In the second part of Quentin Tarantino’s revenge opus, we see a flashback of the pregnant Bride (Uma Thurman) rehearsing for her wedding. Her former boss Bill (David Carradine) — who trained the Bride to be one of his killers in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — drops in to speak with the Bride, his former lover, before she gets hitched. They have a tense and terse conversation on the porch of the Texas church before she introduces him to her new lover. The scene turns into a bloodbath in which the Bride and her wedding guests are left for dead.
This shotgun wedding was nothing compared to the mess that awaits college football as that famous four letter network climbs into bed with the number one grossing athletic department in the country, the real life merging of Boardwalk and Park Place in the multi-billion dollar enterprise that is college football. For some time now the line between journalism and capitalistic enterprise has been seriously distorted by the World Wide Leader in sports related revenue. Now, as ESPN becomes the major stakeholder in the Texas Longhorns Network (TLN hereafter), the once blurred line has been completely obliterated. If the rest of the conference ‘s fans already thought the Big Twelve was all about Texas, they ain’t seen nothing yet.
As Stuart Mandell, of CNNSI put it:
And that’s the part that should really be troubling not just to Big 12 fans, but to college football fans everywhere. From the moment this 20-year, $300 million deal was announced, it’s been astounding just how deeply the company is getting into bed with one of the schools it covers journalistically. Granted, conflicts of interest are unavoidable in sports media these days. This website is owned by a company (Time Warner) that holds the rights to NBA, PGA and NASCAR programming. But ESPN isn’t just testing the separation between church and state with Texas; there isn’t one. Case in point: The ever-popular GameDay crew (Chris Fowler and Co.) will be appearing live from Austin for the channel’s Aug. 26 debut. ESPN and Texas are now one and the same, and you can’t tell me it won’t affect the way GameDay, SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, et. al., cover Mack Brown’s program. In a sport where many fans already live in a constant state of paranoia that the media is propping up someone else at their expense … well, ESPN is flat-out doing it. It should make for some interesting signs the first time GameDay goes to Norman.
And he didn’t know the half of it, as only now, details of this merger are beginning to come to light. As SB Nation put it, discussing details of the TLN-ESPN contract:
If Texas ever becomes an Independent in any sport, this would allow ESPN an exclusive 60-day window to negotiate for the entirety of Texas sports broadcast rights. Similarly, Texas is contractually obligated to stay away from participation in other sports networks, which may also mean that they would be unable to be affiliated with a Big 12 Network, if that ever came to fruition. Additionally, employees of the Longhorn Network are expected to maintain a “quality and reputation desired by UT,” to reflect the best interests of the network and the school. If the university does not like what is said on air, OTC points out, they can approach ESPN and have that person removed from the network. Another controversial part of the contract is that ESPN is supposed to make every effort to obtain the Texas State Championship Game, a potential scenario that could give an unfair recruiting advantage to Texas. With a one-year wait on broadcasting any high school games, this condition still has a long time to percolate.
While this journalistic integrity problem had existed to some degree already, with other contracts that ESPN has in other sports, college football is different. College football is the only major sport that determines its championship in part through the use of polls, meaning that a subjective element is part of the equation. Look at the language above—if Texas feels that ESPN’s announcers aren’t pro-Texas enough, then the Longhorns can pull the old Something About Mary line out—“step into my office, your f’n fired.” Not that this is likely to be a problem mind you, as what’s good for Texas on the field is good for ESPN on the balance sheet. So what’s the problem with this cozy little arrangement you ask?
Dan Beebe, Big 12 Commissioner, A.K.A. “Dead Man Walking,” survived the Pac-16 scare. Can he survive the Longhorn’s selfishness?
