During the postcard hour of last year’s Rose Bowl, when gray clouds covered the San Gabriels and rain peppered the Granddaddy’s glorious green turf, the scene made for easy metaphorical references to Mother Nature expressing her displeasure at the sad end of one of college football’s timeless traditions — the champions from the Big Ten and Pac-12 playing in Pasadena to ring in the new year.
Looking back, the surprising darkness and dampening of Penn State’s win over Utah was a portending moment. Yes, a disruptive and disheartening 2023 for our beloved sport was truly just getting started.
Seven months later, there wouldn’t even be a Pac-12 to speak of. After Colorado’s departure for the Big 12, stoked by the bravado of new coach Deion Sanders, Fox saw a window to finish what it started a year prior when it encouraged the additions of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, bringing along Washington and Oregon. This 18-team “super conference” presumably would go toe-to-toe with the ESPN-backed 16-team SEC — toe-to-toe, at least, in the TV rating metrics, the only competition that seems to matter these days.
Mercifully, the games finally started again, and the product drew more viewership than ever before. It turns out that the players being labeled as amateurs and treated like normal students who are subsisting on ramen noodles were not the reason folks tuned in on Saturdays. The TV networks were proven right to have invested so much time and resources into constructing a “Power Two” conference structure that would provide the best inventory to consumers more consistently, and, sure enough, four big brands that will live in the Big Ten and SEC starting next season were invited to the College Football Playoff at the season’s end.
But what of Florida State? Did its league, the Atlantic Coast Conference, not receive checks from ESPN too, albeit much smaller ones than the ones Alabama gets from the SEC? Did the Seminoles not do everything they were asked to do, going 13-0 and winning their conference title despite losing their star quarterback to a season-ending injury in late November?
For the first time, an unbeaten Power Five conference champion did not make the cut for college football’s four-team postseason invitational tournament, as one-loss Texas and one-loss Alabama emerged as the preferred options after the Crimson Tide stunned two-time defending national champion Georgia. That one massive win trumped the 13 that Florida State strung together, which included decisive triumphs over SEC powers Louisiana State and Florida, the latter achieved on the road with the backup quarterback.
What those of us who were shocked by the CFP selection committee’s decision forgot is that the sport’s power brokers already moved on from the concept of a Power Five. Without the Pac-12, there is no “Power Four” either. As more time passes, it will become even more obvious that there is the SEC and the Big Ten and then what may as well be called the “Group of Seven.”
This year’s Rose Bowl previews a new era in which the game annually will be part of the CFP’s tournament along with the other five “New Year’s Six” bowls, hosting two teams coming from whatever the bracket spits out in the 12-team format. This Michigan-Alabama game is likely a precursor to frequent Big Ten vs. SEC matchups in L.A., many of which would come in the quarterfinal round, with the games played around the new year (the Tournament of Roses, of course, hopes that usually will be on New Year’s Day).
Michigan-Alabama is a dream matchup for ESPN, and it doesn’t take one wearing a tinfoil hat in Tallahassee to at least wonder what role the network played in making sure the SEC champion was included.
“It’s pretty clear to just about anyone that covers college football that the decision was made without a doubt that there had to be a Southeastern Conference team in this playoff, that they would not have a four-team playoff without an SEC team,” says Tim Brando, the longtime college sports commentator who calls games for Fox. “And it would have been much easier for them if Georgia had just won, but they didn’t. Alabama did. If Georgia wins, it’s Georgia 1, Michigan 2, Washington 3, and Florida State 4. Everybody knows this. Everybody. But if Alabama wins, and you got to take an SEC team, you’ve come to that decision already, then you know you cannot take Alabama without also taking Texas, which won in Tuscaloosa by double digits. So if you’re taking Alabama, you got to take Texas.”
I called Brando to gain his perspective because few have had as prime of a view of how TV has shaped college football over the last four decades.
He got his start at ESPN just a few years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Georgia and Oklahoma in their landmark case against the NCAA, which until 1984 held a monopoly over the broadcast rights to college football games. Before that ruling, ESPN was an upstart, small-time operation looking for footing, and it seized on college football’s popularity at the right time.
“Absolutely it helped ESPN become what it is in this generation, the 1,200-pound gorilla of sports television,” Brando says. “When I was working there, we were the little cable that could. We had like 25 million homes, and most of them were in the Sun Belt, Rust Belt and Midwest. Major cities like New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco, the fight to get cable wired in metropolitan cities was still going on. ESPN and college football grew together.”
A little-known fact: Brando was the first host of ESPN “College GameDay,” in 1987 when it was done from its Bristol, Conn., studio. He would leave Bristol a few years later because his wife wanted to live in their hometown of Shreveport, La., and Brando’s true love was calling games, anyway.
With his early platform, Brando recalls, he always was advocating for college football to create a system that crowns a legitimate national champion. He finally got that in 1998 with the Bowl Championship Series, and the sport doubled its access to the pursuit of a title with the CFP in 2014.
His issue with the CFP isn’t that it landed on Alabama as Michigan’s opponent in the Rose Bowl.
