BRISTOL, Conn. - Every year, ESPN invites a bunch of media types to its headquarters so that they can talk to other media types about things in the media.
Part of the event was dedicated to NFL coverage, another part to college football coverage, and the rest to showing off the big new digital studio facility that the network is building.
(You can probably guess where the money for that comes from.)
As Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch noted on Twitter during the proceedings:
@brianlibby ESPN is a $6 billion company.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) August 21, 2013
Still, I gleaned some useful things from my trip to the New Haven exurbs. One came from a Q&A with Burke Magnus, ESPN’s senior vice president for college sports programming.
In March, ESPN agreed to a $126 million media rights deal with the American Athletic Conference that will run through 2019-20. That’s a lot of money for a school like Temple, which wants its football program to be big-time. They’ll get plenty of money from this contract.
But the conference’s membership as a whole isn’t really on solid ground. Indeed, Temple’s conference has been in a tricky place since the moment it split from the old Big East’s basketball schools.
We know that Rutgers is leaving for the Big Ten next year, and Louisville is leaving for the ACC. Cincinnati and Connecticut would like to follow the Cardinals. The other six schools would love to be wanted by a bigger league, even with four more programs coming in future years.
That’s not very much stability when you look at the other I-A football leagues. All of the big ones except the SEC have signed grant-of-rights deals that effectively prevent schools from leaving for a long time.
So I asked Magnus for his view of the American’s future, and whether ESPN is comfortable with it. I also asked him whether those grant-of-rights deals would finally stem the tidal wave of realignment that has rocked college sports in recent years.
Here’s what he said:
Yeah, I think that’s the case broadly speaking. I think the ACC’s grant of rights kind of took everybody off the merry-go-round, which is a positive development from where we’re sitting.
I think that as far as the American is concerned, obviously Louisville’s going – they’ve got one more year – and Rutgers is going in a year to the Big Ten.
That being said, we knew the landscape of the ins and outs of membership relative to that conference when we did the acquisition. We’re confident that they’re stable now. I think they did as good a job as they could have with membership.
And I think, as their commissioner likes to say – I’ve known Mike [Aresco] from years and years of being a competitor when he was at CBS, and he’s a very smart and earnest individual – they’re a “challenger brand” now. That’s what he calls them and that’s the way we look at them.
We think there’s a lot of promise there but they’ve got to win games. And they’ll be the first ones to tell you that.
Prior to Magnus taking the stage, there was a Q&A session with the on-air talent from College GameDay, as well as senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting.
It’s been 11 years since ESPN’s signature Saturday show did something it had never done before: visit a I-AA venue. That venue, as many of you know, was Franklin Field for the 2002 Penn-Harvard game.
Since then, the show has only visited three games below the I-A level: Southern vs. Grambling in 2005, Amherst at Williams in 2007 and Hampton at Florida A&M in 2008.
So it’s been five years since the last occasion. There have been trips to non-BCS schools since, including the service academies, but they’re still I-A programs.
The reasons for sticking to the big programs are pretty obvious: they bring big crowds and big buzz for big games. Still, college football does exist below that level – even if it feels like a tugboat in the ocean at times.
GameDay will be a three-hour show on ESPN this season, with a four-hour show on the season’s opening weekend. Fitting was asked at one point about how the program would fill all that time with content. He answered that he’d like to get more spotlight time for smaller programs.
I followed that up by asking Fitting what it would take to get the GameDay show to visit some of those programs. Show host Chris Fowler also weighed in with some thoughts.
Fitting: Well, a few things. Those sort of off-the-radar shows are some of the more fun shows to do. It’s unique, it’s different, it gets you out of the week-to-week grind of going to LSU and Alabama and Ohio State. We’re met with open arms when we go to those schools.
Some of those off-the-radar shows have been among our higher-rated shows, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s that you’re reaching a new audience, and getting a different kind of publicity from what you normally would.
There’s no formula. We never say we have to do one of them a year or two of them a year. When it’s right, we’ll do it. Our staff is totally open to it. The Williams-Amherst show was tremendous. The military academy shows are tremendous. We went to Florida A&M, we went to Southern-Grambling in Houston.
I think it’s good for the show to do it. We want to do it when it’s right. But if there’s a game that really trumps one of those in a given week, we put it on the back burner.
Fowler: First of all, where the show goes is a collective decision that’s made above us for the most part, and there are different factors at play.
I think that for the most part, we have to be mindful of the main mission of the show, which is to set the stage for the biggest game of the week. When there’s a matchup that can’t be ignored and fits that category, we’re not going to stray from that.
Where the opportunity presents itself, I think it’s fun for us, because college football isn’t just the 50 top teams. It’s all divisions, it’s all shapes and sizes. We’ve enjoyed it – we’ve really had a good time, and we’re mindful of other opportunities that are out there.
We’ve been to the service academies many times, where it made sense. We took the show to a Navy vessel to salute Veterans’ Day last year, and we’ve been to Division III.
As for [having gone to an] Ivy League game, we look for opportunities to get back there, but it hasn’t quite fit. It’s hard to be the big game that day. There have been contenders to take the show away from the top-tier schools, but we’re always mindful. We might have a trick or two up our sleeves this year.