Saturday September 30, 2023

ESPN and Fox Are Fighting Over Colorado Football

  • Deion Sanders’ Buffs are the main focus of debate shows, traveling Saturday pregame broadcasts, and game windows.
  • The networks are using the Buffs’ success to gain an edge in their ongoing battle for college football broadcast dominance.
Colorado Buffaloes wide receiver Xavier Weaver (10) reacts to his first down reception catch next to Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker Nick Henrich (3) during the third quarter at Folsom Field.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Front Office Sports Today

Donovan McNabb and the State of Football

From Taylor Swift to the Prime Effect, there's a lot going on in the world of football.
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Last year, George Kliavkoff said Deion Sanders’ arrival in Boulder could help boost the conference’s overall media value. It might be the only thing the beleaguered Pac-12 commissioner was right about.

Now, everybody wants a piece of their success. ESPN and Fox, who comprise college football’s broadcast duopoly, are using No. 18 Colorado’s success to gain an edge in their ongoing battle.

The Buffs have become the main focus of college football, from debate shows and traveling Saturday pregame broadcasts to game windows. 

Because the Pac-12 has deals with both ESPN and Fox, the networks trade the rights to Colorado games depending on the week. That dynamic will continue next year when the Buffs join the Big 12, the only Power conference with a future media rights deal that includes both networks.

Fox has been trying to compete with ESPN’s industry incumbent “College GameDay” since it launched “Big Noon Kickoff” in 2019. Last season, “GameDay” outdrew “Big Noon Kickoff” by 70%.

But “Prime Time coming to Boulder has been a major boon for Fox,” Octagon EVP of Global Media Rights, Daniel Cohen, told Front Office Sports.

Fox is going on its third consecutive week hosting “Big Noon Kickoff” at a Colorado game, and its second consecutive week in Boulder.

Even though ESPN has the rights to the Colorado State game (Fox passed up an opportunity to go to Penn State), the decision was a “no-brainer,” a source told FOS. It’s rare for a network pregame show to promote a game it doesn’t own, but clearly Fox believes the gamble will be worth it. 

“I think we’re more in the hunting mode, rather than being hunted — and it is fun being the hunter and coming up with new ways to attack,” Fox Sports’ Rob Stone told FOS on Friday. “Our bosses have been behind it since the offseason and they have put resources into our product that are unheard of.”

But, in the tug-of-war, ESPN pulled out all the stops. 

Along with the first “College GameDay” broadcast in Boulder since 1996, the network sent “The Pat McAfee Show,” “Sportscenter,” and “First Take” to the school for their Friday shows. (There’s even been a tug-of-war over Sanders to appear on “First Take” and Skip Bayless’ “Undisputed” on Fox.)

“When a team becomes a story, that’s what gets on our radar,” ESPN producer Drew Gallagher told FOS last year. Multiple analysts have noted Colorado is not only the biggest story in college football, but perhaps the sport industry overall. 

Both pregame shows will enjoy a live appearance from Coach Prime himself. But ESPN’s Desmond Howard thinks the network’s pregame show still has the edge. “We’re the only three-hour, live show that provides a three-hour infomercial about the program, the school, and the community,” he told reporters Friday. “There’s no other show on TV that does that.”

Regarding their respective top game slots, however, Fox has beaten ESPN the past two seasons: “Big Noon Saturday” averaged 6.2 million viewers last year compared to 4.3 million on ABC/ESPN’s 7 p.m. ET prime-time window.

The Buffs’ first two noon ET games smashed Fox’s 2022 average, but ESPN outperformed them by a small margin: TCU-Colorado averaged 7.26 million viewers compared with ESPN’s FSU-LSU game (9.17 million), while Texas-Alabama (8.8 million) edged out Colorado-Nebraska (8.7 million).

This week, ESPN has taken that weapon away from Fox — and even a 10 p.m. ET kickoff should provide a boost.

As the battle between ESPN and Fox continues, it’s unclear how long Colorado will play a major role.

The determining factor could ultimately be how the Buffs fare in their two-week Pac-12 stretch against Oregon and USC.

“College football is a fickle game when it comes to annual storylines,” Cohen said. “The glitz of Coach Prime will wear off quickly with FOX and ESPN if Colorado can’t continue to win.”

Editor’s note: Senior writer Michael McCarthy and newsletter co-author David Rumsey contributed to this story.

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