Wherever Ohio State ends up in the postseason, it will end up playing on either ABC or ESPN. The Buckeyes’ appearance on either network will end what will end up being a nearly three month streak of college football’s most-watched team being shown exclusively on Fox-owned networks (Fox, FS1, or BTN). During that seven game stretch, Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff pregame show will have traveled to four of those games, with Fox’s A announcing team (Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt) calling five of those games.

While this season could end with Ryan Day and company reveling on the set of ESPN’s College Football Final, there is an undeniable reality that similar to the 2016 election, a large swath of the midwest has surprisingly flipped, opting to go in an untested new direction instead of the status quo.

Fox aims and misses badly trying to compete with ESPN over a decade ago 

Fox first made their splash in trying to compete with ESPN on the college football front over a decade ago when they shockingly acquired the rights to the Bowl Championship Series (minus the Rose Bowl). It was a bit of an odd setup, with Fox not having any regular-season college football games and the BCS rankings being announced on the Fox NFL studio show, whose analysts did their best to feign credible knowledge and interest in college football. The whole setup was frankly a recipe for disaster.

Around that time Fox had also acquired digital assets like College Football News and the Scout network (both of which were sold off after fizzling out under Fox’s ownership…the same fate as Myspace). The BCS bowls, the digital assets, all seemed to point to the fact Fox certainly had ambitions of being ESPN’s equal covering college football. But while their vision may have seemed well thought out, the execution of their plan was abysmal and met with waves of well-deserved criticism. The lack of regular-season games coupled with panned production quality and announcing saw fans revolt at what they believed was an inferior product to the ABC/ESPN product they had grown accustomed to over the years.

Fox walked away from the BCS after the 2009 season (there were even rumors they wanted to unload the last year of the deal back to ESPN), and many of their efforts to pick up regular season games fell apart (the latter of which is subject to a lot of colorful stories among industry insiders).

It would have been easy and logical for Fox to walk away after such a public failure but the network kept plugging along as it launched the first conference network (co-owned with the Big Ten, but operated by Fox) in 2007. Fox would go onto crack the college football door a little wider by retaining the rights to the Cotton Bowl (since acquired by ESPN),  acquiring the conference championship game rights for the Big Ten, and alternating conference championship game rights with ESPN for the Pac-12 . Still, though, Fox just lacked credibility without airing regular-season college football games. And fans weren’t exactly clamoring for Fox to have a seat at the table with the memory of the BCS games having made such a significant negative impression.

Fox finally breaks through……..thanks to ESPN

For quite awhile, ESPN has had college football mostly to itself. NBC and CBS have dabbled and have some big games throughout the season, but that almost always is one window on one channel and not ESPN’s multi-day bonanza of games across multiple networks. In 2011, it was NBC and not Fox ramping up their college football offerings that seemed to have ESPN worried. As told by SBJ, both companies scrambled to box out NBC in the eleventh hour, acquiring the Pac 12’s rights (back then the Pac 10).

It all started with an April 25 phone call from ESPN’s John Skipper to Fox’s Randy Freer.

Prior to that call, executives from ESPN and Fox were resigned to losing the Pac-10’s media rights to Comcast, which had told the conference weeks earlier that it would bid $225 million per year to pick up the rights for Versus and NBC. Neither of the current partners, ESPN nor Fox, had the shelf space to bid that much individually.

The successful joint bid led to Fox now having a steady supply of regular-season games from a Power Five conference, and thus, a seat at the table. A little more than a year later, Fox cut a similar deal with the Big 12, which saw them again sharing a conference’s rights with ESPN.

While a win for Fox, the reality is that ESPN was still in a dominant position with with half to all of every Power Five conference’s rights, along with rights to lesser conferences to help round out the portfolio and keep their channels full of live games. But it was clear Fox was angling for something bigger; the network had their eye on something more significant, and they weren’t too subtle about it.

