Fox Sports 1’s “Harbus” may have been silly — a tour bus outfitted with the trademark khakis and sweatshirt of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh — but it represented a big deal for the network and its college football coverage. The bus was a giant marketing tool, driving across the country to promote Thursday’s broadcast of the Michigan-Utah game, which kicked off FS1’s season.
So when Utah decided to ban the Harbus from its campus before the game, that couldn’t have made Fox Sports happy. The network essentially based its entire marketing campaign around Michigan and Harbaugh’s debut on the sideline. And let’s also not overlook the rather significant point that Fox Sports is a TV partner of the Pac-12 Conference.
Utah’s Liz Abel said “several of us in the administration” made the decision to ban the Harbus. Whittingham and Chris Hill not involved.
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) September 3, 2015
But regardless of whether or not Utah Coach Kyle Wittingham or athletic director Chris Hill had anything to do with the decision, it’s understandable that the school wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a giant promotion for Michigan driving around campus and sitting outside the stadium for fans and tailgaters to see before the game. It’s certainly possible that the Utah athletic department was working and speaking on behalf of the Pac-12, which likely was not happy about the Utes and the conference being completely overlooked in Fox’s promotional campaign leading up to the game. Shouldn’t a relationship with a TV network benefit its partner?
I was told by a source that FS1 was going all out tonight to show the B1G that it can get most-favored nation status on the network.
— Ken Fang (@fangsbites) September 4, 2015
As AA’s Ben Koo wrote this week, the Pac-12 is rumored to be unhappy with Fox Sports and the big, wet kiss the network has been giving to Michigan for the past few weeks must have increased that resentment. Fox appears to have its eyes on the prize of getting the rights to Big Ten games, and this campaign was more likely a demonstration of what the network could do for the conference as compared to ESPN. If Fox lands the Big Ten, that almost certainly will affect what coverage the Pac-12 receives. Would Pac-12 games get pushed to FS2 as a result?
If Utah and the Pac-12 thought it was dating Fox Sports, but the network has been flirting with Michigan and Big Ten, it’s easy to imagine Fox getting a figurative drink tossed in its face. But while wiping off its face, Fox Sports has to be thrilled with the response the Harbus generated on Fox networks, news coverage and social media. That might just pay off in a partnership with the Big Ten. If so, Utah booting Fox’s four-wheeled marketing tool from campus will be quickly forgotten.