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Hey NBC Sports: Let’s turn FCS football into smart, weird TV

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All the jargon. All the stats. All the eccentric coaches.

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Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Last week, we offered up free programming advice to ESPN. As more football conferences postpone to 2021, we’ll continue to find new and interesting ways for TV networks to celebrate the otherwise ignored corners of this glorious sport.

Hey there NBC Sports Network, are you ready to celebrate the weird nerd snobs of football?

YEAH YOU ARE. You’re part of NBC, curators of broadcast rights agreements for the pastimes of the privileged: cycling, golf, tennis, horse racing, yacht racing and Cris Collinsworth. Thanks to football games of dwindling national relevance staged at an Indiana religious institution, you’ve already captured advertiser-coveted NFL fans across the northeast and midwest on Saturdays. NBC is all about platforming the self-involved.

Oh hang on that reminds me I gotta paste this in real quick:

EDITORIAL DISCLOSURE: Banner Society is a property of Vox Media, of which NBCUniversal is a minority shareholder.

OK. So as of this writing, the Ivy, SWAC, MEAC, Colonial and Patriot Leagues have all bumped their football seasons to Spring of 2021, along with most JUCO programs across the nation.

DID YOU KNOW: You can broadcast college football! Back when you were something called VERSUS, you aired Mountain West and Pac 12 games. Jim Harbaugh embarrassed Pete Carroll live on your network! Even as NBC Sports, you were the home of the Ivies before they jumped to ESPN+, and you shifted towards Premiere League soccer, losing the CAA’s rights to FloSports along the way. (The SWAC and MEAC still don’t hold unified rights agreements.)

But college football isn’t completely dead yet on NBC, nor does it have to be. For the last two years you’ve aired one SWAC football game a season (The Bayou Classic between Southern and Grambling), along with coverage of that one Catholic school in Indiana.

It’s unlikely you’ll pry the Ivies back from ESPN, which thrives on excess live inventory, but there’s a strong chance you can work a one-time deal for the Patriot, Colonial, SWAC, MEAC, and maybe other FCS conferences (depending on when you read this!).

There’s a chance to build a dedicated, over-informed audience here. The naive among us would call them tastemakers. The truth is: You can be the snobs of college football.

You can cater to a highly specific consumer base of obsessives who use their engagement with sports as a social and economic signifier. Think about how insufferable most American soccer fans are. You can attract MORE OF THOSE PEOPLE with plain old Luddite football. Here’s how:

1. Raid the Film Room. To start, we’re gonna rip this idea off wholesale. Grab any active college football coaches (who likely won’t have as busy a schedule come March or April) you can find, and film them reacting to live football. That’s really it; and I’m not saying you have to go high profile here. In fact, go the opposite.

Most of CFB’s most successful coaches are Pablum All-Stars on the mic. You want the niche men: Hal Mumme, Bob Stitt,… you know, the weird ones. They’ll offer roundtable commentary using a lot of verbiage and wonky vocabulary while ignoring most of the normal events of the game a standard play-by-play announcer would cover. THIS IS GOOD.

As pop culture and other sports trend towards the overstudied, it stands to reason people want to be that annoying about American football, too. Coachy-words provide that feeling. What good are down and distance and all that jazz if you aren’t invested in either team or any of the players to begin with? We’re appealing to people who want to invest in the structure and practice of the entertainment they’re watching more than the actual show. It’s all very meta, but advertising brands love that. Ask a brand.

2. STATS STATS STATS. You already have a partnership with these nerds. Let them nerd, but do it live. Insert their voodoo number ciphers into the broadcasts with minimal hand-holding. Allow for a brief mention at the top of every broadcast that fans can go to PFF for more explanation, but again: Don’t hand-hold.

There’s a significant portion of American football fans who absolutely love this stuff. If engaged, they’ll proudly market these broadcasts for you, guilting adjacent colleagues and neophyte stat dorks into catching up. This is basically how MMO communities work in video games, and a lot of video games make a LOT of money by seeming inaccessible at first.

3. Get The Weirdos. If this plan is successful, at some point the banal or diplomatic comments of an actively employed coach won’t be incisive or cutting enough when a play falls apart or a terrible call is made. That’s where the degenerates of SCHEME TWITTER come in. They’re smart, funny, ruthlessly esoteric, and they scare me to death because they’re constantly pontificating about concepts and terms I couldn’t define with a gun to my head and this is allegedly my job. Using hours of film study and the Godless decorum of Twitter, they can boil even the most complex aspects of football into a meme. This is what you want: Rewarding your viewers by allowing them to flaunt inside jokes.

OK so! That’s ball coaches, math dorks, and a social media subculture, three layers of good-ol’-boy idioms, bespoke esoteric jargon, and worst of all, memes. No one’s gonna randomly land on one of these games and understand a damn thing what’s going on.

And that’s the point! For too long, college football broadcasts have existed as a monoculture of accessible, generic entertainment that grossly misrepresents the niche weirdos creating it and celebrating it.

This is your chance, NBC: Go all-in on the hyper specific. Court the obsessives and the dorks. These games are the ones to take a weird risk on: Half of this potential inventory consists of historically underrepresented HBCUs looking for exposure, and the other half is the domain of non-college football fan alumni. I’m talkin’ hedge fund vampires, Hollywood producers, lobbyists — you know, all the people who need to tell you both where they went to school and why they’d rather watch the Red Sox than their alma mater all in the first two minutes you meet them.

Turn up the jargon, NBC. Let the coaches and stat nerds and scheme degenerates take over live broadcasts. It will alienate plenty, but it will also draw — and build — a dedicated hardcore audience of FOOTBALL ELITES.