In the weeks before the 2015 season, Fox draped a bus in khaki and blue to make the bus look like Jim Harbaugh. Despite not having a television contract with the Big Ten, the bus roamed the country going to sporting events drumming up interest in Harbaugh’s first game back at Michigan. Many saw the marketing stunt as Fox blatantly making eyes at the Big Ten whose television rights were coming up for bid, but in a way that blatantly disregarded the network’s existing relationship with the Pac-12. (Utah was hosting Michigan in that game, and they weren’t being promoted whatsoever.)

Battle lines being drawn

For seven years, the Big Ten stood alone as the only Power Five conference with their own network. That changed in 2014 as ESPN launched the SEC Network on the heels of the SEC having won seven of the prior eight national titles. Two years later, Fox would land half of the Big Ten’s television rights, which included some scheduling priority over ESPN’s half of the package. A couple months after the Fox-Big Ten deal was announced, ESPN announced they’d launch their second conference network with the recently-launched ACC Network.

All of this reshuffling has given us the current status quo, which should hold for the next few years with no major television contracts due to expire for a while. The main takeaway is that Fox has emerged as a worthy threat to what was once almost an ESPN college football monopoly. Fox has continuously amassed quality rights, while ESPN has reacted by launching two new conference focused networks.

Still though, ESPN seemed to have a firm grasp on the sport in general. The Worldwide Leader still had the vast majority of the bowls, the playoff, the highly-watched rankings shows, two wholly-owned conference networks (BTN has split ownership between the Big Ten and Fox), higher-rated studio programming, and the crown jewel of college football fandom, College Gameday. And many fans seemed to prefer ESPN’s stewardship of the sport (although I would contend this lead shown below had been shrinking).

Capitalizing on divisiveness and tribalism

Far and away the largest two complaints about ESPN are as follows:

1- They are biased against my team and or conference (in particular, they show favortism to the SEC)

2- They have a left-leaning political bias.

The legitimacy of either gripe is up for debate, and of late ESPN has done well to defuse the political bias claim (although it lingers in certain parts of the internet) like a bad fart in a phone booth.

On the politics front, it’s not hard for Fox to stand out as a better alternative to ESPN to disgruntled conservatives, given that the Fox brand is already synonymous to conservatives thanks to Fox News. Fox News has been ramping up their sports coverage by covering divisive sports stories like White House visits or lack thereof by championship teams, Colin Kaepernick, the NBA’s bungled response to Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweets, and even Don Cherry’s firing. Often, Fox News coverage of these events sees known conservative Fox Sports personalities like Clay Travis and Jason Whitlock, who we’ve seen Fox deploy in many different ways as Fox’s brand ambassador to conservatives. Given that college football fans skew more conservative, ESPN’s rise as a punching bag for conservatives certainly opened the door for Fox to make inroads with fans looking to ‘boycott” ESPN.

But where Fox seems to have made pay dirt is providing a clear alternative to the perceived preferential treatment the SEC gets with ESPN. This is essentially the hypothesis that Fox News was built on; that other network that pisses you off is for them, but THIS network doesn’t have the same beliefs. We do things differently here.

Fox can get away with pursuing a strategy of pushing back against SEC favoritism for a few reasons, the most obvious which is that they don’t have a television contract with the SEC, and they don’t own and operate a network that solely covers the SEC. But moreso, Fox is small enough where it can avoid the scrutiny that a company of ESPN’s scale has. Fox produces a fraction of the studio content that ESPN does, which means less analysts, analysis, debate, and commentary that could be perceived as having some type of bias. Fox also doesn’t have a website (well, not one that people go to and read), so there is just a much smaller fraction of personalities that could be flagged as being a homer for a particular conference. Does ESPN really have an SEC bias, or is some of that criticism just because they’re so big that they have personalities that rankle fans from all fanbases with biases that can be real or perceived?

The Fox Strategy

A look at Fox’s pregame show and commenting teams reveal a pretty noticeable pattern. Fox’s most prominent personalities almost always have ties to the universities they cover. That’s a long way of saying you won’t find former SEC and ACC players and coaches on Fox (apart from Urban Meyer, who previously coached in the SEC, but his most recent ties are to the Big Ten). And by design, you’re extremely unlikely to hear Fox analysts debating for or campaigning on behalf of the SEC and ACC.

