How ESPN plans to deal with college football games running longer
Where were you at 1:26 a.m. ET on September 20?
If you are a college football fan, chances are you were parked in front of some device watching Ole Miss clinch a thrilling 43-37 win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The game kicked shortly after 9:15 p.m. ET on Saturday night and lasted longer than some marriages, finally concluding at 1:26 a.m. on Sunday morning.
It also highlighted a growing trend: The length of Football Bowl Subdivision games has dramatically increased over the past 10 years. Last year FBS games averaged 3 hours and 23 minutes, up six minutes from 2013 and 16 minutes from 2006. This year’s games are currently tracking at 3 hours and 20 minutes. You can see the numbers in this terrific piece on the subject from CBS Sports football reporter Jon Solomon.
Take last weekend, for instance. On Saturday LSU-Syracuse kicked off on ESPN shortly after noon ET for a game that ended at 3:45 p.m. ET. ESPN then joined an Oklahoma State-Texas game already in progress with 10:59 left in the first quarter. That game—which was budgeted to run between a 3:30 and 7:00 p.m. ET window—ended at 7:15 p.m. CBS also experienced a game that went beyond its usual broadcast window. The SEC matchup between Tennessee and Florida that started a little after 3:30 p.m. ended at 7:26 p.m.
Why are games getting longer? Well, plenty of smarter college football voices than me have written about this topic. There’s the proliferation of spread offenses—meaning more plays and more clock stoppages and more breaks between scores. There’s also the in-game commercial inventory that has inched up in newer rights deals to help justify the price.
What’s a rights holder’s responsibility here?
Well, in his role as Vice President of College Sports Programming for ESPN, Ilan Ben-Hanan manages the relationships and rights of the network’s entire college sports portfolio including college football. In an interview with SI.com last week, Ben Hanan said that the key number for ESPN and college football is 3 hours and 30 minutes. If they can stay under that number—which is the duration ESPN allots for each broadcast window for college football—they are in good shape. The start times for ESPN’s college football coverage on a given Saturday are noon, 3:30 p.m., 7:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. But what you probably don’t realize is ESPN has an in-house team to deal with every possible scenario regarding games running beyond their broadcast windows. What happens when a game runs long?
“That’s where our Guidelines and Conditions group comes in,” Ben-Hanan said. “They are unsung heroes for the work they do on a college football Saturday. If fans had a sense of the orchestration and conducting going on between the different network control rooms when our games run long, plus the conversations we are having with our conference partners and using social media to get the word out, you’d see it’s an incredible feat. We do our very best to make sure the game is still being seen by as many people as possible. It’s not always perfect but we do our very best.”
The key staffers here for ESPN are Stephanie Holmes and Greg Bushman—both with titles of Director, On-Air Management, Programming & Acquisitions—and their toolbox includes using all linear channels as well as ESPN3 and WatchESPN to move games around when needed. Working with their conference partners, ESPN officials can also slide kickoffs back five minutes or so to give a game that’s running just a touch beyond the broadcast window.
For a game that started on a linear network running long with an outcome not in doubt, ESPN will often finish that game on WatchESPN/ESPN3 and a lesser linear network. That’s what happened with the Ole Miss-Alabama game. The Georgia-South Carolina game leading into that game was running long and the outcome was no longer in doubt. So ESPN placed the Georgia-South Carolina game on both ESPN3 and SEC Network Alternate, a non 24/7 sports channel that often handles overflow games. They also promoted the switch on social media and on a bug on the screen. While it’s not a perfect solution for fans—there is none given divided loyalties—it’s an attempt to serve fans.
Ben Hanan said ESPN officials don’t talk to the individual schools when games run long but they do speak with conference reps regarding all scenarios every week. Given schools have been on both sides of the windows, conferences are usually proactive in helping out their broadcast partner.
What about moving to a 12, 4 and 8 start time scenario in order to end the spillover? Not going to happen. Ben-Hanan said ESPN wants to put on as many games as possible so they won’t be doing windows with just three games a day. Studio programming is also not going to draw nearly as well as a game broadcast. “We will put on as many games until fans tell us they don’t like it and we have never seen fans say that,” he said.
Ben-Hanan said he’ll often speak informally about game length with conference commissioners and assistant commissioners during the course of business, but he wanted to be clear: “It’s not really ESPN’s place to make those kind of suggestions,” he said. “As fans of the game and a vested interest in the game, we certainly talk about a number of things. But never is it some sort of ESPN official policy position that we should get involved in conversations like that. I think that’s too close to meddling with the game on the field.”
