ESPN's Latest Obsession: The SEC
It's a deal of tremendous implications that catapults SEC sports coverage into the realm of professional sports. What's been left unexamined is how this will change ESPN's news coverage of the league, and how that resulting coverage is going to make the SEC the de facto national college league of choice. Why? Because ESPN has spent so much money on the rights packages, the SEC has to be front and center.
Don't believe me? It's already happening.
Just take a look at Tennessee football and Kentucky basketball. Since Lane Kiffin's hire, Tennessee has soaked up all the world's supply of college football news. For several days in mid-May, five of the top 10 college football stories on ESPN.com were Tennessee features. Last week, six of 10 were Kentucky basketball stories. That means, for a while, Tennessee and Kentucky, just two programs out of the more than 450 combined top-division basketball and football teams, were receiving over half of ESPN's news coverage. In the process, ESPN has already set about making national figures of Kiffin and John Calipari.
You'll love these guys or you'll hate these guys, but no matter what you'll have an opinion.
And ESPN has picked two major figures that already have national profiles outside of the South to help drive ratings across the country. Coach Cal is very well known on the East Coast thanks to his tour of duty at UMass and his turn as head coach of the New Jersey Nets.
Similarly, Kiffin is well known to sports fans on the West Coast. He's got the sexy USC connection in Los Angeles, he's got a messy NFL divorce in Oakland, and now he's come South to take the helm of one of the SEC's most storied programs. Bang, you get two coaches with national renown on different coasts who ESPN can feature as lightning rods for national stories.
All of a sudden, a region's rivalries have become a nation's, as fans everywhere are being indoctrinated into the characters of SEC sports. Love them or hate them, you have an opinion of these two men. And if you have an opinion, you're more likely to tune into the sporting contests, making the upcoming seasons at Tennessee and Kentucky of national interest.
And that is ratings gold.
Put plainly, Kiffin's been a lightning rod because ESPN has decided that Kiffin as a lightning rod of controversy sells really well. That doesn't mean there's not an element of truth to the characterization, but compare Kiffin's arrival and comments to Steve Spurrier in the early '90s. Kiffin is nowhere near what Spurrier was then. Yet Kiffin's received more media attention relative to his peers than Spurrier ever has. And he hasn't even won a college game yet.
Look at the secondary violation issue. Last year, NCAA member institutions reported almost 4,000 of them, the bigger the program, the more likely the violations are to occur. In 2005-06 alone, Oklahoma reported 46. These secondary violations don't really matter. Yet each of Kiffin's has been covered as an individual story.
But Lane Kiffin as a crazy, wild man sells.
ESPN has branded him as such and every minor thing that Kiffin does, whether it's fire a strength and conditioning coach (seriously, that's a national story?) or allow ESPN's own cameras to film him speaking to recruits on Outside the Lines (oops, another violation) feeds that branding fire.
The same is true of Calipari. Cal's gotten more heat since arriving at Kentucky than he got in nine years at Memphis. Part of that is the byproduct of the Derrick Rose mess, but another part of it is that ESPN needed Coach Cal at Kentucky even more than the most diehard Wildcat fan. Why? Because you already have an opinion about Coach Cal. You already think he's the dirtiest coach on earth, or you think he's the best recruiter on the planet. You care whether Coach Cal wins or not, you want to watch his teams play. But you don't want to watch his teams play against Tulane and Tulsa.
You want Coach Cal on that wall, you need Coach Cal on that wall. Just not as much as ESPN does.
I'm not one of those guys who believes ESPN is evil. I think, by and large, corporations make decisions that they believe will benefit their bottom line. But ESPN is so large they have the ability to make their perceptions everyone else's reality. If ESPN reports it as a story, it's not just featured for the tens of millions of viewers who watch ESPN, every other major and minor media outlet in the country is chasing after them.
Here's the real crux of the matter, what makes ESPN's deal with the SEC different than their deals with the NBA, MLB, or the NFL. They've selected one particular conference and anointed them as the all-powerful king. Unlike pro sports where every team gets an equal chance at a championship, college sports are governed by perception. How do we decide who plays for the national championship in football? Our perception of who we think is the best. How do we seed teams in the NCAA basketball tournament? Our perception of which conference or team is the best. How do recruits decide which schools to attend? Their perception of who is the best.
ESPN drives the perception boat in sports, and there's no one bobbing in their wake, no one close behind to challenge them: ESPN is a sports perception monopoly.
For the past decade or so every football conference has enjoyed waging war against each other over who's the best. With the SEC's deal with ESPN, that debate is over. Even if the SEC isn't the best, sports fans will all believe it is. Why? Because ESPN told them so. I'm an SEC fan, born and bred and I'm thrilled that every game I'll ever want to see will be on national television in HD, but I never thought I'd ever get to the point where the loudest, "SEC, SEC, SEC," chanter in the universe was a national sports behemoth.
Strange days are here, just ask Kiffin and Coach Cal.