Thursday, January 29, 2009

The MAC Continues to Snuggle With ESPN

The MidAmerican Conference took another step toward credibility this week when ESPN announced they had reached a broadcast agreement with the MAC to extend through the 2016-2017 academic year. At face value, this is a great opportunity for the MAC to build off a fairly successful season of college football, paced by the Ball State Cardinals who were not only successful on the field but also in the homes of the American television viewers, setting MAC records for watchers in route to a 12-2 finish.

On the gridiron, the Marathon MAC Football Championship game remains atop the national television football package that will average six nationally televised games each season on either ESPN or ESPN2 in addition to a minimum of five games per year on ESPNU.

The deal entails not only football, as the new agreement considerably strengthens ESPN’s commitment to MAC men’s and women’s basketball. There will be a minimum of six MAC men’s or women’s regular-season conference games televised annually on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU, and the MAC will continue to participate in ESPN’s ESPNU BracketBusters event, which the conference joined as a founding member in 2003. The league’s women’s championship game will now be aired on ESPNU as well.

My reaction to this is a resounding, "I'll take what I can get." On the football side of things, it will almost certainly mean more mid-week games, which is ultimately great for no one, save for the fact that it's the only way MAC games get shown on a national basis. And I guess it's good for men's and women's basketball. So... yay?

Most will be happy they can see their conference and school in action, but take a deeper look. If the MAC wants respect on a national level, hopping in bed with ESPN is not the way to do that. You know what would be better? Forcing the conference members to develop winning programs. Instituting a conference-wide expectation of support from the administration of the member schools. Figuring out creative ways to generate revenue and share that among the institutions that comprise the conference membership. Helping to build or rebuild facilities to create positive recruiting tools. Most importantly, showcase your members and the student athletes that have the possibility to generate interest on a national level.

Last season was a perfect opportunity for the MidAmerican Conference to really publicize on a national stage the BSU Cardinals and Nate Davis. The star power and draw of BSU was evident based on the fact that they set ratings records for the MAC and midweek games each time they played them. The Central Michigan-BSU game set a record for the highest rated Tuesday or Wednesday game ever. The Navy-BSU game set a record for the highest rated MAC home game ever. The Buffalo-BSU game set a record for the highest rated game featuring two MAC teams. The BSU-Tulsa game saw a 94% increase in viewership from last season. Where was the MAC lauding the Cardinals as potential BCS busters? Where was the MAC in publicizing Nate Davis as a potential Heisman Trophy winner? Hell, where was Ball State in getting Davis votes?

The sad answer to the above questions is nowhere to be found. I'm all for conference parity and not appearing to show favorites from a conference-wide perspective. That works for the major conferences, because they have nothing to gain. The SEC doesn't need to help with Tim Tebow's Heisman campaign because the talking heads at the same ESPN do it for them. Their exposure and relevance in the college football landscape is well cemented. Unfortunately, the MAC takes the big boy approach while being banished to the kiddie table and then wonders why no one includes them in any sort of college football conversation. And no, this isn't a BSU thing. Had CMU been undefeated with a player who finished 8th in the nation in Heisman voting with no campaign whatsoever I would be saying the exact same thing.

Is this a step in the right direction? I guess. It's progress, however small. I guess a question that remains to be answered is whether or not the MAC even wants to be considered a quality football conference. I wish I could answer that question with a resounding yes, but unfortunately, with the decisions made at the top, I have to wonder if the powers that be at both the conference and institutional level are not content simply making baby steps in a half assed manner while other conferences like the Mountain West demand respect and a place at the table.

The bottom line is there is a way to become a winner as a conference, and this ESPN dog and pony show isn't it. It begins from the ground up at the schools, and what is needed is a plan for long-term continued success from the conference that doesn't require you to pander to the WorldWideLeader with mid-week games that screw your fanbase, student athletes, and community supporters. Perhaps a Football 101 is needed for these folks who make decisions at the MAC office and the member schools. Because right now, at this very moment, all are receiving failing grades in that class.


Anonymous said...

Being on ESPN, regardless of the day or time is a good thing. I think this is great news for the MAC and for BSU.

Edge said...

As I told Alan earlier, this is kind of "good news/bad news".

On one hand, it's national coverage. You can't beat that at the MAC level.

On the other hand, you're diminishing your attendance by requiring these games to be on weekdays. Even the most rabid fans have day jobs, some heven have (gasp) families.

In a perfect world, there would be a MAC channel just underneath the BigTen Network on my Comcast lineup. That way they could get some TV exposure, albeit not a basic cable offering. Saturday games could once again be the norm, and attendance could be plentiful.

That raises another argument on what the demand of said station would be. The fanbase for the MAC isn't very large compared to other conferences, so a moneymaker isn't something this station could aspire to be. But, it does provide that ever-important platform of TV coverage that helps draw recruits.

It's just a thought... not that ESPN is bad, but it's risky in that games aren't on the prime football days. Alan, maybe this deserves a larger discussion...