The idea that college football fans will tune out games that run long has been disproven time and time again. The fact is you will stick around if it’s close. The Ole Miss-Alabama game that ended at 1:26 AM on Sunday morning drew 7.6 million viewers, the second-most-watched college football game on cable in 2015 behind Ohio State-Virginia Tech on Sept. 7.
“Yes, it could mean some bleary eyes the next day but I think people are okay with that,” Ben-Hanan said.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week’s biggest sports media stories.
1. The NFL has formed an unlikely partnership with a pair of Brits mostly known for soccer. The trio of NFL Films, Yahoo! and the Men In Blazers of soccer podcast and NBCSN fame will join forces to produce a behind-the-scenes look at the meeting in London on Oct. 25 between the Bills and Jaguars.
NFL Films will embed a crew with the Bills and Jaguars prior to their trip to London for a series of short features that premiere exclusively on Yahoo! each day for 30 days leading up to and immediately following the game. That series will be fronted and written by Michael Davies and Roger Bennett, the two men who form Men in Blazers. Davies and Bennett will make trips to both Buffalo and Jacksonville, as well as to the game itself in London, and interview key members of both organizations. Of the 30 original episodes, 15 will be focused on the Bills and 15 on the Jaguars. The final episodes will emanate from London and will include a special Men in Blazers recap of the game itself.
On Sunday, I emailed Bennett and Davis for some additional details.
SI.com: How did you get involved in the NFL Films/Yahoo! project of documenting the BUF-JAX game?
Davies: My great and old friend and longtime GFOP Jordan Levin recently joined the NFL as head of content. I started talking to him about a number of projects involving my production company Embassy Row. As I was leaving their Park Avenue offices in early August, Jordan mentioned this NFL Films/Yahoo! project to me. I was instantly intrigued. I knew how passionate Rog was about the NFL and I have always loved watching football. Rog literally squealed when I called him from the taxi to tell him it was a possibility. We drove down to NFL Films in Jersey with our producer Jen Simons—a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan—less than a week later and we were blown away and totally sold. It's like an old time Hollywood studio completely dedicated to the production of premium quality football programming.
SI.com: Why was this interesting for you to do outside of a free trip to England, Buffalo and Jacksonville?
Bennett: We both fell in love with the NFL in England in the ‘80s. I became obsessed with the Chicago Bears of Mike Ditka, Mike Singletary and Richard Dent and was probably one of the few kids in England to have a poster of Jim McMahon and William Perry above my bed, alongside those of my Everton and England heroes. I adored the Bears to such an extent I persuaded my parents to send me to Chicago the summer of 1986. To my horror, the team took off for England as soon as I arrived to play the Cowboys in the first ever game at Wembley. I persuaded my friends to hang out at O'Hare Airport at four in the morning to welcome my heroes home. I have photographs of me and the Fridge and Matt Suhey. One of my greatest regrets in life is that my camera jammed as I posed with a very patient Walter Payton. I later ran into the legendary Sid Luckman and have rarely been more awestruck around an athlete in my life.
We have always loved having NFL players on Men In Blazers. Andrew Luck has become a regular. We have also enjoyed hosting Jamaal Charles and Victor Cruz and have always had an open invitation to kickers and punters to come on the show. The career arc of Josh Lambo who went from MLS a goalkeeper to Chargers kicker has been especially thrilling to witness. So when the NFL came calling, we jumped at the chance. Watching British sports fans revel in the NFLs repeated Wembley presence has been magical to witness. When the season schedule is announced most fans look to see when the big rivalry games take place. Not us. Our eyes are always drawn to the Wembley games. So to follow the Bills and Jags as they prepare for London with our camera teams embedded and to have the chance to talk to Gus Bradley about the secret of eternal positivity in the face of challenge, Rex Ryan about motivating men, Blake Bortles about the emotions he feels as he breaks out of the pocket (he told us it feels like being "chased by the cops”) and LeSean McCoy about the role of maverick individuality in a collective sport, is an enormous honor. On Wednesday night, we are going out for dinner with the entire Buffalo offensive line to talk about their unique sporting fraternity. All of the questions I have saved up since I was a kid who worshipped Keith Van Horne and Jimbo Covert can now find a release.
SI.com: As the Men In Blazers brand heads forward, how much are you actively seeking opportunities and exposure in non-traditional (re: non-soccer) areas and why?
Davies: We called ourselves the Men in Blazers because when we first came to America we were struck by the fact that nearly everyone on television talking about sport was wearing a blazer with their logo on it. We assumed that if you wanted to be on television talking about sport you had to do the same thing.
