How ESPN landed the Iron Bowl, plus more Media Circus
Auburn and Alabama first met in football in 1893 and though it feels like CBS announcers Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson were on that call then, the reality is CBS’ history broadcasting the game is fairly recent. The network has aired the Iron Bowl 16 times dating back to 1987.
While CBS has broadcast the last six Alabama-Auburn, ESPN also has a history with the game. ABC regularly aired the Iron Bowl in the 1980s and early ’90s, and ESPN televised Alabama-Auburn five straight years from 1995-99 and then again in '03 and ’07. Thanks to a crazy year in the SEC conference, ESPN will air the famed game once again.
On Saturday at 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN and the SEC Network will air Auburn-Alabama. In its normal Saturday afternoon window, CBS will air Mississippi State at Ole Miss at 3:30 p.m. ET, the first time the Egg Bowl will air on network television since 1964.
How did things end up this way? As per its long-term contract with the SEC (which runs through 2023), CBS gets the first choice of SEC football games for its Saturday afternoon telecast, including one prime-time game each season. The remaining football games go back into a pool for ESPN (which also has a long-term contract with the SEC) and the SEC Network.
Selections are made a couple of weeks in advance and there is a contractual limit to the amount of times one school can appear on any network. That number has correctly been reported as five TV appearances, though there is clearly some flexibility in the contact because CBS aired Florida six times in 2009. When Alabama played Mississippi State on Nov. 15, it was the school’s fifth time (Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, LSU and Mississippi State) appearing on CBS in 2014.
"Our agreement includes certain appearance parameters," said CBS Sports president David Berson, who declined to get into the specifics of those parameters.
As they looked ahead at the schedule in early November, CBS executives such as Berson ultimately had a decision to make between Alabama-Mississippi State or the Iron Bowl. When they ultimately made their selection, Mississippi State was the No. 1 team in the country and facing a one-loss Alabama team. For the Iron Bowl, at best, they would have had a one-loss Alabama team against a two-loss Auburn team. Since then, of course, Ole Miss has lost three consecutive conference games.
"We felt the Mississippi State-Alabama game was the most anticipated matchup of the year and the buzz and ratings (10.3 million viewers) seem to indicate that as well," Berson said. "The way this season played out, it made the selections as difficult as I have ever seen. But we are thrilled to be showing the Egg Bowl this week. It’s one of the most compelling matchups in that series in years and it’s the first time it will be on broadcast TV since 1964. It’s a great rivalry and these two schools have been among the most-discussed, buzz-worthy teams all year. To be able to pay that off to a bigger audience is something we’re proud of."
ESPN is obviously overjoyed by its fortune. The network has a ridiculous set of games on Saturday including Oregon-Oregon State (8 p.m., ABC), Florida-Florida State (3:30 p.m., ESPN) and Michigan Ohio State (noon, ABC). Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer will call the Iron Bowl. Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit are doing Florida-Florida State.
"This plays out weekly between us, CBS, Fox, NBC and others who are in the game of selections," said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s Senior Vice President of Programming. "The great thing about the SEC is it has a great depth and there are a ton of great games. I think CBS had a difficult choice to make and they chose the bird in the hand with Mississippi State-Alabama and it did a 6.0 rating. On the off chance Mississippi State beats Alabama, then the Egg Bowl is the game. We kind of knew what the stakes were as soon as they did that. This plays out constantly between broadcasters and we knew we would end up with an unbelievably important game no matter what."
In addition to Alabama-Auburn airing on ESPN, Paul Finebaum will do a version of his popular radio show on the SEC Network during the same window. The special is titled Finebaum Film Room: Iron Bowl Live, with Finebaum hosting a call-in show throughout the game. The call-in show will start after the conclusion of SEC Network’s airing of Vanderbilt-Tennessee, and viewers will see Finebaum's set and the live game concurrently on their screens. Finebaum will be joined by some SEC Network regulars (such as Marcus Spears and Greg McElroy) during the broadcast.
ESPN will have both sites covered with its pregame shows. College GameDay will air from Tuscaloosa while the SEC Network’s SEC Nation show will air onsite from The Grove in Oxford, Ms., prior to the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game.
Asked if it will bother him if Auburn-Alabama has more viewers than Ole Miss-Mississippi State, Berson channeled his inner-Mike Slive and praised the depth of the SEC.
"The Auburn-Alabama game features schools that have traditionally performed well in terms of ratings," Berson said. "It’s also in primetime and Alabama is now No. 1, so I expect that rating to do very well. But I think the Ole Miss-Miss State will also do a nice number."
Magnus, of course, will be rooting for a similar finish to last year’s The Iron Bowl.
"If I can be greedy," he said, "I'm really rooting for overtime."