“It was the process taken and how they got to this matchup,” Brando says. “It’s difficult to look at it and not get very hot under the collar about it. That lack of transparency is what’s corrupt. It’s absolutely corrupt. That’s not too strong a word.”
Only the principal players know how much influence ESPN used as the lone broadcast partner for the CFP. But Brando notes that the day before Championship Saturday, the network provocateurs began discussing whether the CFP committee should select the “best four teams” or the “most deserving,” and gave SEC commissioner Greg Sankey a long interview to make the case for his teams. Once Alabama beat Georgia, the debate went into hyperdrive, and one prominent ESPN voice stood above them all in pushing for the Crimson Tide: Kirk Herbstreit.
Whether ESPN executives played a part behind the scenes or not, the ESPN/SEC machine descending upon the Rose Bowl to preview and broadcast Michigan-Alabama feels a bit awkward, if not nauseating.
You can imagine the hate-watching that will be occurring among Florida State fans, who have written off Herbstreit now to the point that his “Merry Christmas” tweet featuring a picture of the nativity received replies like “There was no room at the inn. Just like you made sure there was no room for FSU in the playoffs” and “I think Jesus would have gone with on-the-field results over the eye test.”
Florida State’s disgust over the way it was treated stretched to the top of the university, which is suing the ACC to get out of its grant-of-rights agreement so it can leave the conference with less of a financial penalty.
The bet here is that Fox eventually will welcome Florida State to the Big Ten with a garnet-and-gold velvety carpet, expanding the reach of its broadcasts and the Big Ten Network’s subscriber base into the nation’s third-most-populated state.
Fox has been playing catch-up to ESPN from the moment it got involved in college sports in the early 2000s.
“We had a belief that college sports were undervalued,” says Bob Thompson, the retired Fox Sports Networks president who remains an authority on media rights negotiations. “There was a belief within folks at Fox that you could do what you did on Sunday on Saturdays, so much so that, you look now at the Big Ten, it looks just like a Sunday, right? Early-window game, late-window game, and a prime-time game.”
I wanted to get Thompson’s take on how the sport has evolved to a place where the perception is that networks are openly rooting for the teams from the conferences they’re in business with. He pointed out that Fox made the first move in that direction by owning 51% of the Big Ten Network. Of course, the SEC responded by allowing ESPN to own its SEC Network.
“I’m convinced that if the Pac-12 had partnered with a network on their channel, they would still have a Pac-12,” Thompson says.
The Pac-12 didn’t have a major network fighting to keep its channel from going dark. In retrospect, this was a major miscalculation by former commissioner Larry Scott and the league’s presidents, leaving the schools and the fans on the West Coast extremely vulnerable.
Now, Fox controls USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon under the Big Ten banner. Fox shares the rights to one game a week with CBS and NBC, creating the scenario Thompson laid out of an NFL-like Saturday for the Big Ten, and ESPN no longer has any rights to broadcast Big Ten football games. The Worldwide Leader is all in on the SEC.
Fox has made up a ton of ground, but it has one more mammoth move to make in the coming months (and no, I’m not talking about adding Florida State to the Big Ten).
The rights to the College Football Playoff are up for grabs after 2025, and those negotiations already are getting started. For the health of the sport — to avoid the perception of one network pulling the strings to crown its champion — the CFP needs to split the rights between ESPN and another partner, presumably Fox.
“It’s vital,” Brando says. “Full disclosure, I don’t say that because I work currently for a competing network. But because, much like the NFL, the blueprint for being successful being national is to have talking points being made everywhere about your sport.”
Says Thompson, “It would be smart for the CFP to bring additional players in, if only for, no [network] likes to have the regular season and none of the playoffs. You want to have the marquee event if you’re going to support the sport all season long.”
Surely the suits at Fox didn’t go to all this trouble to help create the new Big Ten but then not claim a slice of the most-prized package of games, which will grow from three to 11 starting next year. The Big Ten power programs — and that now includes USC — should be expecting Fox to even the CFP selection playing field by coughing up whatever ungodly amount it takes.
Brando came up in the industry at a time when broadcasters were taught to play it straight down the middle, but he still believes in the sport’s direction overall — and that the things that made college football so enthralling to begin with still exist.
“Fans across the country view college athletics as part of who they are,” Brando says. “They view their schools, and maybe they may not have even gone to those schools, they were just raised near those schools, but they believe their teams represent their states, their way of life versus the other team’s way of life. That’s why they’re so passionate. And, at times that passion can get a little over the top.”
To me, writing about college football always has felt like the most fun way to write about America. The sport may be our most peculiar institution, and if you don’t agree, please, try explaining our fall Saturday spectacle to anyone outside our borders as I have.
Indeed, college football in 2024 mirrors the nation. Naturally, we are now being asked to root not just for our school — or our “way of life,” as Brando says — but also for the TV network that is willing to wage war to support it.
On New Year’s Day, Michigan might as well be wearing a Fox jersey, with Alabama repping ESPN.
As a Big Ten alumnus who reports on college football in Los Angeles and wants what is best for the next incarnation of the sport I’ve loved from birth, I don’t have much of a choice. In 2024 and beyond, it’s go Fox or go home.
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