August 23, 2014 in Sports

ESPN makes for a great opening day in Cheney

John Blanchette Correspondent
 
Christopher Anderson photo

John Blanchette
(Full-size photo)

There’s nothing like TV to turn a town upside down.

So agog were the city fathers of Cheney over the Worldwide Leader’s visit on Saturday that First Street was renamed “ESPN Avenue” for the day. Here’s hoping any mail that failed to account for this change made it to the addressees anyway, and that postgame revelers headed to Goofy’s and Wild Bill’s weren’t perpetually circling the block because the GPS went haywire.

If only the network had reciprocated and redubbed itself EagSPN for a day.

It should have. Not only did the lads of Eastern Washington give the network a college football fix a week early, they did it entertainingly enough to hold the TV audience for the better part of three hours.

OK, so the game went four hours. What the heck – the baseball highlights could wait.

And presumably, the EWU majority among the 10,310 witnesses on hand was even more jazzed by the top-ranked Eagles’ 56-35 romp over Sam Houston State than the visit by GameDay Lite.

Sorry. FCS Kickoff.

Whatever they call it, it seemed to be a hit. Students won’t be on campus for a month, but Roos Field was a rocking, red-out sellout anyway, and at least some of those folks opted to interrupt a weekend at the lake. That’s a new frontier of spectator appeal at a place where building an audience has been a painful process.

Meanwhile, the players ate up not just being the only game in town but the only game in the nation.

“It’s great exposure for the university, obviously,” said senior tackle Jake Rodgers of Spokane, “but it’s just a lot of fun for guys like us that don’t get a lot of opportunities to play on the big stage.”

This from a player who started in the Pac-12 a couple years ago.

And the TV sugar daddy?

“It’s college football one week early,” said Brent Colborne, director of programming and acquisitions. “People are starving for it – they’re sick of talking about it since January. That’s great for ESPN.”

Now, if the earnest denizens of the Football Championship Subdivision can just keep this little piece of wonderful to themselves.

This was the first FCS Kickoff, but it won’t be the last, at least if viewer response is respectable. A single ratings point – roughly a million households – would probably suffice, though Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton was hoping for a 1.5.

For Fullerton, the head-start game isn’t just more mush to shovel in TV’s massive programming maw. It’s strategy.

While you’ve watched the high-income schools begin to erect a gate around their community, there’s a different dance going on below. Fullerton – not surprisingly, given his employer – senses uncertainty and vulnerability in the five lesser FBS conferences not invited to the cool kids’ table.

“Frankly, we’re closer to where they are than they are to the top five,” he said. “The line between FBS and FCS has been drawn in the wrong place. So we need to be able to do things to show the public that we’re more like where they are – that they do it from the position of playing the big guys every week and getting hurt, while we do it from a position of success with a national championship at the end.

“To me, getting people used to FCS playing on this weekend – an FCS stand-alone weekend – would be one of those things we would have that those five conferences don’t. It’s part of where we need to take ourselves.”

ESPN is hardly an unwilling partner, even with its mega-contracts with power conferences. The network is, after all, TV home to the FCS title game and will telecast more than 100 FCS games on its channels this season. It moved some programming from its traditional high school kickoff weekend to accommodate this game, and helped with the NCAA waiver to play the game early.

“It totally gives us a concept and a ramp-up to the season,” said Colborne.

But wherever there’s a good thing, there’s bound to be too much of a good thing.

The FCS title game’s placement in early January seems to come up for annual debate, and with the glut of bowls and NFL playoffs then “there’s not going to be any oxygen left,” Fullerton noted. If the division ever does move the game back before Christmas, it may be obliged to start its entire regular season a week earlier. If there are suddenly 50 games on the schedule, one game is something less than a showcase.

And, of course, if the Eastern-Sammy game did any business at all, you can be sure the Power 5 conferences – with their own networks to satisfy and budgets to bloat – will see (and seize) a programming opportunity.

“Would I be shocked if FBS tried to get it going a week earlier?” Colborne said. “Probably not.”

That’s life on Main Street. Or ESPN Avenue, if you prefer.


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