If you’re a college football fan like myself, the last two weeks have been riveting to follow and I’m not even talking about the games.
Almost every day has had some major development with coaching changes at LSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Florida, Miami, and Oregon all affected. Dozens of other programs have been affected to a lesser degree by assistant coaches moving, transfers, and rumors of changes that never materialize.
On the news and analysis front, it’s been a feeding frenzy (which it is every year around this time) with a new development breaking every hour or so and small windows to discuss the latest before these fluid situations change yet again.
And yet it’s hard to notice that really none of this action plays out on ESPN, at least anywhere near the intensity level that ESPN leans into the news with the NBA and NFL. ESPN has, of course, had some more robust coverage on ESPN2 and the SEC and ACC Networks, but the much more watched main ESPN, the authority in sports coverage, has largely underwhelmed.
There are sizable chunks of the year where you definitely see on Twitter (the last 10 days for example) college football towering over the NFL and NBA in terms of news, engagement, and interest, and yet none of that excitement is really mirrored at all on ESPN. College football coaching upheaval often feels like an extended police car chase captured by a news helicopter where fans are hanging on every turn and maneuver, knowing it could end at any second. The chase itself is exciting and millions of college football fans track every new development, rumor, or morsel of new information. But ESPN doesn’t really cover these chases. Instead, coaching moves are really only covered when there is a firing or hiring. The chase itself is left to other outlets, sites, and news breakers. It’s only when there is a final crash and an arrest does ESPN comes in and talks about what unfolded.
What feels odd is just how invested ESPN is in college football, both financially and the amount of air time the games get, and yet the sport receives significantly less coverage than the NBA and the NFL. ESPN has a daily NBA and NFL show that airs the majority of the year. College football does have a show, but it’s relegated to ESPN2. The Paul Finebaum Show and other ACC and SEC Network daily shows certainly help, but that’s not a comprehensive national strategy.
Get Up!, First Take, This Just In, ATH, PTI, and to a lesser degree, SportsCenter, with the exclusion of SVP’s version, all follow the same editorial direction. College football coverage in doses. They talk about upcoming games, games that just happened, Heisman, hot seats, and coaching moves well after the dust settles. The drip drip drip fluid reporting on coaching rumors, transfers, recruiting, etc that seemingly lights up Twitter, message boards, sports talk radio, and everywhere in between, has no real place on ESPN’s national platforms.
I think it’s fair to say as someone who watches a lot of ESPN during the day for work purposes, that across main ESPN, the entirety of coaching changes the last few weeks got less attention than OBJ’s exit from Cleveland and subsequent signing with the Rams. Beckham is currently a free agent in two of my three fantasy leagues. Meanwhile, you could say a third of the top 15 jobs in college football all were filled in a very tight window. It seems crazy such upheaval to the premier college football jobs gets equal coverage as the Rams adding their 4th best wide receiver. Why is that? Below are a few reasons.
There is no college football Woj or Schefter Twitter behemoth at ESPN or anywhere
Let’s take a step back and think about the cadence in which ESPN covers news for their prized two sports, with Twitter being the front line of their coverage.
ESPN has generally figured out a pretty boilerplate recipe that goes like this:
-Woj/Schefter get a breaking news story out first on Twitter where other ESPN accounts quickly promote the exclusive
-Often a longer more detailed article on the news gets posted on ESPN.com
-The news hits ESPN’s ticker and ESPN, often with a “Breaking News” tease.
-Depending on the time of the day, Woj or Schefter will go on ESPN (either in person, on the phone, or a live shot from their homes) and further detail the story.
-Whatever studio show is on at that time of the day will then analyze the development. This will continue into the story is either stale or more big news stories have pushed this off the rundown.
But let’s start with step one of this process, Twitter.
Woj has five million Twitter followers. Adam Schefter is closing in on 9 million.
If we look at who you might consider ESPN’s top college football reporter, the highest Twitter following is for Mark Schlabach with 127k followers. He hasn’t tweeted in two years. Adam Rittenberg, Heather Dinich, and Chris Low all have followings between 52k-65k. This isn’t a knock on these particular people as they have more focused beats and find themselves on television far less than a Woj or Schefter. Additionally, this actually may further prove a point I made last week that maybe the model of one news breaker per sport isn’t really viable and perhaps they are testing a different model out more in college football.
But while there might not be a college football reporter with millions of followers, it’s still odd that the worldwide leader in sports doesn’t employ any of the reporters/news breakers with the largest social media followings. At one point they did. Former employees Brett McMurphy, Joe Schad, Pat Forde, and Bruce Feldman all have followings between 230k-357k. Other reporters like Pete Thamel, Ross Dellenger, and Nicole Auerbach also are further along in their social followings despite not having the ESPN brand halo.
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) December 2, 2017
This points to a chicken or the egg issue for ESPN. Does having Woj and Schefter on television as often as they are driving their social following, or does their dominance on Twitter fuel the interest to have them on TV more? However you view it (it’s a two-way street), there isn’t anyone both internally or externally with anywhere near the Twitter juice of a Woj or Schefty or even non-ESPN folks like Ian Rapoport with 3 million followers or Shams Charania with 1.4 million. You’d have to think if someone internally or externally became such a driving force of conversation in terms of college football coverage, ESPN might rethink how it gives such little shelf space to college football news these days.
