Games on ESPN have long been a valued recruiting tool for coaches. Most coaches equate high visibility to games shown on ESPN’s family of networks rather than other mediums such as the mainstream networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), Fox Sports, the Pac-12 Network or Big Ten Network, etc.
The enhanced exposure on ESPN is why conferences have aggressively pursued a contract with the network in the past. Texas negotiated its own Longhorn Network with ESPN because of this, hoping its identity with the network would enhance its image nationally for recruiting purposes. The SEC Network is affiliated with ESPN for the same reason with its schools.
ESPN’s highly popular College Football GameDay on Saturday mornings has evolved into a major recruiting showcase, highlighting a school’s campus and fan involvement.
Recent developments, however, suggest that ESPN is not what it was before. Budget cutbacks and lowball bids for contracts with major conferences are occurring in the midst of dwindling cable and satellite television subscribers because of the increase in streaming services.
(Data via BGR.com)
Last year, parent company Disney ordered the network to trim $100 million from its 2016 budget and $250 million from its 2017 budget.
A sign of ESPN scaling back: It has parted ways recently with high-priced broadcasting talent such as Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann, Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless and Mike Tirico. Simmons left for HBO. Tirico went to NBC Sports. Cowherd and Bayless jumped ship to rival Fox Sports. Another major shakeup was Chris Spielman, one of ESPN’s top college football analysts over the last decade, moving to Fox to broadcast NFL and college football games.
Spielman is expected to be a significant personality in Fox’s attempt to rival ESPN as a leading broadcaster of college athletics. For example, Fox — not ESPN — has secured the first portion of the Big Ten’s media rights package, beginning next fall.
ESPN has been outbid before for the NCAA tournament (by CBS and Turner) and the World Cup (Fox), but according to the Sports Business Journal, the Big Ten deal is the first time ESPN did not place a competitive bid for a property that it really wanted. ESPN reportedly plans to continue to negotiate a second package with the conference with the hopes of televising the best games. NBC, CBS/Turner, and NBC are also expected to make bids for the Big Ten’s second package.
It is too early to tell how this power shift will impact recruiting in terms of coaches identifying with ESPN as a reliable source to attract recruits via ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, the SEC Network, etc. One thing is for sure: The coaches will not find it as easy to gain exposure with some cable packages not carrying Fox Sports 1, for example.
In recent years when the ACC contemplated leaving ESPN for Fox as its primary carrier – no Dickie V. calling Duke games? – the conference’s big-name coaches such as Mike Krzyzewski and Gary Williams voiced their displeasure of the possible switch. They believed a decrease of exposure on ESPN would adversely affect their recruiting. All of which makes Krzyzewski’s comments this season, that ESPN overhypes freshmen, a head scratcher.
The reality is coaches like Krzyzewski, Nick Saban and John Calipari – all Power 5 coaches for that matter – do not want their competitors to have an advantage. Recruits identify a whole lot more with ESPN than Fox Sports 1 right now, no question. Perhaps in time, if ESPN continues to decay and Fox gains more of the major packages, that will change.
An anonymous senior Big Ten official told the Sports Business Journal the conference is “scared to death” about the possibility of not having games on ESPN.
The best solution to this: All college programs should join the future and make sure their games are available to be streamed live on cell phones, tablets and laptops for recruits and their parents to observe. That’s where live broadcasting is headed because many families can’t afford expensive cable packages that may not even include the station they want to view games.
All conferences, especially the Big 12 which is dying for a network deal, should take a look at how Netflix and Hulu are growing in stature. The NFL – the most successful American pro sports organization in terms of fan interest – joined that fray by streaming live the Buffalo-Jacksonville game in London on Yahoo last year.
Many schools are already providing streaming services including Kansas State (K-StateHD.tv) and Iowa State (CyclonesTV) with an on-demand option for a fee. Oklahoma (SoonerVision) and Oklahoma State (Orange Power Studios) broadcast live with in-house production.
Expensive cable packages and convenient live streaming are at the root of ESPN losing its grip as the most powerful entity of collegiate sports coverage. While coaches may fret about what that might do to their exposure, administrators should take a serious look at what tomorrow will bring. The viewer wants more power to decide how they can watch a game, at what time, and for a reasonable cost.
It is becoming obvious that gone are the days of ESPN dictating how a viewer can watch a game. Now it’s up to the conferences and institutions to get with the times.