage of particular teams, it must be said that ESPN is not doing anything wrong here.

It is not ESPN's or ABC's job to preserve fairness in college football.

It is not ESPN's job to make certain that every team receives equal coverage.

It is only ESPN's job to ensure that it maximizes profits.

And the way that ESPN does that is by promoting the products that it and its corporate partners have exclusive deals with. And this is not something ESPN can or should be blamed for doing.

If anything, the other networks that show college football aren't doing their part. Freeloaders, all.

The FOX regional networks have tried things with an awful show. But the FSNs have no first rate, top-notch matchups. Yes, they occasionally have a great Pac-10 matchup when ABC prefers to focus on a Big 10 or Big XII matchup mid-day. FSN South frequently shows 1-AA programs in the middle of the day. Simply, it's hard to promote the games if your product isn't first class.

NBC only shows Notre Dame, and only half their games at that. Plus, Notre Dame is going to get covered regardless. Betting on ESPN to cover ND is a safe bet for NBC.

CBS truly has a free rider issue. CBS has top flight matchups in the SEC, but has relied on ESPN to promote it. Why should ESPN make the effort to promote its competitor? Why does CBS think it can rely on that? Journalistic ethics? In this day and age? It's foolish. And it's high time CBS woke up.

When Gameday decided this week to skip the Tennessee-Florida game and the matchup between the two highest ranked teams (when added together), Auburn-LSU, instead traveling to a vacant location at 7AM to cover a team which will almost definitely be covered again later in the season, there couldn't be a louder wake-up call to the other networks. ESPN will not cover games on other channels simply because they are big games. Sure, they'll spend some time on the SEC matchups and ND-Michigan. But expect extended pieces on Nebraska's "return to glory" and I'll bet dollars to donuts that Shelley Smith has a heartbreaking feature on USC.

CBS needs a preview show. Simply said. Over the next few years, I expect OLN/Versus and CSTV, both corporate relatives of CBS, to get into the college football business. I believe the Mountain West Conference already has a relationship with CSTV. The Big East, recently emergent on the field, may have a better bargaining position and could improve their current 4th place position on ABC. The Big XII ought to have their second best game each week on a better network than FSN Regional. There is an opportunity for CBS to grow their portfolio of college football. With some investment, CBS would have plenty to promote - and they'll have to know that Gameday alone won't do the trick.

So SEC fans need not complain about ESPN for promoting their properties. They should complain about CBS conceding the entire market to Gameday, expecting a competitor to promote its product. That's foolish.