Perception versus reality: Does ESPN have it out for the ACC and FSU?

Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN has been accused of giving favorable coverage to certain stars. It’s even been accused of burying hockey because the network has no interest in promoting a game in which it doesn’t own TV rights. Now ESPN is being characterized by Florida State fans as being unfair to Jameis Winston, with some students even calling for a boycott of College Gameday this weekend. The truth is ESPN gains no benefit from FSU losing or by targeting Winston. It just doesn’t add up.

The conspiracy theories are out there. The main theory goes like this: ESPN, which has the rights to the College Football Playoffs, is employing a favored nation strategy. The launch of the SEC network means ESPN has a vested interest in having two SEC teams in the CFB Playoffs. Because of this, it is unfairly targeting Florida State and Jameis Winston. If Winston gets suspended, FSU may lose, making it more likely that two SEC teams make the playoffs.

It’s time to take off the tin-foil hats. ESPN is not monitoring anyone’s brainwaves. Yes, ESPN and the SEC co-launched the SEC Network, and yes, ESPN and the SEC are receiving a lot of money from the SEC Network’s subscription fees. But guess who owns the television rights for the ACC? Hint: it’s the company that’s hosting College Gameday in Tallahassee and is broadcasting the Florida State game on ABC this weekend: ESPN.

ESPN pays over $3 billion to the ACC for TV rights. The ROI on that investment may not be as much as the SEC partnership, but it’s not like ESPN would aim to bury the main contender from the ACC. ESPN and the ACC have an on-going relationship. If ESPN targeted FSU, the ACC’s football powerhouse, it could create tense negotiations if ESPN wanted to launch an ACC Network in the future. It’s just not good business.

Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

This is an Occam’s razor situation: the simplest/easiest answer is the correct one. It’s the same reason ESPN flew Ed Werder to Mississippi to stalk Brett Favre during what seemed like his fifth retirement decision. It’s why Johnny Manziel, a rookie back-up quarterback, was in the top ten for Q2 licensed merchandise sales. It’s the Tim Tebow or Michael Sam coverage. It’s about drawing an audience. Jameis Winston news draws eyeballs, boosts ratings and creates clicks on websites. People want to see it. There is a demand.

Why would ESPN want FSU out of the CFB playoffs? There is no greater drama than the creation or collapse of a dynasty. Florida State versus any other team in the country would draw ratings. There’s just no logical business motivation, especially since Jameis Winston is a household name (for the right and wrong reasons).

The funny thing is, this boycott may lead to increased ratings for College Gameday at Tallahassee. Fans will want to see what actually happens. I know I’ll be tuning in.

Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.

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