The nation’s annual rite of mayhem and pageantry known as the college football season begins this week, and Saturday will feature back-to-back-to-back marquee matchups.
At the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, last year’s national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide, will battle the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. Earlier in the day in Houston, Oklahoma State will play Mississippi State in the Texas Kickoff Classic. And that night in Arlington, Texas, Louisiana State and Texas Christian will face off in the Cowboys Classic.
The games will not just be televised by ESPN. They are creations of ESPN – demonstrations of the sports network’s power over college football.
The teams were not even on each other’s schedules until ESPN, looking to orchestrate early-season excitement and ratings, went to work.
Far beyond televising games, ESPN has become the chief impresario of college football. By infusing the sport with billions of dollars it pays for television rights - more than $10 billion on college football in the past five years alone - ESPN has become both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches.
The money and programming focused on college football by ESPN, as well as its competitors, have transformed the game, creating professionalized sports empires in the midst of academic institutions.
At a time of rising tuition and fiscal struggles, the millions of dollars that flow to the top athletics departments are, with few exceptions, used to enhance athletics, not academics. Celebrity coaches earn much more than college presidents, and even teams at financially strained public universities train in lavish facilities financed by donors and corporate sponsors.
In the chase for money and exposure, college football, once a quaint drama of regional rivalries played out on autumn Saturday afternoons, has become a national sport played throughout the week, intruding on class schedules and even on exams.
“The growth of the exposure to college football is directly related to ESPN’s increased involvement in it,” said Bernie Machen, the president of the University of Florida, which won two national championships in recent years.
ESPN is not the only network that exerts control over the scheduling, programming and financing of college football. But it is the undisputed leader. This season, ESPN channels will televise about 450 college games. ESPN’s closest competitor, Fox, will show 50 on various networks.
ESPN and the universities often call each other business partners, and that partnership has been enormously rewarding for both sides. For the colleges, beyond money for athletics departments, the partnership provides exposure that college officials said increases recruiting prowess, alumni donations and even the quality of applicants.
For ESPN, college football feeds a voracious need for the kind of programming that makes the network indispensable to sports fans.
“With college sports, you have enormous volume, great quality, and there is unbelievable passion with the fans,” John Skipper, ESPN’s president, said.
Sometimes, ESPN’s business relationships can run up against its role reporting on those same partners in the sports world. Last week, after ESPN abruptly bowed out of a collaboration with the PBS program “Frontline” examining concussions in the National Football League, The New York Times reported that the decision was made after top ESPN executives came under pressure from the league.
The extent of ESPN’s influence on college football is displayed on the face of tickets every week. Tickets to most games are printed with the date and the opponent’s name, but something is missing: The kickoff time. That is because ESPN, under its contracts with conferences, has the right to set kickoff times and wait until 12 days before game day, or in some cases only six, to inform universities.
Every Monday morning during the season, ESPN’s football brain trust meets in a war room in Building 12 on the network’s sprawling campus in Bristol, Conn., to consider options for coming games and make sure the hottest teams have the choicest time slots on each of its channels. After decisions are made, calls go out across the country, setting off a scramble on dozens of campuses as universities arrange everything.
ESPN’s contracts have increasingly allowed it to go, as its executives like to say, “beyond the white lines,” putting microphones on coaches and getting access to team practices and locker rooms.
The network’s wall-to-wall coverage before, during and after games can significantly lift the profiles of colleges and nurture heroes and celebrities. In interviews, people involved in recruiting coaches said the telegenic qualities of candidates factored into hiring decisions.
Similarly, Eric Hyman, the athletics director at Texas A&M, said his university’s move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, which has a closer relationship with ESPN, paid big benefits, particularly for one player: Quarterback Johnny Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
“If we were in the Big 12, I don’t know that Johnny Manziel would have won the Heisman,” Hyman said.
ESPN, of course, is about much more than college football. It is everything sports, all the time, but from ESPN’s early days, its executives looked at college football, with its iconic place in American culture, and saw opportunity.
Before the mid-1980s, televised college football amounted to little more than one national game a week, along with a few regional telecasts, all controlled by the NCAA. Then a Supreme Court antitrust ruling freed universities and conferences to negotiate their own TV deals.
At the time, ESPN was a fledgling cable network without the money to compete with the broadcast giants for important games. But it had seemingly endless hours to fill with sports programming. ESPN executives persuaded lower-profile universities to deviate from traditional Saturday schedules, and Thursday night college football was born. Then Friday night.
Then even Tuesday.
But what made ESPN such a force in college football was its growing role in the professional game.
Like most cable networks, ESPN draws revenue from two sources: Advertising and subscriber fees. When it struck a deal with the NFL in the late 1990s to carry a full season of games, that revenue stream became an ever-quickening cascade of cash. NFL games, the most valuable commodity in American televised sports, became the leverage that allowed ESPN to demand more money from cable companies.
Today, nearly 100 million households pay about $5.54 a month for ESPN. This year, ESPN will take in more than $6 billion in subscriber fees.
The network’s revenue is such a boon to its parent company, Disney, that the former Disney CEO Michael Eisner said in an interview: “To this day, the Walt Disney Co. would not exist without ESPN. The protection of Mickey Mouse is ESPN.”
Flush with those cable fees, ESPN has gone on one of the biggest shopping sprees in TV history. It spent $2.2 billion for SEC rights through the 2023-24 season and in May announced a 20-year agreement with the SEC that will include building the conference’s own television network. In a 12-year, $7.3 billion deal, ESPN gained the rights to the college football playoff, which begins after the 2014 regular season.
The power of television contracts has driven the recent fever of conference switching, as colleges forsake geographic loyalties.
In the past year, three universities jumped to the Atlantic Coast Conference for all sports: Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, none of them located within 200 miles of the Atlantic coast. Each stands to receive more than $16 million a year from the ACC’s $3.6 billion contract with ESPN.
In the world of big-time college sports, universities like these are the winners. But there are colleges on the losing end, too - those stuck in conferences whose value is diminished by realignment, those that simply lack the resources to build teams good enough to break into the exposure game.
David Schmidly has watched what he calls the “massive increase in commercialization” of college sports as the presidents of several universities, most recently New Mexico, a public college with a respected men’s basketball program but a mere trickle of television dollars. As he sees it, the escalating television deals, especially at a time when states are slashing subsidies to public universities, have only widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots - between a “group of superwealthy institutions and those that are trying to gnaw at the wood of the doors to get in.”