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When the SEC schedule came out, I immediately scanned Texas A&M’s home schedule to decide which game I should attend for my first ever trip to College Station. My criteria was simple, I wanted to go for the biggest SEC game possible.
Because the biggest SEC game possible never, ever starts before 2:30 central. By looking at the SEC schedule I knew that barring complete implosion by both teams the LSU-A&M game would be either the national CBS game or a night game on ESPN.
What I wanted to avoid at all costs was an early kickoff game, the dreaded 11 am central tilt that drains all excitement, kills all fun, and leaves everyone waking at pre-dawn hours.
Put simply, I wanted to have a hell of a good time tailgating. Especially since, like just about everybody else, I’d be driving into College Station from a substantial distance away, in my case, downtown Houston.
There were two options on Texas A&M’s home SEC schedule: the Florida game on September 8th or the LSU game on October 20th.
Looking at the schedule in context, I wanted to be at either Mizzou or A&M for the opening week of the SEC season. A&M vs. Florida was tempting, but the most attractive game at the site of a new SEC member was LSU at A&M.
I knew that LSU-A&M would be a football carnival, an absolute gorgeous time of year, a budding rivalry game, and it would feature my favorite fan base in the SEC, the LSU Tigers.
It was going to be wild, it was going to be fun, and it would likely be a great game.
Best of all, since the actual game is a small part of the overall SEC experience, everyone would have hours to tailgate and experience the campus before kickoff.
So I booked the trip to A&M and lined up Georgia at Missouri as my other introductory trip. You can read about my trip to Mizzou here. That trip to Mizzou was outstanding. Partly because the game didn’t begin at dawn.
This week’s game times were not decided until today. Earlier this week I correctly predicted that South Carolina at Florida would be CBS’s 2:30 central selection. (In all but two weeks this year CBS has the right to pick its game first.) No one can quibble with this CBS decision, it’s the best game of the week, potentially deciding who will represent the SEC East in Atlanta, and featuring two top ten teams. As if that wasn’t enough Steve Spurrier will be returning to the Swamp.
So it’s a sexy game with multiple storylines and there’s no surprise it was the first draft choice.
Once that game was off the board, ESPN had two games left to slot, Tennessee, coming off its third loss in four games, against Alabama or LSU and Texas A&M, both ranked in the top 18 of the BCS standings, in an SEC West elimination game.
You have LSU, a strong national brand, coming off a top ten win, going on the road at Texas A&M, whose freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel has already set two SEC records for total yardage. If LSU keeps winning then it’s in the BCS title game. If Texas A&M keeps winning then it stays alive in the SEC West race. This is a hell of a game, one that is even better than I’d hoped when I picked the contest. Las Vegas agrees with me, opening LSU, the highest ranked one loss team in the BCS, as just a three-point favorite.
Or you have Tennessee, an 18.5 point underdog against Alabama, who has beaten every opponent by at least 19 points this season.
The vast majority of Vol fans believe that Alabama will cover this spread and that the game won’t be close.
So anyone with half a brain would put the better game in primetime when it would have more viewers, right? (I predicted as much on Twitter late Saturday night because it wasn’t a difficult decision).
Except ESPN picked Alabama at Tennessee for the primetime night game, a six pm central kickoff with many more viewers, and slotted LSU at Texas A&M as an 11 am kickoff. The timeslot otherwise known as where bad Big Ten games go to die.
When the game times came down this morning, I couldn’t figure it out. Put simply, it didn’t make any sense.
Only, you guessed it, there’s a method to ESPN’s madness. And this is when ESPN gets itself in trouble. Instead of making the decision that any reasonable fan would have made, ESPN made a business decision.
The decision has provoked an uproar among both A&M and LSU fans.
And that uproar is about to grow.
Do you know why ESPN did this?
To help protect the ratings of the Texas-Baylor game airing at 7 central on ABC. A game that, you guessed it, no casual fan in Texas would be watching if LSU at Texas A&M was airing at the exact same time. In fact, the only hope for ratings numbers on Baylor at Texas is the state of Texas watching. If even the state of Texas won’t watch this game, who else is going to watch?
Yep, Texas Longhorn protectionism by ESPN screwed A&M and LSU fans out of a night game.
See, ABC is getting destroyed in ratings this Saturday night. I mean, absolutely destroyed. The fact that Baylor at Texas is a network televised game — split with Florida State at Miami across the country — is a disaster in itself. The only thing worse than one bad game? A split telecast featuring two awful teams.
Add in the fact that Baylor vs. Texas is a nationally televised game that is already going head-to-head with the only Big 12 game that actually matters, Fox’s telecast of Kansas State at West Virginia, and you have real issues. Can you imagine if ABC slotted Baylor vs. Texas against Kansas State at West Virginia and against LSU at Texas A&M?
It would be a ratings bloodbath.
Even worse than it’s already going to be.
Hell, even Texas fans would secretly bail on that game to watch LSU at A&M. And there are no Baylor fans so it doesn’t matter what they do anyway.
So fans of Texas A&M and LSU end up getting screwed here. Made all the worse, mind you, by the fact that an Alabama-Tennessee game would at least have the decency to occur in the eastern time zone, meaning it kicks off at noon as opposed to eleven central. Knoxville is also a major metropolitan area where people can actually sleep near the stadium. Why does this matter? LSU is purportedly leaving the team hotel at dawn to begin the drive to College Station.
As will I.
(And I’m not going to lie about this, like every fan going to the game I’m really pissed about the decision.)
ESPN, of course, disputes the contention that protecting Texas’s ratings on ABC was behind the decision in any way.
Our good pal Keri Potts — you should follow her on Twitter here even though she’s a spokesperson for the Evil Empire — disputes OKTC’s thesis.
Quoth ESPN: “Our philosophy in scheduling is a good game at noon ET is as valuable to us as a good game in primetime. That’s first off, and ratings reflect that. Second, a prime time game is always aimed to feature teams in the national hunt which control their own destiny whenever possible. It’s not always the best game on the field. Our scheduler believes Alabama on the road at Tennessee has plenty of upset potential – the Vols could be a spoiler like any number of teams were last year.”
Of course LSU also controls its own destiny and is playing a much tougher opponent on the road.
ESPN continues: “This has nothing to do with Texas.”
Do you believe ESPN?
But you have every right to take their explanation at face value.
As for me, I think ESPN made a business decision instead of the decision that every SEC fan would have made. Picking the inferior game to bolster weak ABC ratings while at the same time continuing to bolster the Longhorn profile for the LHN. (The bigger story here is how much Fox is hurting ABC by starting their own primetime telecast with better games and maybe OKTC will write about that later. Fox has had some great games.)
That’s fine — and probably smart for business — but the biggest issues for ESPN always come when business and content collide, does the sports fan win or the business win?
And it sure seems like the Texas Longhorns are always standing at the center of an awful lot of these collisions that end up screwing fans.
But maybe it’s just a coincidence.
After all, ESPN wouldn’t show preferential treatment for the Texas Longhorns, would it?
I mean, it’s not like ESPN also has $300 million reasons to do this thanks to a business relationship, right?