Let’s Talk TV: Is the ESPN Deal Good Enough to Justify Bailing on CUSA?

ESPN.

There was a time when I loved the network. Today, it conjures up negative feelings in this college football fan. This network, which once sought to be the champion of all sports…the network who refused to be ignored…the same network that saw the wisdom to give ECU an exclusive contract, recognizing the appeal of an underdog…now, IMO, is the epicenter of the destruction of college football.

My dream is to see billboards like this along the I-95 near DC, Philly, and New York City...

My dream is to see billboards like this along the I-95 near DC, Philly, and New York City…

Wielding total control of the college football world, ESPN is every bit as powerful as the BCS cartel – actually moreso since it provides the fuel that makes the engine run. We have all seen how the talking heads are all aligned on the messages that ESPN corporate wants to push. The network has created classes of football, then driving home the terminology that serves to validate it (read: “mid-major,” “group of five,” etc.) So, it is not a surprise that my initial reaction to the ESPN matching of the meager NBC bid to own top tier rights to the Big East media package was disappointment. Disappointment because to me, it indicated that NBC (which is in the ESPN family) was merely the agent of ESPN to make the offer to match a minimal one. ESPN wanted the Big East deal – don’t have any illusions – they just didn’t want to have to pay anything for it. So, they make a story of it…devaluing it every moment they could – on the air no less – so that the conference can be had for pennies on the dollar. Good business play for ESPN because they will make a big bank on this deal.

But what does it mean for us? Well, of course it is a slight bump up in terms of annual payout – not as much as hoped, but more is always better. It also should help us cut down on travel expenses and allows us to rebuild some rivalries that were starting to blossom in CUSA (back with USF and more recently with UCF). Those rivalries will mean more meaningful games which will convert to more lucrative deals going forward.

Rivalries will fuel exposure...like it or not, we need UCF (and they need us, too)!

Rivalries will fuel exposure…like it or not, we need UCF (and they need us, too)!

That latter point is an important one. ESPN will air a ton of BE games…albeit that many might be off-week fillers (e.g., Thursdays or Fridays) but it will be exposure and it will include Big East games with some name recognition. Face it, a Cincinnati-ECU game will have a higher TV rating than ECU-USM…it just will. Plus with the teams ECU will play being more geographically concentrated, the future TV markets will be clear for all league members, which will allow us to focus growing our brand in very specific areas rather than trying to cover the whole country. Our future, whether in the BE or another to be determined conference lies in becoming a brand along the East Coast. It matters little what our brand is – really – across the Mississippi, so this league helps.

ESPN owns the sport of college football, so I believe that we had no choice but to jump back into their pockets, caste system or no. And, we should all do well to remember that ESPN was very good to us in the past and, IMO, actually really likes us as a program which may lead to more of our games getting aired than some conference compatriots.

We have to look beyond what is honestly paltry money – for the short term – and recognize that for our program, this was a great move overall despite the disappointing TV deal. If we can all lock down the conference via a shared vision and then role up the sleeves and work on increasing the brand, then we have a great chance. We need for ECU to become a cornerstone (from an exposure/success POV) for the Big East to position for the next step. If we can slip in for all sports, then our basketball will continue to flourish as we can start picking up some of those DC, NY metro, and Philly kids who can help take the hoops to a new level. The BE conference will still be a pretty decent hoops league if some of the other new schools can figure out a way to rise to the occasion. With Cincy, Memphis, and UConn to lead the way, there is no reason why UCF, SMU, and ECU cannot grow into a nice mid-level BE program with some TV appeal. I just wish this was all on for a 2013 start rather than 2014. But, hey, you never know…could change in an instant.