THE NOISE REPORT
1. Birmingham is ESPN’s top-rated market for college football this year through Nov. 15. The rest of the Top 10: New Orleans (No. 2); Memphis (No. 3); Knoxville, Greenville-Atlanta (T4); Oklahoma City (No. 7); Jacksonville (No.8); Tulsa (No. 9); Nashville and Columbus (T.10).
1a. High-quality production from Fox Sports 1 producer Zeus Quijano and reporter Bruce Feldman on this feature of Bob Stitt, the head coach at Colorado School of Mines, a Division II school just down the road from the Coors brewing facility in Golden, Colo.
2. The CBS late-afternoon window featuring Miami-Denver and Washington-San Francisco had a 17.4 rating, the second-highest rated overnight window for the 2014 NFL season. The highest-rated game (18.6) during that window in 2014 was CBS’s national game on Nov. 2, featuring Denver-New England.
2a. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that the Cowboys' win over the Giants drew a 14.0 overnight, the lowest Cowboys-Giants rating since a 13.6 in Week 1 of the 2007 season. There have been seven Cowboys-Giants regular-season broadcasts on NBC during that stretch.
2b. In an interview on Sunday Night Football with NBC’s Bob Costas, Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. talked about his father being college roommates at LSU with Turner Sports analyst Shaquille O’Neil:
"My dad would take me to the LSU training facility and hold me up and let me dunk the ball," Beckham Jr. said. "Shaq would hold me in the palm of his hand. His hands are huge. It was great to have that relationship with him. We text every now and then. He’s a converted Cowboys fan, so I’m trying to make him proud as a Giant."
3. Filmmaker Brian Hyland, who directed and produced HBO’s terrific 2001 documentary on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, Do You Believe in Miracles?, sends along the below note on what it was like to interview the famed Soviet hockey coach Viktor Tikhonov, who died at 84 earlier this week.
"In July, 2000 I traveled to Russia to speak with some of the guys from the Soviet team to hear what it was like to be on the losing side of the great upset. I was treated wonderfully and got the main interviews I wanted. Except for one. I was determined to get Tikanov to sit down before I left Moscow. On my last day there I got a chance to make my pitch.
"I don't know if he was briefed on why I was there but my translator and I were ushered into Tikanov's office by an underling. It was a blazing, sunny afternoon but the shades were drawn and the room was lit like the opening scene of The Godfather. He sat behind a desk in a high backed swivel chair, turned away from us. For a moment I imagined myself as [Amerigo] Bonasera the undertaker preparing to ask the Don to exact revenge on behalf of his daughter.
"My translator Andrei had been a bold, fearless comrade and collaborator through my entire time in Russia. He was intimately familiar with everyone in the Russian hockey hierarchy - except Tikanov - and was now was s******* himself with fear as we stood in the office. Andrei nudged me to start my pitch and I began a 20-minute pitch/performance of what I hoped the film would be and the vital role he would play in it.
"As I spoke I could hear Andrei stutter the Russian translation. I actually recognized Russian stuttering, it was that pronounced. Still I made a compelling case, full of New York City I can talk to anybody bravado. Midway through this command performance his chair slowly turned to where, by the end of my pitch, he faced us. I ended strong, with a sweet smile, and a promise to be fair, that he could trust me.
"Tikanov stared straight at me, like Khrushchev must've stared at JFK at their first meeting in Vienna. He arched one eyebrow, like only Belushi ever could, and in one word, offered his verdict on me, my idea, my film, my stuttering interpreter, and what felt like my life and my existence on the planet.
"He said 'NYET.'
"With that he swiveled his chair back around, the room grew darker and Russian Andrei said to me, in blunt, street English, 'He said no. Let’s get the f*** outta here.'
4. Fox Sports 1 will air the draw of the FIFA Women’s World Cup from Ottawa on Dec. 6 at 12 p.m. ET. It’s the first time since 1999 that the Women’s World Cup draw is being televised in English in the United States. The on-air analysts include Kate Abdo onsite in Ottawa and Rob Stone hosting from Los Angeles. Fox said expanded coverage, with additional post-draw analysis, will air on Fox Sports 2 and Fox Sports Go. The group of analysts includes former U.S. team member Heather Mitts; former German national team player Ariane Hingst; Kelly Smith, the England Women’s National Team’s all-time leading goal scorer; Tony DiCicco, head coach of the 1999 World Cup champion, and SI’s Grant Wahl.
5. The NHL has moved its reality 24/7 series to the EPIX channel and debuts EPIX Presents Road To The NHL Winter Classic on December 16 at 10 pm ET/PT. There will be four weekly episodes that follow the Blackhawks and the Capitals through regular season games prior to the NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park on January 1.