When ESPN bought the rights to the next round of BCS games through 2014, it was met here with a sense of relief. After four years of seemingly indifferent coverage by Fox, finally, no more gratuitous shots of the Kansas band or random cuts to bags of Tostitos, but also some wariness. If the most visible, agenda-setting media giant in college football has a direct stake in the success of the sport's championship system, what does that mean for the airing of widespread grievances against that system? Lest you write off the corporate chilling effect as a farfetched conspiracy theory, College Football News' Pete Fiutak (a Fox Sports underling) is here to tell you it's very real, and very cold (emphasis added):
Over the past few years when Fox had the big bowls, I’d get a call or five every late September from various higher-ups making sure that CFN (who provides content for FoxSports.com) didn’t go over the top when commenting on the BCS. To be fair and thankful, no one ever told me or anyone else at CFN what we could and couldn’t write or tried to limit what we could say on TV and radio appearances. That was never a problem (outside of not commenting on some of the announcer teams) since we’ve made it a point to not get dragged down in all the “BCS Sucks” rhetoric ... and there was never any discussion of what we could and couldn’t write and say when it came to the BCS chase and how the rankings were shaping up. Fire on the process and the system … not really. Go nuts on what was happening within the system … fine. It’s extremely doubtful that the ESPNers will get the same leeway and freedom.
Fiutak also promises that CFN will now "go ballistic with the vitriol" against it, a shift you probably won't notice because CFN's reach and influence -- like Fox Sports' influence in the college football landscape in general outside of the actual BCS broadcasts themselves -- is practically nil. ESPN, on the other hand, is a colossus, and one whose strength rests in part on giving its analysts more or less free rein on the air, including the freedom to take aim at the system.
With no major corporate stake in the BCS or the legitimacy of The National Championship Game as an actual championship game, playoff talk has regularly cropped up on GameDay and studio segments with Rece, Lou and Mark. Considerable air time has been devoted over the last few years to the relative championship merits of underdogs such as Utah, TCU, Boise State, etc. Kirk Herbstreit has consistently argued on-air for a "Plus One," the bridge to a playoff (or a mini-playoff in itself, depending on your definition of "Plus One") in a less overtly revolutionary guise.
Even if it comes out in half-baked form, the concept of a playoff still exists in the mainstream discourse for the average fan who tunes in to College Football Live or GameDay Final. Online, the Leader has never shied away from hypothetical playoff brackets or playoff talk in general. When the president, Justice Department and a bipartisan assortment of Congressfolk join a substantial majority of fans on the urgency of a specific reform, no serious outlet can afford to ignore it.
For precisely that reason, I assume everyone at ESPN -- from the top down -- will continue to insist the free discourse won't be reined in. For all we know, the playoff debate is a boon for the network's studio coverage, and the Nielsen shares and subsequent advertising money it stands to gain by broadcasting playoff games after 2014 makes the suits' eyes light up. As long as there are games between good teams to put on the air, it's entirely possible ESPN's only interest is in making sure it's the network that shows them, regardless of the format.
It's also possible that a $500 million deal with the newly spin-obsessed BCS -- along with the blockbuster $2 billion deal with the SEC and lucrative agreements with the other "Big Six" conferences, will motivate someone in Bristol, Conn., to make a phone call or five to make sure the on-air talent doesn't go over the top in criticizing the network's investment. When you drop the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation into a product, "unsolicited calls for reform" are not necessarily on your agenda.
And when the championship fates of so many players, coaches, schools, fan bases and bank accounts are ultimately dependent on the whims of a few dozen opinions, the biases of the opinion-makers become front and center. As long as ESPN is funneling armored truckloads of money into a fundamentally arbitrary process, the way it talks about that process is going to be under a microscope.
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Hat tip: Blutarsky