Fox’s audience doesn’t want that. In fact they want the opposite, and that’s something that Fox has been more proactively pushing.  Joel Klatt, Urban Meyer, Brock Huard and the rest of the Fox gang have ramped up their vocalness in advocating for the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12. While the merits of those arguments can be argued to death either way (essentially ESPN’s studio strategy), it’s clear that some fans of these conferences feel slighted and underserved by ESPN. Below, Tim Brando, the Fox announcer with the most ties to the SEC, took dead aim at the SEC’s scheduling.

If we look at the five-year existence of the college football playoff, you can see the disparity between the conferences. In five years of the CFP, the SEC has six appearances with the ACC having five appearances. Fox’s conference partners haven’t been as lucky, with the Big 12 and Big Ten having three appearances and the Pac 12 having two. Fox no doubt would like to see more schools from the conferences they work with make the playoff, and even their studio programming sometimes sees other conferences blasted (which can sometimes backfire, as with Colin Cowherd getting called out by Dabo Swinney for labeling Clemson a fraud).

While all of this may just be coincidental, there appears to be a rift between some fans of schools in these conferences and ESPN. And a lot of that is ESPN’s own doing. Whether it’s ESPN having to formally apologize to Washington a few years ago for belittling their schedule (using cupcakes, no less!), Buckeye fans still having PTSD from years of being trolled by Mark May, or just fans of any conference sick of SEC overkill on ESPN, they’ve found an alternative that a) now airs their team games and b) seems to counterbalance ESPN’s SEC fixation.

And Fox is incentivized to purposefully drive the wedge between non-SEC and ACC college football fans and ESPN. Many of those fans have habitually turned to ESPN for lots of things outside of live games, including analysis, content, scores, and fantasy games. If the whole ESPN brand becomes tainted with SEC bias, the more likely those disgruntled fans are to turn to whatever alternative they can find. And we’re seeing a surprisingly strong undercurrent of college football fans taking up boycott ESPN torches and embracing Fox.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Michigan and Ohio, where the Big Ten’s two biggest blue chips reside and where Fox now owns the rights to their annual showdown, which regularly is one of the most-watched regular season games of they year. And Fox’s college football preview show will be at an Ohio State game three weeks in a row (following Penn State-Ohio State last week, they’re headed to Ohio State-Michigan this week, and they’ll be at the Big Ten championship game the following week), with Urban Meyer (who is still wildly popular in Ohio) being the show’s focal point and differientator.

While ESPN’s College GameDay has former Buckeye Kirk Herbstreit , many Ohio State fans have turned on him for a variety of mostly irrational petty grievances over the years. Despite Herbstreit and the fact that GameDay frequents Big Ten cities with great frequency, claims of GameDay‘s SEC favoritism have mounted despite ESPN attempts to rebut them. And the show was brilliantly lambasted a few years ago when a popular Ohio State site posted what they called a leaked script for GameDay. (1000% worth a click)

Big Noon Kickoff has been the key part of the Fox strategy here. It will go on the road to six games this year, all to games Fox broadcasts (unlike GameDay, which regularly travels to games being broadcast by other networks), and it’s usually on-air right before the game in question, letting them amp up the focus on serving as a pre-game show for that game rather than previewing all of college football. And five of the six road shows will showcase their pregame show talent in front of schools they either coached or played for, thus ensuring a warm reception.

With GameDay‘s popularity and standing with fans along (along with Fox’s first abomination at a college pregame show anchored by Erin Andrews), it was easy to discount the success Fox would have in providing a Gameday competitor. But what maybe one of the sports media stories of the year is that the show has gone over incredibly well in it’s first year, and is making ratings progress against ESPN (although still trailing).

