Over the past few years when Fox had the big bowls, I’d get a call or five every late September from various higher-ups making sure that CFN (who provides content for FoxSports.com) didn’t go over the top when commenting on the BCS. To be fair and thankful, no one ever told me or anyone else at CFN what we could and couldn’t write or tried to limit what we could say on TV and radio appearances. That was never a problem (outside of not commenting on some of the announcer teams) since we’ve made it a point to not get dragged down in all the “BCS Sucks” rhetoric (again, since the ranting goes nowhere), and there was never any discussion of what we could and couldn’t write and say when it came to the BCS chase and how the rankings were shaping up. Fire on the process and the system … not really. Go nuts on what was happening within the system ... … fine. It’s extremely doubtful that the ESPNers will get the same leeway and freedom.
Here is the reaction from Blutarsky and Dr. Saturday. My two cents:
1. This is a pretty suspect admission from Fiutak. He comes clean only after the fact that his commentary was compromised by his employer's commercial interests and then he claims that whatever compromises he was forced to make will not be as bad as the ones that ESPN employees will have to make. This is a really self-interested move by Fiutak, which doesn't detract from the credibility or importance of the admission against interests, but it does make Pete look bad all the same. And Fiutak's claim that ESPN is going to be biased in favor of the SEC is amusing, in light of the fact that (as Blutarsky notes) Fox Sports is a joint partner in the Big Ten Network and Fiutak is (IIRC) a Wisconsin grad. I'm sure we can look to him for impartial coverage if Alabama and Ohio State are vying for the second spot in the Championship Game, especially after this admission.
2. The entity that comes out of Fiutak's article smelling like a rose is Sports Illustrated. I'll freely admit to being critical of SI at times, but its status as the major sports media entity that doesn't broadcast games and doesn't have contractual arrangements with the BCS or the major conferences becomes doubly important in a world where Fox and ESPN (as well as their numerous affiliated entities) are tainted by the almighty greenback. That's not to say that SI and its writers don't have their own axes to grind, but as an entity, it comes to college football debates with cleaner hands. So thanks to Pete for implicitly endorsing one of CFN's competitors. Mandel, maybe a nice box of chocolates to Fiutak's office would be in order?
3. I don't really see ESPN's incentives as being especially changed now that it is covering the BCS games. ESPN has invested a tremendous sum of money in covering college football, so it has always had the motivation to portray the sport in a positive light. If college football is seen as a fraudulent institution as much of the Northeast media intelligentsia seems to think (now I'm sounding like a Nixon speechwriter) because of the lack of a playoff system, then ESPN would suffer, regardless of whether it is showing the BCS games. It's not as if ESPN undercovered the BCS Championship games when they were on other networks.
Take Major League Baseball as a test case. ABC/ESPN do not have the rights to the League Championship Series or the World Series. Has that affected ESPN's coverage of baseball? No, they still slobber over the Red Sox and Yankees on a nightly basis. Why? Because ESPN covers the baseball regular season and they have an interest in the sport succeeding. Fiutak claims that ESPN swept the PED epidemic under the rug (they were hardly alone in that respect), but ESPN was doing so for a sport whose crown jewel was covered by Fox.
4. If Fiutak is right, then ESPN will change its coverage of teams like Boise State and TCU. Powers from outside of the BCS conferences represent a threat to the legitimacy of the current system because they can go unbeaten, beating the pants off of the teams on their schedules, and still face long odds in making the national title game. If ESPN pooh-poohs Boise State, then something is up. If they are honest in covering the Broncos, then we'll know that the nefarious Disney suits have not paid a midnight visit to Maisel, Fowler, or Nessler. The coverage of the Boise State-Virginia Tech game will be an early test case. BSU can position itself for a spot in the title game with a win, especially in light of a relatively open field in 2010. How will ESPN treat a Bronco win?