It’s more than just the announcers saying things like Colt McCoy’s pass fell incomplete with one second on the clock, just enough time for the field goal unit to kick Texas into the National Championship game. The danger with ESPN is that they seemingly have a monopoly on college football pregame and post game shows, because, well, they have a monopoly on the games themselves, and this is where the fans, and more importantly, the voters, get their information. ESPN already has a two billion dollar contract with the SEC, the conference that has won the national championship the last fifteen straight years (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight). What about the Big Ten Network you say? While they might get to show Purdue against Indiana, the marquee games are already being shown by ABC (and in sports media algebra, ABC = ESPN), a fact that doesn’t keep Mark May from spewing his anti-Ohio State nonsense in an effort to protect ESPN’s most valuable asset (sorry that OSU punked your alma mater 72-0 Mark, but it’s time for you to shut your yap). In recent years, ESPN has shamelessly promoted the SEC because, well, increasingly, ESPN-ABC has been showing more of the bowl games, and having your marquee programs in the biggest and best bowls equals more dollars in the ESPN coffers.
The concept of journalistic integrity is not a new one, it’s just sort of new as it pertains to college athletics. As an aspiring political science student in the early nineties, I read a lot of Noam Chomsky. Noam noticed that companies like the National Broadcasting Company never seemed to say anything about the dangers of nuclear energy, probably because the TV Network was owned by General Electric, a company that, as it turned out, was profiting at the time quite handsomely from the production of nuclear energy. So, I suppose it was only inevitable that once sports became a multi-billion dollar enterprise, the model of using networks to advertise on behalf of your most profitable business commodities under the guise of journalism was inevitable.
The problem for the consumer in college football is that many believe that ESPN is really in the journalism business. They are not. They are in the entertainment revenue business, as advertised in the four letter acronym whose meaning has long since been forgotten (the “E” stands for entertainment, and the “N” stands for “none of your business”). It’s why ESPN showed the ridiculous King James infomercial with Jim Gray lobbing softball questions to a solipsistic ego maniac completely detached from reality (you probably know it as the cleverly dubbed “Decision,” the single largest grossing hour in ESPN’s “glorious” history. While the King was taking his talents to South Beach, ESPN was taking theirs to the nearest bank). It’s also why one can barely find a hockey highlight on ESPN, even during one of professional sports best postseason tournaments—it makes no cents for the Four Letter Network to advertise for someone else’s product.
For ESPN, it’s all about lining up sponsors who will pay top dollar for air time, and it’s never been about anything else. The one universal truth in sports is that a winning program is more profitable than one that doesn’t win, which is why the New York Yankees are currently worth more than a billion dollars, and why the Los Angeles Clippers can be had for the sports equivalent of loose change found in the sofa. So, if Texas and Oklahoma are both in the championship game hunt, and let’s say we have a three way tie like the one that happened a few years back with Texas Tech, which program do you think the talking heads at ESPN will trumpet in their pre and post game “analysis,” if an appearance in this bowl game over that bowl game means a few extra million dollars for ESPN? And while you might be tempted to say, well, who cares who ESPN promotes, keep in mind that ESPN, without a true rival in this business, is the source that coaches turn to before they make up their polls, and where other networks get clips for the SEC, the ACC, the Big East, the Pac-12, the marquee matchups in the Big Ten, any important Thursday night matchups featuring the “Little Sister’s of the Poor” and now, Texas Longhorn games. In other words, ESPN is everyone’s source for information on all things college football.
And, of course, what position do we expect ESPN to take with regards to whether the TLN can televise high school football in Texas, a not so thinly veiled strategy to procure recruiting advantages for the already undisputed king of the Big 12? How long before Texas and ESPN decide that it’s simply too much of a hassle to fight with its step-sisters or that it is simply more profitable for Texas to go Independent (and oh, hey, look at the terms above, ESPN will handle those pesky little negotiations for the Longhorns should they go Independent for a small piece of the Little 12’s flesh). Is there a zebra carcass anywhere in the four corners of this world that hasn’t been ravaged by some executive at ESPN just for sport?
In the analogy above, the role of the wedding guests is played by the other schools in the Big 12. The pregnant bride is ESPN (with the child being the TLN), and Dan Beebe, the Big 12 Commissioner, A.K.A., dead man walking, represents former boss Bill (who had the nerve to take on a woman that couldn’t even be buried alive), with the assassination at the wedding representing the Big 12’s attempt to save itself in its partnership with Fox Sports. We all know how the movie turned out. As for the four letter network, hell hath no fury like a conglomerate sports network scorned.
Long live the new T.E.S.P.N.
Categories: College Football