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How ESPN basically owns college football’s entire postseason

Disney straight-up owns many of the games, and most of the ones it doesn’t, it broadcasts anyway.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

Take a look at the bowl schedule, and what do you notice about broadcasters? Depending on the year, maybe a couple games are on CBS and another couple on Fox. All the rest, including the Playoff and National Championship, will be on ESPN networks.

Let’s go back to the year 2000.

We didn’t know it then, but that was the last year before the postseason slate began to shift toward where it is today. It had nothing to do with the BCS games and everything to do with all the other games.

There were 25 bowl games, up from the number that had held steady between 16 to 19 through most of the 1980s and ‘90s, but it would soon increase to 40 FBS bowl games, counting the Playoff National Championship.

Welcome ESPN Events to the postseason stage.

What is ESPN Events?

Maybe you remember ESPN Plus? That was ESPN Events’ first iteration.

Picture a nooner between Penn State and Indiana. Today, that’d be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. But before the advent of conference networks, ESPN Plus was a home for those games that had an audience, but not a particularly big one. Its official name was ESPN Regional Television, a subsidiary of ESPN that was purchased in 1996. It became the syndication arm for the four-letter network.

In 2001, that arm bought a bowl game:

ESPN Regional Television officially became more than a broadcaster of bowl games when it acquired the Las Vegas Bowl in 2001. According to ESPN Regional Television's vice president, Pete Derzis, the company was ". . . there to satisfy the needs of a number of [their] partner conferences, many of whom were under-served at the time." These conferences included Conference USA, the WAC and Mountain West. According to Derzis, "these conferences didn't have a lot of bowl opportunities 10 years ago. They had teams that could have qualified for bowls by NCAA standards, but had nowhere to go."

By the late 2000s, conference-owned networks were popping up.

The advent of the Big Ten Network in 2007 gobbled up all the conference’s games that weren’t on main ESPN or other cable networks. Same with the Pac-12 and SEC Networks as they came later, though the latter’s run by ESPN. The ACC Network will do the same.

ERT, now ESPN Events, has pivoted to setting much of the schedule for college football’s early and postseason calendar as well as college basketball’s non-conference slate. ESPN Events operates college football kickoff games like the AdvoCare and Camping World kickoffs and basketball events including the Jimmy V Classic, NIT Season Tip-Off, PK80, and Champions Classic. Unsurprisingly, ESPN also broadcasts the events it runs — college sports’ version of vertical integration.

The press page boasts:

ESPN Events, a division of ESPN, owns and operates a large portfolio of 31 collegiate sporting events worldwide. The roster includes three Labor Day weekend college football games; FCS opening-weekend game; 14 college bowl games, 11 college basketball events and two college award shows, which accounts for approximately 300-plus hours of programming, reaches almost 64 million viewers and attracts over 700,000 attendees each year.

ESPN also controls broadcasts of the College Football Playoff and even the rankings shows that lead up to it.

Of the 40 FBS bowl games, about 35 are broadcast on the ESPN family of networks each year, so the company is still deeply invested in even the bowls it doesn’t own. ESPN owns these FBS games:

  • Texas Bowl
  • Gasparilla Bowl
  • Bahamas Bowl
  • Birmingham Bowl
  • Celebration Bowl
  • Boca Raton Bowl
  • Potato Bowl
  • Frisco Bowl
  • New Mexico Bowl
  • Hawai’i Bowl
  • Las Vegas Bowl
  • Armed Forces Bowl
  • Camellia Bowl
  • First Responder Bowl

The Myrtle Beach Bowl, joining the fray in 2020, will be an ESPN Events game.

ESPN’s CFB postseason monopoly isn’t just on the FBS level, either.

ESPN broadcasts the NAIA national title game and the FCS, Division II, and Division III playoffs on either a television network or its online streaming platform.

ESPN also created a postseason game with actual stakes. The Celebration Bowl pits the winners of the MEAC and SWAC conferences and is something of a de facto national championship game for HBCUs.

Bowls are live events, and live events are something broadcasters can count on.

Some ESPN-owned bowls are on weekdays, a crucial hole in a sports programming schedule. The monetary value of these bowls as standalone events to ESPN is unclear because tax records are private, but ESPN highly values live events.

December is a bit of a live sports desert. ESPN broadcasts one live NFL game a week, no NHL or MLB during the month, and NBA to a public that’s broadly yet to transition into basketball mode.

The structure of college football is also perfect for ESPN.

The company can’t just create an extra game in the NBA’s schedule that it owns and operates. ESPN can’t expand the college basketball postseason by itself, either. But ESPN can push to add postseason college football games, as long as there isn’t a moratorium imposed by the NCAA at the time (those come and go).

And the main justification for all these bowls is that, well, people watch ‘em.

Take 2016’s slate for instance, pretty representative of each year:

Every bowl game was in the top five in sports for the day save for one and all of them made the top 15 on cable overall. 2.5 million viewers for a football game between Troy and Ohio! That’s just a ridiculously good number for those two teams in that bowl game.

The only other sports programs to make cable’s top 10 during the same period? Two were NFL games and NFL related programming for Monday Night Football on ESPN and Thursday Night Football on NFL Network. Another was the Kentucky-Louisville college basketball rivalry game.

The glut has gotten the bowl system in hot water because there hasn’t been enough 6-6 teams in a given year. The 5-7 teams can apply for a waiver, and the NCAA added a stipulation that 5-7 teams can party in the postseason too as long as their APR scores are sufficient. Ultimately, the public doesn’t mind mediocre teams all that much.

But the bottom line: We’re going to keep watching the bowls, which means we’re going to keep watching them on ESPN.