Monday, August 26, 2013, 2:58 PM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
The NY Times is currently running a huge, 3-part, page 1 expose on ESPN's transformative role in college football. It's a must-read for anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes, in-depth account of how the sports network's massive financial strength has completely changed college football, from game day and time scheduling to conference re-alignments to how star players are created. Even more broadly, the article speaks to the pervasive role college football now plays in American higher education.
A key focus of the first two parts, here and here, is the willingness of particular schools (e.g. Texas Christian, Boise State, Louisville) to play weekday night games in order to provide ESPN live football throughout the week. Various representatives of the schools are quoted recognizing the coverage they received from ESPN as being critical to raising their schools' visibility and profiles. For ESPN, importantly, these mid-week games and assorted promotional activities showcased for still other schools how valuable being a flexible partner for ESPN can be.
The articles continually reinforce the theme that ESPN has become the most important influence in college football due to the billions of dollars of TV contracts the network has signed with the conferences and bowl games. The schools' share of these payments have now become a key source of the schools' own revenue, used to help fund new facilities and recruit star coaches. It's a virtuous cycle, where on the surface all the participants seem to win.
Of course, the one group not winning in all of this are the non-sports fans who are financing a big part of the action. As I've written numerous times now (starting here), because all 100 million U.S. pay-TV subscribers pay over $5/month for ESPN - whether they watch it or not - a significant part of the riches being lavished on college football actually comes from people who will never watch any games. This is why pay-TV's multichannel bundle is so incredibly powerful. And why the overhanging question of whether people will cut the cord, given the proliferation of online video options, looms so large.