September 14 is one of those dates that college football fans already have circled on their calendars. That’s the day when the defending national champions from Alabama travel to College Station, Texas, seeking revenge against Texas A&M for the Crimson Tide’s lone loss of 2012. Imagine the millions of eyeballs that will be glued to CBS that afternoon.
Looking over the rest of the schedule, the day’s second-best game is probably going down in the Lone Star State, too. Up-and-coming Ole Miss and treading-water Texas will tussle in Austin that evening. You probably won’t get to watch it.
In reality, I doubt that many outside of The Grove are dropping tears in their red Solo cups over the likelihood that they will have to watch Notre Dame-Purdue instead. (It should be noted that ESPN and the school are working on an alternative to broadcast the game in Mississippi.) Yet, fans should probably think of this as a proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for the sport.
In the past ESPN has used Texas’ games against cannon fodder like New Mexico State and Wyoming as leverage in its battles with cable providers for LHN carriage. Putting UT’s best non-conference game of the year behind the burnt orange paywall represents a clear escalation in a war that ESPN has been losing, and the collateral damage involves a program with some national relevancy in Ole Miss. (Hey, I said “some.”)
ESPN now owns the majority of valuable college football content, and the people who run the network aren’t in the business of giving a flying f*** about making sure that fans get to see the games that they want to see. Their job is to squeeze as much money as they can out of the network’s most valuable assets.
Once upon a time, the two objectives were really one and the same: Attract more viewers to boost advertising rates. In the current market environment, however, ESPN has determined that it can juice its profits by growing revenue through carriage fees from cable providers.
Ironically, what ESPN is doing with Texas games on the LHN represents a miniature version of what we’ll soon be seeing with the SEC Network. ESPN and the SEC have made it clear that some of the league’s more desirable games will find their way to the SECN. Sure, there will be South Carolina-Wofford and Florida-Alcorn State, but it would also have a fair number of the games that would normally be on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2.
Be it the LHN or the SECN, the core strategy is the same: 1.) spread out the valuable content across multiple networks; 2.) wait for the cable companies to cave; 3.) profit.
The fallout, of course, is different. The SECN will certainly have broader appeal and wider distribution than the LHN from the second ESPN flips the switch. On the other hand, once the channel does start showing up on your dial, there will be an even juicier premium tacked on to your monthly cable bills for games that were readily available in the previous distribution ecosystem. Oh, and Paul Finebaum on TV.
All roads lead to the unescapable truth that being a college football fan is about to take a bigger bite out of your wallet. But don’t hate on ESPN for doing what it’s supposed to do. The shot-callers who run college athletics put fans squarely in the middle of these shenanigans when they let the rooster into the hen house. They're also the ones bathing in Mickey's money.
So get used to it, and call your cable providers now.