When ESPN signed Pat McAfee to a lucrative deal that made him one of their most prominent faces, there was no shortage of people wondering why. As the company laid off longtime cornerstones like Jeff Van Gundy, Max Kellerman, and Suzy Kolber, they made it abundantly clear that McAfee and his show were where things were heading.
It’s not coincidental that one of McAfee’s many gigs during his meteoric media rise was as a professional wrestling announcer. Because that’s where ESPN seems to see all sports going. Like everything else, their vision is that the sports world is becoming professional wrestling.
This past weekend in the world of college football was proof of that concept.
College football has always been full of pomp and pageantry. It’s the sport that’s given us The U, Bevo, Steve Spurrier, and Gusgasms. The spectacle nature of the sport has only increased in recent years with things like the “turnover chains” and championship belts. You don’t remember who won any of the Duke’s Mayo Bowls but you remember watching someone get doused in mayonnaise after.
By the time Deion Sanders showed up at Colorado with a camera crew to film him letting current players know that many of them wouldn’t still be here by the time the season started, the sport was already well on its path to blurring the lines between reality and scripted drama.
Never has that been clearer than on Saturday when, prior to the Pac-12 showdown between the Oregon Ducks and Colorado Buffaloes, OU head coach Dan Lanning leaned into a pre-game speech that was essentially a wrestling promo, especially given that there was an ESPN camera in his face while he was doing it.
Oregon head coach Dan Lanning didn't hold back in his pregame speech against Colorado ?
"They're fighting for clicks, we're fighting for wins." pic.twitter.com/imo4OHA4fA
— ESPN (@espn) September 23, 2023
While many were quick to call out the hypocrisy of the coach of Oregon, the most clout-chasing college football program of the last 30 years, throwing shade at another program for being about “clicks,” that was beside the point. Sanders had been doing a lot of talking (while ESPN and FS1 have been doing a lot of talking about him), Lanning had the chance to respond, their teams hashed it out on the field, and then afterward they shook hands and moved on. As if it was just all a big act, which it kinda was.
But that wasn’t even the most absurd wrestling promo of the weekend. McAfee and ESPN, both of whom know a thing or two about how to create storylines, invited former Notre Dame head Lou Holtz onto The Pat McAfee Show on Friday. Holtz laid out the reasons he thought the Fighting Irish would defeat Ohio State, including that the Buckeyes aren’t physical enough under head coach Ryan Day.
"I'D LIKE TO KNOW WHERE LOU HOLTZ IS NOW. WHAT HE SAID ABOUT OUR TEAM, WHAT HE SAID ABOUT OUR TEAM, I CANNOT BELIEVE. THIS IS A TOUGH TEAM RIGHT HERE. WE'RE PROUD TO BE FROM OHIO. AND IT'S ALWAYS BEEN OHIO AGAINST THE WORLD. IT'LL CONTINUE TO BE OHIO AGAINST THE WORLD." pic.twitter.com/6xUN3R2WOb
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) September 24, 2023
You could argue that Day has better things to do than respond to the comments from a long-retired guy who was obviously going to be pro-Notre Dame, but that again misses the point of what we do now. ESPN manufactured drama out of an octogenarian, everyone involved played their part in the storyline, and now ESPN gets to reap the benefits of discussing the fallout for days.
McAfee wasn’t even the only member of College GameDay to be involved in a promo battle. Following Washington State’s 38-35 win over Oregon State, WSU head coach Jake Dickert used his post-game presser to call out GameDay, and in particular Lee Corso, for diminishing the value of the game and calling it the “No One Watches Bowl.”
Jake Dickert was fired up about the lack of respect shown to WSU on ESPN this morning saying Lee Corso called today’s game the “No one watches Bowl” This is 1:32 well worth your time to hear Coach fight for his team pic.twitter.com/l9zZfhiUK2
— Andrew Quinn (@andrewquinny) September 24, 2023
Unfortunately, Dickert had misheard Corso, who actually said it was “The Nobody Wants Us Bowl,” referring to the “Pac-2” schools getting left behind by their fellow Pac-12 members. But truth has no place here. There are promos to cut. So when former WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf piled on and called out GameDay for treating the game like a “big joke,” he and Kirk Herbstreit then got into it, making it even less about the game and more about the drama.
Is this a real tweet???
You must have been hacked Ryan.
Lee’s point OBVIOUSLY was-it is 2 teams that have been left out-that haven’t found a home yet-NOT the “no one watches Bowl”. Know you’re excited your boys won but DAMN! https://t.co/hfMIBt9YX8
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) September 24, 2023
Just for kicks, we can also throw in McAfee wondering aloud how the Pac-12 wasn’t able to get a media deal done while being on ESPN, one of the chief players in making conference realignment happen. Anytime an ESPN employee shames colleges for their actions during realignment, it breaks reality just a bit.
it’s great that college football coaches are cutting promos. we had folks calling out deion, lou holtz, and lee corso all in the same weekend. nobody is safe out there
— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) September 24, 2023
So in a weekend that began with ESPN and FS1’s coverage of Deion Sanders and Colorado reaching critical mass, we saw one coach cut promos on Sanders, another coach cut a promo on Lou Holtz, a third coach cut a promo on Lee Corso, which led to a former quarterback and Kirk Herbstreit getting into a public spat.
So if you were one of the people wondering why ESPN shelled out so much money for McAfee, this weekend is exactly why. This is how it works now. Getting mad about elaborate touchdown celebrations is old news. We’re in the age of college football as professional wrestling. We’re two weeks away from a head coach looking directly into the camera after a win and cutting a promo on opposing fans. We’re four weeks away from a head coach running on the field and crotch-chopping toward the other sideline. We’re seven weeks away from a head coach and an ESPN talent getting into a fight on the College GameDay stage.
ESPN might have worked itself into a shoot to get here, but it also knew exactly how to be prepared when the moment happened.