Having one national college football news breaker probably doesn’t work like for pro leagues
Woj and Schefter each cover 30-32 teams and anywhere from around ~500 players to 2500 that will play in a given year. College football is much much bigger than the pro leagues. Can you really manage relationships and more importantly solid knowledge about a sport that has over 120 teams?
Beyond the size of the sport, it’s no secret that Woj and Schefter rely heavily on player agents to funnel them scoops. Build a relationship with a dozen or so front office folks and a dozen or so agents and it’s plausible you can get a large piece of the scoops pie which can snowball as your social media following grows.
But with the players not having a representative to selectively leak news to the media, half of the sources that a Woj, Schefter, Passan, Shams, etc get info from is nonexistent. In college football, you’re much more reliant on coaches’ agents and schools themselves, who seem to prefer leaking to local reporters with who they have built up relationships and whose coverage is often a bit more controlled and positive.
What you’d probably like to see is ESPN employing a larger amount of the national reporters and perhaps giving them more specific areas of focus, but that doesn’t seem to be the direction ESPN is going in as they’ve scaled down significantly from the number of people they had a decade ago with Feldman, Forde, McMurphy, and Schad all gone now with very little notable hires since.
College football fans have long moved away from getting their news and analysis from ESPN
College football is a far more local sport. Fans hover on team-specific sites for hours every day looking for news. Yahoo and CBS realized this and made acquisitions of local site networks so that all of this engagement and revenue stayed under a national brand.
ESPN dabbled in some team-specific site initiatives a decade ago but those were both poorly planned and poorly executed. Local continues to be a pain-point for ESPN although one wonders how that could have changed if they were allowed to maintain ownership of the Fox/Sinclair/Bally RSNs they bought from Fox but the DOJ said they had to sell to avoid being a sports monopoly.
This is a long way of saying that you don’t have millions of people following a national news breaker chiefly because the tens of millions of college football fans habitually don’t look for news from national outlets but rather the myriad of local team-specific sites and social accounts. Even if ESPN or another national outlet were going to break a major story, would they click to read it, or would they just read the cliffs notes posted by Longhornssuckbutthole420 on a message board?
ESPN is compromised
ESPN is quick to point out that that they have the SEC Network and the ACC Network and that a lot of college football coverage happens there. This is true IF you’re a fan of a school in those conferences.
But talk to fans of certain schools, or more specifically schools in certain conferences (not the ACC and SEC) and you’ll get some real venom about ESPN’s bias in covering college football. Some of that is very unfair, but an awful lot of it registers to me at least, as very fair. Essentially the major beef is that ESPN’s business relationships dictate some level of coverage and analysis bias and that the network has a role in conference realignment and playoff expansion, something that is a VERY sensitive subject to the network.
Michael Wilbon with the look of someone who 100% agrees but also knows how hard it is to get a raise at ESPN these days pic.twitter.com/Dl6ARKvLQJ
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) June 10, 2021
A few people I spoke with for this article noted that the network really “stood down” in terms of covering Texas and Oklahoma’s move to the SEC and generally does not want to get into the topic of realignment.
Someone who used to cover college football for ESPN would go as far as saying “News is unattractive because it brings scrutiny. They own the networks. They own a lot of the bowls. They steer expansion and realignment. TV money is fueling coaching salaries. There is no financial incentive for them investing here anymore because a lot of these moves and issues tracks back to them.”
It’s not worth it
Another person I spoke with for this article, who is more on the business end of sports media, had an explanation that probably is the most at the heart of the matter.
“ESPN cares mostly about the games and somewhat about the conference rankings shows or whatever that is, Gameday obviously, and whatever they put on the conference networks to a lesser degree. Everything else is potentially messy and not worth it. I’m sure they have data that backs up that talking about LeBron and the Cowboys all day performs better for them than getting into the weeds with college football when stories pop there. They know what they are doing. The data doesn’t lie.”
The other thing I heard from a few people is that the college football news cycle only seems to spike above the NFL and the NBA for maybe a dozen or so days a year. While the mostly surface-level coverage of these major stories (at least on the TV front) is quite noticeable, is this really a year-round problem for the network? Does it make sense to beef up your reporting and analysts roster all year round when it’s only a glaring issue for a few weeks of the year?
In some ways, ESPN’s college football coverage in terms of news and analysis is both totally understandable and yet also totally befuddling. ESPN airs way more college football games and brings in way more audience for the sport compared to the NFL and NBA and yet it’s a distant bronze medal in terms of news and analysis for the network. Given their investment and audience, it seems crazy to just cede so much of the discussion of the sport to other personalities and platforms.
But look a bit further and it’s all by design. The model of coverage that works so well for the NBA, NFL, and to a lesser degree MLB, doesn’t fit for college football. Media consumption habits and negative opinions of the ESPN brand further set back the ambitions of covering the sport. All of the data ESPN collects probably reaffirms the editorial decisions they are making.
All of this is a long way of saying, ESPN seems to be just fine being The Worldwide Leader in broadcasting college football games but beyond that, fans better look elsewhere if you really want college football news fast and analysis of that news to be robust.