I think that our program should start pushing a ton of programs to establish awareness in the DC, Philly, and NY metro area ASAP…get the name out there, organize our Pirate Club arms to start the news mill in those areas, push recruiting up the I-95 corridor…do it now. Take out ads, blend academic and athletic recruiting events, do what is necessary to tell the world up here that ECU is coming and is intent on helping to define the new Big East. If we do so, we solidify our brand which will be further fueled by ESPN. We now know the payouts…so the real victory here is garnering a lion’s share of the exposure. We need to renew our “darling” status with ESPN. It would be a fine final act by Coach Holland to spearhead the relationship building with ESPN to position ourselves to be that darling again. It wouldn’t take much as I believe the network still likes our brand. When we shot out of the gates in 2008 with 3 wins…they were all over us…we were all over the network (yes, I know Lou was there), but even now, the network talking heads ALWAYS give a shout out to ECU when one of our boys is doing well in the NFL. We are a good story…we just have to give them the fodder to report it by elevating our on-field performance again. A strong CUSA season will have ESPN touting our arrival in the Big East. An 8-4 team returning a ton of starters should run roughshod over this CUSA league…so we can pave a great brand path into BE for 2014.

It is not ideal – this ESPN deal – but it is doable and we can – with some moxie and that old ECU “want power” – make this a huge success and underscore that the move to the Big East was the right one.

I am willing to bet we get a lot the games that are released in the 2014 TV schedule, so we just need to keep selling season tickets and SHOW UP so that the visuals match the intensity of our game-day product.

ESPN was the way to go. Still hate the network that it has become but by 2014…I am sure I will begin singing a different tune. Much prefer this than the NBC deal.

Thoughts all…would love to hear them.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Let’s Talk TV: Is the ESPN Deal Good Enough to Justify Bailing on CUSA?

  1. I belive you are right as to both the tv deal and the how ECU games may be in the limelight. But 2013 is the year of C-USA so lets win this season and then look to beating our so to be BE team mates

    • Hi James…thanks for dropping in and leaving a note…always look forward to hearing from other Pirates around the way.

      You are dead on in putting this season first and not looking past it. We need to leave this league as a 3-time champion (or 4 if you count like I do).

      Cheers!

  2. Ralph Wright

    Gotta agree Ron. Going with the BE was a no brainer as well as taking ESPN’s offer. Like it or not a football league that is not aligned with ESPN is going to have a rough time recruiting those kids who are dreaming of being on that stage one day. This keeps us from falling farther behind in the recruiting pecking order.

    • Hola Ralph!

      Hope you have been well since your last visit. You know, the recruit angle is a big one that I did not touch on in this post…like Nike, Gatorade, Under Armour and the like, ESPN is a status symbol for the kids…100% agree on that point.

      Go Pirates, Go!

  3. No Quarter

    I agree with you on moving north with our recruiting efforts. There is just way too much competition down south to make it financial feasible. It seems to me(and I maybe wrong) that the north is a lot more wide open as far as the quality of athlete you can get. Getting our brand out there is very important and I agree that a major campaign should be started. ESPN is cool and I think they migrate to us because our brand is cool also. You underestimate that fact. The athletic department and Pirate Club has done a good job making our brand cool with new logos, uniforms, etc. Be it is time to ramp it up to another level. I think with this generation, it is almost as important how you market your brand as it is what conference you are in or where you are located. Coolness gets you exposure(blue turf at Boise State) but you gotta back it up with W’s. That’s why I still believe that 2013 is so huge for us in football. 7-5 or 8-4 ain’t gonna cut it. With what we have coming back, 10-2, 11-1 or ,can I dream, 12-0 is what we need.

    • Definitely agree on your thoughts here NQ…not only on the how immensely important 2013 season is in terms of W-Ls, but also in regards to taking our brand to a new level.

      I think that our inclusion in the Big East was a part of the ESPN desire to get the contract…I do. I also think that ESPN is just being the business machine it is and seized on a listing conference to low ball the contract. There will be renegotiations in the future if the BE can produce quality.

      With what we have coming back – if Rick Smith can instill some quick changes – we should be expecting a 10-win season.

      Cheers and thanks for dropping by NQ!

  4. ultraviolet

    Though I absolutely loathe ESPN, we did the best we could with the deal if money isn’t considered.

