Rumblings of expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams certainly intrigues media analysts and observers because of how much money such an event could generate. But for fans, having more schools in the mix for the National Championship is greatly appealing for a sport that feels repetitive year after year with the same teams competing for the trophy.
According to a feature in The Athletic by Nicole Auerbach, ESPN is acutely aware of how much coverage the Playoff gets and how the focus on what’s typically been the same four schools — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma — leaves fans and players feeling left out of the buzz during the season.
But ESPN will have to play a prominent role in changing that conversation. Lee Fitting, the network’s senior vice president of production overseeing college football coverage, admits so much focus on the Playoff has hurt the sport.
“It’s time to take a little reset as far as we’re concerned,” Fitting told Auerbach.
“Obviously, the Playoff needs to remain a priority A) for the sport and B) for business. But at the same time, I’m worried that we’ve gone a little too far away from what makes college football great — and that is that there is something in every game for the fans out there.”
It’s surely worth noting that one of last season’s most exciting matchups, especially with schools largely sticking to conference opponents due to COVID-19 concerns, was BYU-Coastal Carolina on Dec. 5. The schools organized the game at the last minute, providing fans with a matchup between non-Power Five teams, both ranked among the top 15 of the AP Top 25 poll. Viewers responded, giving ESPNU its best numbers in five years.
Broadcasters want the Playoff to get less attention during the telecasts they’re calling as well. Even ESPN College GameDay host Rece Davis goes through the rundown of that week’s show, looking for opportunities to call attention to games and teams that deserve at least a brief mention. That reaches out to viewers whose schools aren’t getting the spotlight that Playoff contenders and hopefuls enjoy.
As an associate professor at Notre Dame explains to Auerbach, college football can already feel unfair when schools are ranked before the season begins, based largely on name recognition and reputation. That perception only increases during the season when the same teams get the most attention and lifted into the Playoff hunt.
The entire article is worth reading (though you need a subscription to The Athletic, of course) for more thoughts from Fitting on what ESPN can do to balance its coverage, reduce focus on the Playoff, and give more schools an appropriate spotlight. That includes the increasing effort to broadcast College GameDay from campuses that don’t often receive attention. Can ESPN change the conversation it helped create in the first place?