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ESPN at forefront of college sports

By Joel Jellison

Normally focused on public affairs, Kansas State’s Landon Lecture opened its 2014 series Wednesday night with the leader of the biggest sports entertainment companies America has ever seen.

Though Wednesday’s lecture — a four -person panel discussion — was sports driven and didn’t feature any world leaders, there’s no questioning the impact ESPN has made on public affairs in this country.

The panel featured John Skipper, president of ESPN Inc. and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, former Texas and K-State athletic director DeLoss Dodds and K-State president Kirk Schulz.

Moderated by K-State AD John Currie, the discussion at McCain Auditorium addressed specifically how ESPN has affected the visibility of college athletics as we know them today.

ESPN was the first 24-hour, seven-days-a-week sports network on television in 1979. Dodds, who is originally from Riley County, said he remembers watching a college football game on the network in his first year at Texas in 1981.

“I can remember 1981, Austin, Texas, my first year, watching Arizona State play a football game over and over and over again,” he mused.

In comparison, ESPN has broadcast 1,700 basketball games and 400 football games in the last year, and more than 5,000 sporting events through it’s web-streaming service

“Those in my generation will remember when there was a single football game on, on Saturday,” said Skipper, who became ESPN president in 2012. “Now every game that’s a big game is on, and almost every game of every major university is on now.”

In the landscape of college sports, ESPN is the major player when it comes to paying conferences and schools for television rights — currently holding deals with 32 conferences.

The network is responsible for helping Virginia Tech and Louisville grow its athletic departments with the decision to play games on Thursday and Friday nights.

“Kansas State being on television is a good thing,” Skipper said. “It energizes your alums. I suspect fundraising goes up in a winning year — I find that to be the case.”

Schulz, who works was appointed to the NCAA’s Executive Committee in 2013, said deals with major networks helps bring money to schools and conferences and raise the visibility of both the league and the teams within it.

ESPN has played a pivotal role in doing just that. In 35 years, ESPN has moved from a small, experimental network, to a giant broadcast company that sets the standard for all sports broadcasting.

“Clearly ESPN has changed the way the world consumes its sports,” Bowlsby said. “They did it in presentation, they did it the way they’ve grown their family of networks — there seems to be an almost insatiable appetite for additional content and ESPN has been at the forefront of capturing that content.

“I just think it’s astonishing what it’s become. Not only has ESPN created it’s own world, they’ve created the world to which every other sports broadcaster aspires. They’ve set the standards for storytelling and for presentation and for multiple platform delivery.”

ESPN’s dealings within college athletics have, at times, seemed controversial.

When conference realignment was controlling the headlines in 2010 — including the changing landscape of the Big 12 —  ESPN appeared to often be at the forefront, perhaps at times being accused of playing too large of a role in the reshuffling.

“It is generally not good for us when schools move around,” Skipper said. “We have deals with all of the major conferences, so we at some point in time are paying every school.

“When the Big 12 became 10 schools, we agreed to pay the same for 10 schools as 12 schools. That was not a desirable financial outcome for us, but it helped keep the conference together, which is desirable.”

Bowlsby said in his years working within college athletics, he’s never seen ESPN attempt to aide a school in its decision, nor push it in any particular way.

“In my three decades in the business I’ve never had a television partner say that we should do one thing or we should do another,” he said. “I think they express their opinions and we express ours and there’s some pushing and shoving involved, but indeed they really are partnerships.

“I don’t ever have to ask John Skipper if he cares about the education of our student-athletes because he understands that side of the business and so does his staff. To say that they’re ever in a situation where they’re barking orders, or driving the agenda, just isn’t accurate.”

Skipper said ESPN’s mission has been to serve sports fans. That’s why the network has been at the leader in expanding its operations into all forms of social media and handheld devices.

But ESPN is no longer the sole provider in 24/7 sports news. In the past three years alone, competition has come from new NBC and FOX sports networks.

But when asked Wednesday night how his network could possibly still compete like it had before, Skipper, was candid in his response.

“The question is how are they going to deal with us?” he quipped. “We think we can compete OK. I ask the employees internally everyday, ‘look in the mirror and ask would you rather be us competing against them, or them competing against us.’ As long as the answer is us, than we’re OK.

“Maybe that comes across as arrogant, and I apologize. We never take anything complacently. When FOX launched a network on August 18, 2013, we launched more new shows in the month of August than they had shows, because we respect the fact that you have to continue to compete.”

As technology continues to increase, Skipper said it’s ESPN’s goal to increase broadcasts on the digital web platform from 5,000 annually to more than 20,000 going forward. And as new technology options become available, he said the network will remain the leader in delivering a new product if it makes sense.

“When we think about if we’re going to adopt a new technology, the answer is if sports fan like it, we’re going to do it,” he said. “We’ve been well served by doing that.”

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