Just when Walt Disney Co. chairman Bob Iger was looking to turn down the temperature, a new front opened in the battle between Disney and the state of Florida.
The College Football Playoff’s snub of undefeated Florida State University threatens to become another political football in the culture wars.
Within seconds of the CFP selection committee’s decision on Sunday to exclude the ACC champions, a theory was born that, behind the scenes, ESPN — the most influential TV power in college football — pulled the strings to get Alabama into the playoff.
ESPN is starting a 10-year, $3 billion rights arrangement next year that will pay the SEC $300 million a season, so it’s easy to imagine that ESPN might not want its committee holding a Final Four without the conference’s presence.
Never mind that ESPN analyst Booger McFarland and “Get Up” host Mike Greenberg blasted the FSU decision. “To me, this is a travesty to the sport. … One team has a loss, and that’s Alabama. One doesn’t in Florida State,” declared McFarland on ESPN’s Sunday Selection Show.
College football’s selection system “stinks,” added Greenberg on Monday. “You know what happened yesterday? Football became figure skating.”
Never mind, too, that Disney’s ESPN also has a rights deal with the ACC that runs through 2036 — or that one year ago, the CFP shunned the Crimson Tide in favor of the Big 12’s TCU.
Of course, ESPN sources dismiss the charge that the network influenced the committee’s decision as a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory of the highest order.
Still, perception has a way of becoming reality. And it’s good politics in some political quarters of Florida to bash Disney. Within hours of the CFP decision, my colleague Amanda Christovich was reporting that lawmakers were discussing legislation to protest the decision.
“The corruption of college football rears its ugly head again,” tweeted Corey Simon, the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle turned Florida State Senator. “ESPN and Disney have a vested interest in the SEC participating in the CFP. Lawsuits should be filed tomorrow.”
Added Florida Governor and U.S. Presidential candidate Ron DeSantis: “What we learned today is that you can go undefeated and win your conference championship game, but the College Football Playoff committee will ignore these results.”
U.S. Senator Rick Scott of Florida sent a letter to committee chairman Boo Corrigan demanding “transparency” around their “shocking” decision.
And it didn’t take long for ex-President Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate for 2024, to weigh in (and pin the blame on his party rival, DeSantis).
“Florida State was treated very badly by the Committee,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social media platform. “They become the first [undefeated] Power Five team to be left out of the College Football Playoffs. Really bad lobbying effort. … Let’s blame Sanctimonious!!!”
The Seminoles’ snub puts Disney in an almost no-win position PR-wise, said Washington, D.C.-based crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall. He doesn’t believe there’s a conspiracy, but the “better of Disney’s bad options is to not engage” – and hope the story dies down.
“If I’m Disney, and I’m dealing with one controversy after another, I don’t see much of a percentage in diving in front of another one,” he told Front Office Sports.
The involved Florida politicians and other critics know that Disney and ESPN are paying $470 million annually for exclusive CFP rights through 2026. Disney and DeSantis have been at loggerheads for years.
Last year, Disney publicly opposed a state law signed by DeSantis that forbids classroom instruction on sexual orientation/gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. When DeSantis sought to revoke Disney’s long-held special tax district around Walt Disney World, the Mouse House filed a federal lawsuit alleging that DeSantis was politically retaliating against the company for exercising its free speech rights.
DeSantis, in turn, has attacked what he characterizes as Disney’s “woke” political agenda. Despite Disney contributing $1.1 billion in state and local taxes last year, the governor publicly welcomed a public fight with one of his state’s largest employees. (DeSantis has softened his tone a bit in recent months, saying he’s “moved on” from his conflict with Disney.)
Given the tense situation, it seems inevitable that DeSantis and other Florida politicians would pile on Disney over the CFP decision, said Mike Paul, a crisis management advisor and expert.
“No. 1, because of the history of politics in Florida, anything is on the table for a dustup,” he told Front Office Sports. “No. 2, there’s only one thing more than sun and fun that’s associated with Florida — and that’s football. As a result, college football and the snub of Florida State is definitely on the agenda.
“When there’s anger, one looks for any excuse. …The ‘wokeism’ in America today becomes an excuse for everything that those who are angry disagree with.”
Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. But it’s worth remembering that people make these decisions. People with a web of business relationships. And people are amenable to innovative PR campaigns.
By the time the selection committee convened this weekend, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban had already launched a charm offensive to push Alabama over the goal line. And they used ESPN programming to do it, outmaneuvering a slow-footed ACC.
On “College GameDay,” Sankey argued that the mere notion of his powerful conference being left out of the CFP was not “the real world.” The SEC’s cozy approach worked. When ESPN cut to a live interview with Saban on Sunday, after Alabama made it in, the coach’s self-satisfied grin said it all.
Tim Brando, the veteran college football announcer, tweeted that a fiasco like the FSU decision is a good argument for having more than one network televise the CFP. Did we mention that he works for Fox Sports, ESPN’s biggest rival in the space?
Addressing the “weeklong infomercial for Alabama” by ESPN, Brando tweeted at Kirk Herbstreit: “You and others may appear sad with messaging, but it can’t wipe the ugly off today’s announcement by the [CFP]! Shame on them for doing what they did to those kids in Tallahassee.”
As pointed out by Paul, the crisis management advisor: If Disney wanted to turn the tables it could disarm table-pounding critics by agreeing that the CFP blew it. But would Disney risk angering a business partner at a time when ESPN is looking to retain CFP rights? Either way, it would make news.
“If you’re Disney, do you argue ‘This has nothing to do with this?’ Or do you say, seeking to win the hearts of football players who are Disney fans, ‘We’re sorry Florida State is not in there. We agree. They deserve to be,’ ” Paul said. “They have nothing to lose by saying that. It could be a preemptive strike to say it early.”
In September, Iger told investors that he wanted to “quiet the noise,” because the so-called culture wars were bad for business. In a politically divided country, Disney is discovering that’s easier said than done.