We specifically weren't Men on Soccer and in fact, the first TV work we ever did with each other was for BBCA covering Rugby.
I'm not sure if we're actively seeking opportunities or if they're just coming our way a lot more. But the why is an important question. Why are people coming to us? Why would we do them? Why are they on brand? I think we're still in the process of asking ourselves and trying to answer, all of those questions. But the reality is we're interested in all sport. Though at the same time we have limited time (believe it or not, we put a lot of work into being this crap), and want to make sure that everything we're focusing on is superb (as well as a little suboptimal).
Bennett: The English Premier League remains our Torah. The narrative we live our life by. It is the air we breathe. Everything we know about life and how the human mind works comes from watching soccer. However, we love all elite sport, the narrative of human competition and the quest for glory. Watching sport and reveling in the endless storylines together with our GFOPs is our greatest life pleasure. We have always joked that our life goal is to commentate on the Home Run Derby at the All Star Game. That would be the ultimate.
2. ESPN’s Brent Musburger, to Sports Business Journal writer John Ourand, on the subject of addressing gambling in college football coverage: “I would be a little uneasy at the college level if they make too big a deal of it during the games. The studios are fair game. That’s where they should discuss it and go for it. If any announcer wants to make a casual reference, that’s fine. That is not the primary reason people come to the games. There’s still a lot of passion for the teams.”
2a. Sunday Night Football is averaging 25.6 million viewers through its first four games—the best viewership for NBC's primetime NFL package after four broadcasts in its 10-year history. Viewership is up 10% from last year at this time (23.2 million viewers). NBC's Football Night in America pregame show is averaging 10.9 million viewers, the best start in the show’s 10-season history and up 33% from last year at this point (8.2 million).
3. This week’s Sports Illustrated Media Podcast guests are FS1 anchor Mike Hill and New York Times best-selling author and former New York Daily News sports writer Wayne Coffey. In the episode, Hill discusses the differences of working at Fox Sports versus ESPN (where he worked for a decade), how he prepares for FS1’s America’s Pregame (which he hosts), being told by a staffer at ESPN when he first started that his delivery was “too urban” and how that impacted him for years, branching out beyond sports, and much more.
Coffey discusses being laid off by the Daily News after 30 years, how the newspaper removed his email access an hour after letting him go, the state of the newspaper business, how he approaches writing books with prominent subjects (he’s done books with R.A. Dickey and Mariano Rivera, he’s currently working on one with Carli Lloyd, and has a book coming out in October with Urban Meyer titled Above The Line: Lessons In Leadership And Life From A Championship Season) and what he wants to do in the future.
Hill, on how he perceived he was interpreted at ESPN:
“I always felt like some people at the other network (ESPN) kind of took my personality off-air and felt like, ‘Oh, he’s dangerous. He might take that on air,’ and I think that really held me back. As a matter of fact, I know it did because I was told that several times when I was there. And I was also told several times—and I am not trying to come down too hard although maybe I am sitting on your black couch right now—but I was told several times when I was there that ‘you know what, well, because you are “urban.”’ I was told this by a person who was in charge of their talent department. He said, ‘Mike, the reason you are not moving up and you are not going anywhere here is because you are too urban and we already got one of those.’ I really didn’t know what the hell to say, to be honest with you. I mean like, really? Man, I was in shock. People will deny things like that but when you are told that, you are afraid to be yourself."
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4. My Monday column focused on how to do the impossible--follow Vin Scully as a Dodgers broadcaster and who might be chosen to do. Other items include Fox Sports management pulling assignments from veteran NFL reporters Laura Okmin and Jennifer Hale in an effort to get Holly Sonders reps as an NFL sideline reporter, whether ESPN will allow its staff on The Bill Simmons Podcast, and much more.
4a. Worth checking out is this podcast (Off Central) from Comcast SportsNet Boston’s Trenni Kusnierek and Dalen Cuff on professional athletes and those dealing with depression.
4b. TSN (Canada) senior field producer Josh Shiaman and senior correspondent Rick Westhead collaborated for this feature on the real-life Ogie Oglethorpe from Slap Shot. Nice work.
4c. On Wednesday The Big Ten Network will feature a behind-the-scenes look at the September 23 volleyball match between Wisconsin and Penn State (winners of six of the past eight national championships). In the three days leading up to the match, BTN’s cameras were embedded with each program.
5. Read this Julie DiCaro piece on what she and other women in sports media face on social media.