Did ESPN try to help recruit Big Ten schools to the ACC?

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The University of Maryland has filed a $157 million dollar countersuit against the ACC as the posturing continues over the school's departure for the Big Ten.  Amidst all the suits and countersuits and eye-rolling puffing of chests are a few interesting nuggets about the ruthless game of conference realignment.

Specifically, the Maryland countersuit brings to light the ACC's alleged attempt to poach two unnamed Big Ten schools to their conference.  And who was allegedly involved in this recruitment attempt?

ESPN, the kingmaker of college athletics.

The Washington Post has more details on the countersuit including ESPN's role in "counsel and direction" for the ACC in its quest for adding teams.

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According to Maryland’s countersuit, a representative from Wake Forest and a representative from Pittsburgh “each contacted a Big Ten university in an attempt by the ACC to recruit at least two Big Ten schools to leave the Big Ten and join the ACC.” Maryland alleges that “these actions by the ACC were designed by the ACC to enable the ACC (and member universities) to extract more lucrative terms from potential broadcast partners, including from ESPN,” which provided “counsel and direction.”  

In the Baltimore Sun, ESPN offered a very plain non-denial denial about Maryland's claims.

“As we've said many times, decisions about potential realignment and expansion were made by the individual schools and conferences.”

Official statements from network public relations departments are often about what's not said than what is said.  ESPN's statement says nothing about ESPN's influence and direction to those schools that made the final call about realignment, only about the final decisions made.

Maryland's story is similar to what Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo said when the ACC snatched Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East and delivered what was one of the death knells to the conference as a major BCS player.  Two years ago, DeFilippo said that ESPN directed the ACC on what to do during realignment.

“You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85 percent football money. TV — ESPN — is the one who told us what to do. This was football; it had nothing to do with basketball.”  

Incredibly, DeFilippo then reversed course and said he "spoke inappropriately and erroneously" after ESPN and the ACC denied any involvement by the network.  Was that the case or was he squeezed by the ACC and ESPN to lamely try to put the cat back in the bag?  You can decide.

ESPN doesn't have a role in college realignment just like the NFL didn't have a role in squashing ESPN's involvement in League of Denial.  At least, that's what the parties involved want you to believe.  

The truth is that Bristol's power and influence is paramount to the entire universe of college athletics because of the money ESPN invests in the sport.  It's impossible to think otherwise.  Whether that comes through "decision making" or "counsel and direction" is beside the point and mere semantics.  ESPN is the one pulling the strings because ESPN is footing the bills.

Furthermore, ESPN trying to help the ACC is good business for the network, no matter how ethically cloudy it may be.  ESPN has a long-term contract with the ACC to the tune of $3.6 billion dollars through 2026-27.  Of course ESPN is going to do everything they can to increase the value of the ACC by strengthening the conference at the expense of others.  (Except maybe the SEC of course.)  The Big East turned down a $1.2 billion dollar deal from ESPN and the conference plummeted in value because of realignment.  ESPN was then able to match NBC's offer to the Big East (now the AAC) for pennies on the dollar after the conference was raided, further fortifying their hold over the college sports world.  

Back to the Big Ten.  Their rights just happen to be up for bidding soon and even though ESPN still has a $1 billion dollar contract with the conference that goes back to 2007, the future relationship between the two is uncertain.  And it's no secret that the Big Ten and ESPN have a rocky past at the executive level.  In fact, the conference launched Big Ten Network after contentious negotiations with ESPN.

Hypothetically speaking, if ESPN were able to lead the ACC to grab Penn State and Michigan State from the Big Ten (just as an example), it would A) Reduce the power of the Big Ten in negotiations with ESPN and potential cost for the network or B) Reduce the drawing power of the conference were they to take their business to another network.  Either way, ESPN wins with a stronger ACC and weaker Big Ten.

And that is where the ethical questions should rise with ESPN's involvement in college athletics as a whole.  The massive conflicts of interest are everywhere.  We're not just talking about the perception that ESPN gives favorable coverage to certain teams and conferences.  That's problematic enough when the media has such a profound impact on the way a champion is decided largely through perception and preseason rankings.  If ESPN is helping the ACC in the dealings of the conference, why wouldn't the network try to strengthen its public persona with more favorable coverage to build the conference brand?  It's not a difficult leap to make.

We're talking about something more in realignment involvement though – having an influence in the very structure of the sport the network covers.  Imagine ESPN saying to the NFL, "We really like the New England Patriots and it'd be great to move them to the NFC East so they can play the Cowboys twice a year." Imagine ESPN going to the NBA and saying, "We need some better ratings in the big eastern markets.  It'd be beneficial to our partnership to move the Thunder to New York."

Can ESPN fairly cover college athletics while it has its hands so thoroughly involved in the sport?  With ESPN's launch of the SEC Network this August, those questions of fairness and conflicts of interest between ESPN's business interests and their journalistic interests will only continue to rise in college athletics.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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