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Pierce: ESPN is great for college football — except when it’s not

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Scott D. Pierce

By Scott D. Pierce

Tribune Columnist

First published Nov 26 2013 09:41AM
Updated Nov 26, 2013 11:24PM

The Utah State football team has worked for ESPN in the postseason for the past two seasons. Looks like the Aggies just might be working for ESPN again this year.

Which is not a bad thing for USU or for the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

In 2011 and 2012, USU played in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, which is owned by — you guessed it! — ESPN.

If the Aggies beat Wyoming on Saturday, they’re projected to play in the Las Vegas Bowl. (It’s not a sure thing, but it appears to be a pretty good bet.) And the Las Vegas Bowl is owned by — you guessed it! — ESPN.

It’s also possible that the Aggies could play in the Hawaii Bowl, the Armed Forces Bowl or the New Mexico Bowl, all of which are owned by — you guessed it! — ESPN.

To say the sports cable giant is invested in the success of the bowl system is an understatement.

"The bowls are very important to us," said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. (That title doesn’t indicate it, but he’s the guy basically in charge of college football for the Worldwide Leader.) "It’s a big investment for us, and we want to see bowls succeed."

And not just because ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ABC telecast 31 of the 33 bowls, but because it owns nine of them — a number that will soon rise to 11. That includes five of the six to which the Mountain West is tied.

Again, this is not a bad thing. You can easily argue that ESPN rules college football, and there are worse things than having the biggest kid on the block have your back.

You get a national platform. You get promotion. You’re part of the whole "Bowl Week" (or weeks) event.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the many bowls didn’t have a national TV outlet. They were syndicated to local stations across the country — which meant you might or might not have a chance to see them.

A lot of BYU’s Holiday Bowls back in the day were syndicated in that manner.

The cable network has a huge investment in college football overall. Something in the neighborhood of $2 billion a year

The various ESPN networks air 450 college football games a year — nine times as many as their closest national competitor, Fox.

It’s a good thing to be on ESPN’s team. Just ask BYU.

Is it good for college football? That’s where you can have a debate.

You can certainly argue that the rash of conference-hopping that has destroyed a lot of tradition was driven by lucrative TV deals, largely funded by ESPN.

And the bowl system has devolved to the point where there are an awful lot of mediocre teams are playing in the postseason. Under the right circumstances, the NCAA will allow 5-7 teams to participate.

Beginning next year, there will be two more bowls — both owned by ESPN. The Camellia Bowl will match teams from the MAC and Sun Belt; the Boca Raton Bowl will match teams from the MAC and Conference USA.

There aren’t enough deserving teams to fill all the bowls now. There certainly won’t be four more.

And for those who hope that one day there will be an actual playoff system to supplant the bowls, ESPN will prove to be an additional obstacle. It has a huge investment to protect.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

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