Why ESPN is college football's puppet master

The sports network has widespread influence over games, scheduling and team matchups as part of its lucrative coverage, reports say.

By Bruce Kennedy Aug 26, 2013 3:59PM

File photo of an ESPN banner during a game at Floyd Stadium on October 5, 2010 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (© Joe Robbins/Getty Images)Who actually runs college football? The universities? The big sports conferences? The school alumni? According to a recent series of articles in The New York Times, the answer is ESPN, the groundbreaking cable sports network owned by Walt Disney (DIS).

And according to the newspaper, ESPN does more than just televise those college games. It creates them, supervises team matchups and helps orchestrate the rivalries fans crave.

"By infusing the sport with billions of dollars it pays for television rights -- more than $10 billion on college football in the last five years alone -- ESPN has become both puppetmaster and kingmaker," the Times reports, "arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches."

Over the past several years, ESPN and other sports networks have taken college football, for better or worse, to levels where "celebrity coaches earn many times more than college presidents, and even teams at financially strained public universities train in lavish facilities financed by donors and corporate sponsors."

ESPN channels, according to the Times, will televise around 450 college football games this season. Its closest competitor, News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox, will air 50.

"The growth of the exposure to college football is directly related to ESPN's increased involvement in it," Bernie Machen, University of Florida president, told The Times.

ESPN has been able to use revenue it gets from advertising and subscriber fees to build its college football empire. That cash flow reportedly began in the late 1990s, when the network signed a deal with the NFL to carry a full season of games. And today, close to 100 million U.S. cable and satellite subscribers pay around $5.54 a month for ESPN, "regardless of whether the subscribers watch it or not, whether they realize it or not," says the Times. "This year, ESPN will take in more than $6 billion in subscriber fees."

Those lucrative TV contracts have also prompted several universities to switch conferences in recent years.

The network's arrangement with some colleges and universities is certainly financially beneficial, but, as in professional sports, it also creates some economic losers -- schools stuck in conferences that ESPN has neglected, as well as institutions that don't have the funds to build the successful, high-exposure teams that get televised.

More on moneyNOW

Aug 26, 2013 8:33PM

Nothing new here, they nearly have a sports broadcasting monopoly in all sports.

And with CFB the even "influence" rankings, voters,  bowl selections and with this new selection committee in charge of picking teams in the playoff, ESPN will in more charge of who plays in the NCG.

Aug 26, 2013 7:14PM
The big thing for me, is on New Years Day  the bowl games are on ESPN if you love College football like I do you have to have the premium cable channels as I found out last year! If people are tied of paying high prices for cable they need to boycott there major shows like DWTS it's just ridiculous!
Aug 26, 2013 4:57PM
The real puppet master is the bookies.  They pull the strings with ESPN, who in turn pulls the strings with the NCAA.

It's a fact that more money is bet on prime time national TV games than other games.  This is true across all sports.  If the Yankees are playing the Red Sox, twice as much flows into the books if it's a "Sunday Night Baseball" game on ESPN, as opposed to a locally televised game.  The same is true for football and basketball, both college and pro. 

In the peak of the NFL season, there are games on Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday night.  More is wagered on those 3 games than on the other 10 games that week combined.  This is one of the reasons there are more college and pro football games being played on more nights during the week.

Go look at Week 10 of the college football schedule for this year.  There are currently 25 games on Saturday,  Nov 2, whose start time is officially listed as "To Be Determined".  They will be picking and choosing which teams get the primetime TV slots based on the closest match-ups and where most of the wagering action is.  Also note, there is a Wednesday night game that week that is nationally televised on ESPN.  There are also 4 games on Thursday, with 2 of them being nationally televised on ESPN.   And a big game Friday night between USC and UCLA will be televised on ESPN2.  All 4 of these nationally televised games will produce plenty of action for the bookies, much more so than if they were buried on a Saturday afternoon with local TV coverage.

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