Branding ESPN GameDay A Sellout

While a lot of anger directed at the media is often the product of nothing more than aimless emotionalism, there are some instances in which public outrage is justified. The corporate decision-making process at ESPN–especially in relationship to the weekly destinations of College Gameday–is one such example.

Chris Fowler’s column last week–which quickly made the rounds of SEC message boards–was not surprising in terms of its content. Fowler–an astute, levelheaded and exceedingly competent broadcast journalist–displayed a total understanding of the college football landscape while also conveying a strong sense of his love for the sport. His column should serve as a reminder to fans and observers of any sport that media criticisms–so often directed at on-air talent–should be directed, nine times out of ten, to the corporate executives and programming directors who wield real power within the media-industrial complex. Broadcast talent–though brilliant, insightful or informed–is nevertheless beholden to the corporate chieftains who sign the paychecks, and it’s these same corporate masters who are behind the wayward path of College Gameday. Chris Fowler–in a very politically aware fashion–communicated this larger reality in buttoned-down language that he had to use (at least, if his column was to be approved of by editors and then published).

The only surprising element of Fowler’s column was that–even with its toned-down and clearly restrained language–it got published in the first place. The piece–for virtually every SEC fan (given the conference’s association with CBS television)–was a de facto acknowledgment from the Worldwide Leader that it won’t visit CBS games very often; maybe once in a blue moon, but certainly not on a consistent–or legitimate–basis. Fowler was allowed to confess in public that the source of Gameday’s (and ABC/ESPN’s) location and programming decisions (which are bound together) was a desire for synergy and branding on the part of ESPN management. ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson referred to the USC-Nebraska game (site of the Gameday crew’s most recent visit, instead of a clearly superior SEC game–on CBS!–between LSU and Auburn) as deserving of a Gameday visit because two storie d programs were meeting for the first time in 35 years. Sure, USC and Nebraska are big names on an historical level, but the Huskers are not an elite team right now; there was no question that LSU-Auburn was a much bigger and more important football game than Trojans-Huskers. Ditto for Michigan-Notre Dame and Florida-Tennessee, two other games that–surprise!–were not choosen by the ABC/ESPN corporate alliance. It’s as though ESPN’s programming decision was motivated by market share and the Los Angeles TV ratings that could be gained from the Gameday visit and subsequent Saturday night broadcast (since Kirk Herbstreit is generally expected to provide ABC with color commentary for the game that’s visited by the Gameday crew). This reality has been quite transparent for a few years now, but Fowler fully and finally took the wraps off this sad situation.

The ultimate problem with the manipulation–and subsequent diminishment–of College Gameday is rooted in the fact that the show is the iconic, standard-setting, attention-grabbing studio show in all of college football. The publicity and visibility enjoyed by Chris, Lee and Kirk are the very same things that require the Gameday crew to be fair and even-handed to the entire college football community. Being an iconic entity has its rewards, but also its responsibilities as well; if the Gameday crew is being forced by ESPN management to appear at certain games instead of others, the integrity of the whole enterprise evaporates. If Chris, Lee and Kirk see ABC games live and in person, but see CBS games (or NBC games for Notre Dame) only on a monitor, they’re not being allowed by upper management (be it in Bristol or a boardroom in New York, where ABC Sports is based) to survey and analyze the college football world in a sufficiently balanced manner. This accordingly creates–if not outright impropriety–the clear appearance of impropriety, which–as any rational person knows–is enough to taint the credibility or legitimacy of any venture. If the Gameday boys are sitting in their chairs on the first Saturday of December, and they wind up saying that undefeated Ohio State and undefeated USC should be ranked higher than unbeaten Auburn, it won’t matter if Corso and Herbstreit are sincere in their rankings; what will matter is that ESPN’s refusal to take Gameday to SEC sites on a reasonably consistent basis will create the appearance of bias. College football fans–especially those in the South–will connect the dots quickly.

Branding and synergy are not the concepts that go into a fair evaluation–during or after the season–of college football’s national championship contenders. Chris Fowler has exposed the thirst for profits within the corporate world of the ABC/ESPN behemoth; now, it’s up to someone to allow Fowler and his Gameday buddies to go to the most significant games… regardless of the network that’s broadcasting the event.