Despite being a divisive figure outside of the state of Ohio, Urban Meyer has been embraced by many as a television analyst. His more granular film and field breakdowns have been seen as substantive football analysis opposed to the normal fluff you see before a game.  Fox also added Charles Woodson to go along with Matt Leinert, Reggie Bush, and Brady Quinn, giving the show a lot of star power that has meshed surprisingly well. Also, a lot of fans just prefer the style of the Fox show, which seems a bit more buttoned up and football focused compared to GameDay.

While the noon kickoffs (another part of Fox’s strategy) has rankled many fans who prefer later kickoffs for high-profile games, the persistent effort in showcasing Ohio State and Michigan (and to a lesser degree schools like Wisconsin and Iowa) have done well in the ratings. And that’s helped to win over fans, and that extends beyond the Big Ten.

The past few weeks I’ve talked to fans of Big 12 and Pac-12 schools who all pointed to ESPN’s close ties to the SEC as a growing annoyance. To many, the current system feels rigged against them, and they believe ESPN is in the middle of it helping facilitate the status quo. What Fox has done the past few months in cozying up to Ohio State and Michigan is something they can continue to employ in future years in an effort to flip more fanbases to preferring Fox over ESPN.

However, a huge component of Fox’s strategy relies on the pregame show and the noon kickoff, something that doesn’t work as well with teams not in the eastern time zone. Can they truly convince Pac-12 schools to host games at 9 a.m. so they can cozy up to USC, Washington, and Oregon fans like they have in Ohio and Michigan? Will they settle for making similar inroads with Oklahoma, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State? Or perhaps will they continue to focus on drinking more of ESPN’s milkshake in Ohio and Michigan, maybe with the ultimate prize being taking total control of the Big Ten’s television rights down the line? Some in the industry believe this is Fox’s ultimate goal, although others say no Power 5 conference would ever fully leave ESPN and risk ESPN making an even more overt effort to ignore a conference.

Regardless of how the rest of this season and playoff shakes out, it’s clear that both Fox and ESPN are financially entangled with specific Power Five conferences, and that’s only compounded by three of those conferences having their own networks run by either ESPN (SEC, ACC) or Fox (Big Ten). (The Big 12 also has a digital-only network run by ESPN, plus a school-specific linear network for Texas run by ESPN, but Oklahoma has a deal with the former Fox RSNs for its own third-tier content. The Pac-12 runs its own network, which is going great.)  That’s led to further questions about if either ESPN or Fox can be depended on to cover the sport neutrally, or if we’re beginning to see a new reality like what we’ve seen with cable news, where we pick our sports channel based on our partisan identity and rooting interest?

ESPN seems to have subtly embraced such a strategy, and Fox now seems motivated to craft a strategy focused on those disenfranchised by ESPN. With the hindsight of over two decades of the cable news networks pursuing such a divide and conquer strategy, we’re like going to see Fox and ESPN continue to increase partisan analysis, toxic discourse, and disingenuous debate to pander to a more fragmented college football audience.

Television contracts, conference expansion or realignment, and/or expanding the college football playoff could all potentially ratchet down the current trend of purposefully tinged favoritism for particular conferences. But if those same variables play out differently, they could also further incentivize ESPN and Fox to escalate their conference loyalty (particularly should Fox be able to pry away a power 5 conference from ESPN entirely). Until then, ESPN will have to continue trying to walk a tight rope thinner than a piece of floss knowing that any perceived slight against a conference is is something Fox could sink their teeth into.

That’s not exactly a comfortable position for ESPN, especially considering that the network dared the Big Ten to start their own network, collaborated with Fox to retain Pac 12 rights to keep NBC out of the picture, and was Urban Meyer’s first media employer. With Fox’s influence in college football snowballing, ESPN for the first time must deal with the reality that their tight grip over college football has loosened to the point where Fox has a viable, albeit outside, shot of overtaking them (particularly in some specific areas) in the next decade. I’m not sold such a changing of the guard is realistic or would be good for the sport, but this has been one of the hardest-fought fronts in ESPN’s history. And it seems like we’re early on in an escalating turf war for America’s most tribal sports fans.

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - EIC and CEO at @comeback_sports and @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.