It’s impossible for me to view the monopoly ESPN has over the sports world and the unthinkable amount of money that comes in and out of Bristol without thinking of Gordon Gekko.  As more and more is revealed about the way ESPN does business at the very top level of the company, the classic “greed is good” philosophy comes to the forefront.  If one is wary of the evils of big business, perhaps ESPN’s dominance troubles you immensely and you’re thinking about the first steps to Occupy Bristol.  If you believe in the virtues of the capitalist ethic, perhaps you applaud ESPN for successfully building a multi-billion dollar empire from scratch.  

As time goes on though, and reporting gets better about television rights deals and what happens behind the scenes, we read more and more stories about the power and infulence of ESPN away from Chris Berman’s annoying schtick, Pardon the Interruption, SportsCenter, and what we see and hear from ESPN.  There’s the ESPN that we love as sports fans in terms of their top notch sports broadcasting.  There’s the ESPN we don’t love as much with Skip Bayless shouting and Tim Tebow talked about ad nauseum.  Then, there’s the corporate ESPN that we just don’t know too much about as sports fans, but are beginning to learn more about.  Networks are becoming increasingly focused on rights deals for televised sports as prices skyrocket and the value of broadcasting live sports dramatically increases.  The Russian Roulette game of college football realignment has highlighted the high stakes involved.  That’s where perhaps the most alarming example of ESPN’s greed and power was unveiled. 

One quote from a Boston Globe story on Boston College and realignment of the ACC and Big East from BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo has hit the blogs.  In a nutshell, Boston College supposedly blocked UConn from being one of the new additions to the ACC to protect their New England turf. (Evidently New England isn’t big enough for the both of them, because, ya know, the Northeastern United States isn’t big enough for the BC and UConn football programs.)  One of the best college football writers, Pete Thamel of the New York Times, also had the quote and broke down the story:

“We always keep our television partners close to us,” DeFilippo told The Globe. “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.”

There’s several levels at play here, but the sentiment that ESPN TOLD US WHAT TO DO is stunning for an athletic director to admit publicly.  Now, what exactly did ESPN tell BC or the ACC to do?  Did they tell the ACC which teams to poach from which conference?  Did they advise BC to focus on football?  Did they simply inform the conference that football dollars were the major player here… or was there something a bit more unseemly happening?  More from Thamel in the New York Times:

DeFilippo’s comments give credence to the popular theory that ESPN encouraged Pittsburgh and Syracuse’s exit from the Big East in the wake of the Big East’s turning down ESPN’s billion dollar television deal in May during an exclusive negotiating window. ESPN has a billion dollar deal with the A.C.C., making that move either savvy business or collusion, depending on one’s perspective.

The ACC and ESPN both denied the claims of DeFilippo, who obviously said way too much… but keep in mind this is the same network that also told us “Bruce has resumed his assignments.”  Is it too hard to believe ESPN is instructing conferences on which team to poach?  Is it too hard to believe ESPN is in on all these realignment meetings and discussions?  Is it too hard to believe ESPN and the networks are moving the chess pieces of realignment around the board…

Duh!  Of course not!  Follow the money!

Let’s be real, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Money runs everything and ESPN has the most money.  Therefore, ESPN has a lot of power in these negotiations, conflict of interest or possible collusion be damned.  (See: Longhorn Network)  I’m no legal expert, but something doesn’t sit well when ESPN has a television contract with the Big East and the ACC and may or may not be instructing certain schools to leave one conference for the other.  

The departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh has maybe even set the wheels of the Big East’s demise in motion.  Now, TCU isn’t coming to the league after all and is instead going to the Big XII in another Houdini act of survival from that league.  The Big East would theoretically be down to six football playing schools – West Virginia, Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, and Connecticut.  Several of those schools are being mentioned as possible recruits for other conferences.  Navy, Air Force, and East Carolina have been schools tossed out as possible replacements.  Basically, the Big East’s football conference may be dying a slow, painful death before our eyes, and ESPN’s money is at the heart of it.

ESPN’s influence in NCAA football is perhaps greater than any other sport.  Discussion on the network and hype can drive rankings positively or negatively.  Overwhelming pressure from ESPN in covering scandals can persuade public opinion for or against a certain school (ahem… right Ohio State?…).  With college football such a subjective sport, ESPN’s driving of the daily conversation is significant on so many levels.

The element of this story that jumps off the page is the Big East turning down ESPN’s billion dollar deal earlier this year.  Ask yourself, is this scenario imagining an angry ESPN putting their foot on the throat of the Big East plausible…

1) Big East turns down billion dollar offer from ESPN
2) Big East explores rights deals with other networks
3) ESPN gets mad… really mad
4) ESPN strikes preemptivey to take teams away from the Big East and move them to the ACC (who they do have a billion dollar TV contract with)
5) The Big East becomes less attractive to other networks.  Therefore, top caliber live sports are kept off ESPN’s competitors
6) ESPN wins another battle in advancing their sports empire 

In fact, you can even make the argument that the landscape in college sports started changing thanks to hardline negotiating by ESPN execs in the first place.  Several years ago, then ESPN Executive VP of Programming Mark Shapiro lowballed Jim Delany and the Big Ten.  Delany threatened to start his own network.  He did.  It’s been a huge monetary success.  Now, other conferences and even teams are trending towards that model.

At this point, the major questions of ESPN and their possibly shady dealings with conferences is largely on the hypothetical level.  Unless we see an e-mail from George Bodenheimer or John Skipper with the title “Kill Big East Football” or tangible evidence of the like, then there isn’t a true smoking gun.  ESPN and the conferences will deny stories like this and hope athletic directors keep a tighter lid on what’s going on behind the scenes in realignment.  However, these type of questions are only going to increase thanks to ESPN’s eroding trust – see the Longhorn Network, Craig James, Bruce Feldman, etc.  It should concern college football fans that the fate of their team or their conference may be decided by suits in Bristol, Connecticut.  But, at the end of the day, there’s one rule at play in conference realignment.

Greed is good.

UPDATE: Nothing to see here…

Yup, nothing at all…


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