    • I have come to hate ESPN and its ways, too, but we had to have them.

      I do think that re-negotiations will follow should the BE play up to a higher level this year or next.

      Thanks for commenting UV…always have great interest in your thoughts/insights.

      Go Pirates, Go!

  5. Coby Heath

    I once heard a sermon that stuck with me. The preacher said that the Devil had no more power over you than you let him have. As Bobby Boucher’s Mama would say, “ESPN is the Devil!” But our worst enemy right is our own fans and our brethren fans from the Big East. We helped the Devil deliver the blows. ESPN’s beat down of the Big East was further fueled by our own media outlets. As one writer recently penned in an article I read, “lazy sports journalists just can’t resist writing yet another easy sensationalized story about the demise of he Big East”. UCONN and Cincinnati shot themselves and the conference in the foot applying for the ACC “27” times. We have an ECU poster on the Big East board that has made it his life’s mission posting “Fire Aresco” polls when it was Aresco and his friendship with Terry Holland that got us out of “low-major” football and into the Big East. It’s not even a debate whether we are better off today than a few short months ago. The total conference revenue from the new Big East is projected to be over $7,000,000 with the new ESPN TV contract combined with bowl playoffs, NCAA basketball credits, and BCS play off money.
    The TV money wasn’t there because the brand teams have left. WVU, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, BC and even lowly Louisville have “left the building, thank you and good night”. UCONN and USF are Johnny-come-latelies in football while Cincinnati is a resurrected has-been. These are not household names.
    But here’s the good news. This is a solid conference that can grow into something special. Unlike the Mountain West that only has wasteland and coyotes between mid sized TV markets, the new Big East doesn’t have a weak link that can’t produce and contribute to the conference. We are not BCS power conference, but it is as close as we can get. This conference will produce another Virginia Tech. The quicker our fans accept that the Big East has taken a hit and that we need to move on with it, the sooner we will become the next Virginia Tech.

    • Hi Coby…thanks for the comment. Some great points in there. I never expect to get much help from local journalists…but I think your point about our own fanbase is a very important one.

      We are better off today than we were yesterday and should regroup so that our efforts are focused forward whatever the TV deal was. It is more than we had with a greater upside based on the teams we are now grouped with. The travel costs are a big issue and what we save in that bucket alone will directly benefit our program. Hopefully, we are an all-sports member sooner than later.

      And, as you point out, the group that is the new big east (or whatever it will be called) cannot complain about markets…there are big ones to be mined. Rather, we should be (and I hope my post hit on this) giving thought how we can increase our brand in these big markets.

      I firmly believe that the MWC has topped out or is close to its cap in terms of TV contracts whereas – with the markets we span – ECU’s new conference – if the teams perform – will seize back some measure of negotiable power. This contract will likely be revisited in two or three seasons (provided these teams can rise a bit).

      Anyway, thanks for dropping in Coby. Love to hear your analysis on all topics ECU.

      Cheers!

      • rc

        there have been a lot of good ideas to increase our brand…but the most important thing is to win big in football. if ECU would become a power in football we would not have to worry about exposure.
        if we resemble the team we put on the field the last three years, our brand will not only decrease but hurt the conference we belong to.
        the schools that have left us behind, all have one thing in common…winning!
        thanks for your article Pharma, you made some interesting points.

      • Hi rc…that one does trump them all. Win and things go your way.

        Couldn’t agree more.

  6. Ed Keller

    Going to the BE was the only play we could make. There is no question staying in C-USA would be far worse than moving on. I mean no disrespect to those schools (after all, a Sun Belt team just whipped us in the bowl) but C-USA has accepted it’s role as a stepping stone. The new BE, for all its faults, does have the markets and commitment to compete and make something of the conference. I’m not sure I’m on board with all the ESPN bashing…they do what will make them money. If the remaining BE teams could generate the revenue, then the contract would be larger. That said, your comment about the MWC is spot-on; you can see the ceiling on the MWC but the potential upside is much higher for the BE given the large markets.

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