by Mike Coffey
The spoils do indeed go to the winner, and with Notre Dame off to its best start since 1993 (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of a 2002 season), said spoils are starting to roll in. The inexorable move up the polls continues. Hypotheses on quality bowl destinations abound. Everyone’s playing the what-if game to determine the likelihood of an undefeated season. The national punditry is entrenched quite firmly in the “ND is back” section of the Vicious Circle of the ND Football Life Cycle. And all the attention is bringing ESPN Gameday and its associated pageantry and benefits to campus on Saturday for the tilt against the #17 Stanford Cardinal.
But you can’t have good without the bad. Tickets suddenly become a tougher get, even with the expanded capacity of Notre Dame Stadium. The national punditry is champing at the bit to move to the “ND sold its soul” section of the Vicious Circle of the ND Football Life Cycle. And all the attention is bringing ESPN Gameday and its associated idiocy and white noise to campus on Saturday for the tilt against the #17 Stanford Cardinal.
ESPN certainly is the big fish in the sports pond, and thanks to their domination of the broadcast rights market and increasing influence in the pool of potential talent, nowhere is their influence felt more strongly than in college athletics. As Notre Dame basketball discovered in the 1990s, if it’s not happening on ESPN in college sports, it ain’t happening. People watch the games, recaps, and talking head reviews relentlessly, and the network folks know how to make the market work for them. The station ensures the attention (and dollars) of impressionable youth by sending a traveling bread-and-circus of a talking head, a knowledgeable former player, an idiot former player, and a stroke victim who likes to wear fake heads. Only in America.
As superficially entertaining as Gameday is, and with a complete cop to the good things that attention can bring, I think the concept is bad for sports in general, and awful for college sports in particular.
Back in the day, there used to be a saying: What’s good for GM is good for America. The theory was GM employed so many people and brought so much money into the GDP that if they made a good decision for them, enough Americans benefited that the hoi polloi shouldn’t worry about the oversight and should let GM call the shots. Recently, that concept has bled into college sports, with the philosophy saying if you can use ESPN to benefit you, forget the cost because it’s worth it. So we have colleges playing football games on Wednesday and Monday nights, and traveling and playing at all hours, all to try and reap the benefits (financial and otherwise) yielded by some television time on basic cable. The coaches and administrators kowtow to the Businessmen of Bristol, and everyone (allegedly) wins.
Well, not everyone. The student athletes don’t. The people paying exorbitant cable fees don’t. The fans driving home from a football game late on a Wednesday night don’t. The fans watching ever-lengthening television timeouts don’t. The yang is getting smacked around by the ying.
And let’s observe the slippery slope here. If ESPN is to keep those benefits flowing to teams and conferences and bowls, it has its own masters to serve via advertising dollars and talent salaries. They don’t have a money tree any more than the rest of us do. So if they know a certain bowl match-up will be more beneficial to them … say, a match-up between two teams whose broadcast rights they carry and who they can advertise to instead of one involving a team that doesn’t play their financial game … what stops them from attempting to puppet-master that result? If a player in their Under Armour game is considering a school in their harem and one that is not, why can’t their increasingly-influential rankings and reportings be influenced to steer that recruit to their concubine, or to a concubine they favor over one they do not? After all, it’s good for ESPN, so….
That’s why the Gameday madness of both varieties do little for me. Sure, at a basic level, folks (not me — hopefully I’ll be at the game) will like seeing the library and “The Word Of Life” in the background this week. There’s no doubt there will be peripheral benefit to ND with the exposure, and we may as well use it. But I can’t help but feel we’re feeding a beast more likely to bite us than not. We’re helping to perpetuate a market state that is bad for the game in general, and worse for us than for most. Worst yet, there’ll be ND fans acting like morons because a television camera is on them, and I expect better from ND fans because, dammit, we are better.
I know there’s some good. I guess it just ain’t enough spoonful of sugar.