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ESPN-BCS Marriage Might End Up Hurting Football

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to Washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 25, 2008 3:44 PM

The voracious cable television wolf known as ESPN made another big, bad move last week in pouncing on the rights for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), outbidding Fox by $100 million to secure the national title game as well as the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls for four years starting in 2011.

ESPN paid $500 million for those valuable properties, taking all of those postseason games away from free network television and placing them on what still must be considered pay TV, even if most of us have become so used to ESPN's all-encompassing reach we sometimes forget we're shelling out money every month to our cable and satellite providers for the right to watch.

ESPN's parent company, Disney, also owns the rights to the Rose Bowl, now aired on ABC, but it can only be a matter of time before the granddaddy of them all also gets moved to the so-called Worldwide Leader, even if 14 percent of the nation (let alone vast corners of the globe) still isn't hooked into cable or satellite.

There's been plenty of criticism directed at ESPN (and the BCS) since news of the deal first broke last week, most of it centered on the continuing trend of big-time sports events long aired on free network TV constantly migrating over to cable, mostly to ESPN.

They've already acquired a wide variety of marquee events, only last month announcing that it would be carrying the British Open, another cable first after years of airing on corporate cousin ABC. There also is Thursday-Friday coverage of The Masters and U.S. Open, "Monday Night Football", a significant schedule of Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, large chunks of the four major championships of tennis and big-time horse racing. ESPN also has said it will bid aggressively for Olympic rights for 2014 and 2016.

"The over-the-air-networks have got to hope that at some point ESPN runs out of program hours," CBS Sports Jim Nantz told USA Today this week. "Leave us a little something. Leave us a few windows...It's almost like if ESPN wants it, they're going to get it."

Certainly, if they can get college football's title game on cable, is there any doubt that one of these days the NFL also might be tempted to do the same with its mega-valuable postseason events -- the playoffs and Super Bowl -- in the not too distant future?

Despite an economy in crisis, ESPN certainly has all the cash it needs, from both cable subscriber fees and its own advertising sales, to be a player in any competitive rights bidding. Its ability to relentlessly cross-promote (occasionally ad nauseum) over a wide-variety of platforms, from its Web site, magazine, radio affiliates and various positions on the cable dial also makes it a most attractive carrier to any sports entity.

Nevertheless, I suspect we're still many years from an NFL playoff and Super Bowl scenario on ESPN, at least as long as Congress has anything to say about it. If you think Arlen Specter has been a tad miffed over his Pennsylvania constituents' inability to get the NFL Network on anything but an extra pay cable tier, wait until he and the rest of his colleagues start hearing from the voters about a Super Bowl heading in that same direction say, by the middle of the next decade.

At the moment, 98 million U.S. homes get ESPN, but there are also huge pockets in markets around the country where 20 percent or more do not subscribe. That would include Houston (22.7 percent without ESPN) and Dallas (20.6). Imagine the outcry if Texas or Texas Tech (when they get a defense) happened to be playing in the BCS Championship game in 2011 and a fifth of the local television universe in the two largest cities in the Lone Star state might not be able to watch at home.

ESPN also has been taking it on the chin for not insisting that the next BCS contract finally include a potential scenario for a national playoff system, or at least a plus-one system, when the two best teams after all the bowls are played would then meet for the national title.

CBS sportscaster Tim Brando, the host of his network's college football gameday show and rarely known as being particularly outspoken, put on a Bill O'Reilly-like game face this past Saturday in commenting on the new ESPN deal, and why it bodes badly for a playoff system. To his credit, he pointed the finger not so much at the BCS as he did the networks bidding for the broadcast rights to the games.

"Whether or not we agree on the legitimacy of college football's national championship process," he began, "no longer can we simply point the finger at the university presidents and the six conference commissioners who broker deals as the only culprits in this unique cartel known as the Bowl Championship Series.

"Earlier this week, a new four-year contract worth over half a billion dollars was consummated moving the property from Fox to ESPN. One has to wonder despite a 40 percent increase in rights fees, if during the negotiation, any pressure was brought upon the BCS to improve its product with, at worst, a "plus-one" model. This was the moment that all college football fans looked to as a chance for improvements to be made to enhance the sport for the greater good.

"Despite the criticisms of the BCS...it seems that, in the end, the executives in our (television) business are now just as responsible as the university presidents and the conference commissioners for where we are, and where we'll stay in college football's postseason. All of us in TV should look in the mirror and say we found an additional obstacle, and it is us."

In other words, why would ESPN shell out a half-billion for the rights to all those bowl games without insisting that the Lords of The BCS finally do the right thing and give the public (not to mention President-elect Barack Obama) what it really wants -- a legitimate playoff leading up to a national title game between the two best teams.

Considering the state of the economy, not to mention the dramatic cuts in funding for so many public universities, one might think ESPN would have been able to dangle enough dollars and use its financial leverage to at least extract a promise from the BCS pooh-bahs that it might be possible to put such a system in place at some point over the length of that new four-year contract.

Then again, maybe there is a quid pro quo in the ESPN deal that neither side is willing to talk about just quite yet, especially with lame-duck Fox scheduled to air the BCS games through the 2010 season. Better yet, if the BCS leaves out a very worthy team over the next few seasons (this year, take your pick between Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida and maybe even sentimental favorite Penn State) from the national title game, perhaps the outcry will be so fierce they'll finally be forced to adapt some sort of playoff system that avoids future disasters.

Don't laugh, but the wild card in all of this may well be the 44th president of the United States. When Obama said on "60 Minutes" two days before the election that he'd definitely like to see a college playoff system instituted, college football fans across the nation had to smile. More important, college presidents and ESPN executives almost certainly had to take notice as well.

In less than two months, Little Red Riding Hood is about to move into The White House, and the big, bad wolves in all those ivory towers and the executive suites in Bristol, Conn., might be wise to pay attention to an even higher power -- as in the leader of the free world -- especially when he's absolutely right on the money.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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