Wednesday, October 8, 2008
ESPN's Stick-And-Ball Feeding Frenzy
Wednesday marked another milestone in ESPN's feeding frenzy for the rights to college sports. This time, it was the Big West Conference signing a five year deal with the media giant.
Over the last several months, ESPN's senior executive John Skipper (pictured above) has been leading the charge to add more-and-more live events to the company's line-up of college and pro sports. The biggest deal of the season was in August. Skipper signed an agreement with the Southeastern Conference (SEC) that was monumental in nature.
The SEC had been poking around about starting a free-standing cable TV network just like the Big Ten Conference had done. ESPN's response was to make them an offer they could not refuse. On the table went a deal for 15 years of coverage on the ESPN networks for all kinds of SEC sports. The check attached to it was made out for 2.25 billion dollars. That would be billion with a "B."
This is the exact same ESPN that recently made mincemeat out of the newly unified Indy Racing League. They sent Tony George and his IRL teams packing to the relative obscurity of the Versus digital cable TV network. Skipper wanted the Indy 500 and four other races on ABC. The remaining thirteen IRL races were suddenly not even on the ESPN radar. There was no more room for auto racing.
"The Indy 500 is something we were focused on," said ESPN VP/Programming & Acquisitions Scott Guglielmino. "It really boiled down to that." The rights fee paid by ESPN for the Indy 500 and the other four races combined is less than 4 million dollars a year. How is that for a clear indication of where priorities lie?
In a September 29th interview in MediaWeek, Skipper elaborated on the new ESPN philosophy. “We have found that what sports fans really care about and why they come to ESPN properties is to watch live games,” said Skipper.
With this new focus, Skipper's shopping list in incredible. He wants more college product, additional professional golf and tennis events as soon as possible. As a longtime soccer fan, Skipper also plans more extensive coverage of the World Cup in 2010. But, that is not the biggest fish in the ESPN ocean.
The ultimate goal is to combine ESPN and ABC to cover the Olympics. Skipper is working on a bid for the 2014 and 2016 games. ESPN saw the success that an entertainment-driven network like NBC had with Beijing and they want a piece of the pie.
Currently, ESPN is in the second year of a TV contract with NASCAR. ESPN steps into the Sprint Cup Series in late July and has a good run for a couple of weeks right up until college and pro football season hits. Then, finding more than a forced NASCAR blurb on ESPNEWS or SportsCenter becomes very hard to do.
Other than NASCAR Now, the sport is nowhere on any other ESPN shows from The Sports Reporters to PTI. Some ESPN shows still continue to make fun of NASCAR and celebrate the stick-and-ball culture of ESPN as a whole. When the football blizzard of content begins, NASCAR gets snowed-under very quickly.
The Nationwide Series suffers the worse fate by racing on Saturdays. Fans remember the tough times last year when college football overlapped with live races and the ESPN Classic Network became the second home for the Nationwide Series teams.
One live Nationwide Series race last season was yanked totally off-the-air during the pre-race prayer. It was time for college football.
Ultimately, don't all of the Nationwide races, the Sprint and Nationwide Series practices and the qualifying sessions fit the same criteria as the 13 dropped IRL races? What ESPN really wants is the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series events and the entire Chase for the Championship to show on ABC.
As Skipper and company continue to pile-on the new college and pro sports, isn't it only a matter of time before the same eyes that just dealt with the IRL turn toward NASCAR? The results should be very interesting.
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(photo courtesy of F. Scott Shafer for Wired Magazine/2005)