In the coming weeks, HBCU football will be featured among a lineup of nationally televised games backed by ESPN.
The Jackson State-Southern matchup on April 3 and the Jackson State Alabama-A&M matchup on April 10 will be televised on ESPN after originally being slated to air on ESPNU.
On Thursday, it was announced that the April 10 Delaware-Delaware State game will be elevated up the ESPN totem pole to ESPN 2.
They are in a series of games this season that have been flexed to another ESPN tier. The March 14 Jackson State-Mississippi Valley State game was moved from ESPN3 to ESPN2. Last Saturday’s Alabama State-Jackson State game also shifted to ESPN2.
We reached out to Sports Business Journal managing editor for digital Austin Karp to discuss what this all means for Black college football now and in the future.
HBCU Sports: Is ESPN moving several SWAC games to the ESPN main channel a win for the SWAC or a win for ESPN?
Austin Karp: I think it’s actually a win for both sides, right, because you’re getting exposure on the Southern game and the Alabama A&M game that head to the main ESPN channel. To have that big platform for your football game that’s something you’re never going to get in the fall. And so that’s the win on the side for ESPN — they’re getting live content. Football content in particular at a time of year when they don’t really have a lot going on. So they’re looking for whatever live content. And if you put football on people watch it. So I think it’s a big win and they will probably promote it, or maybe they have Deion come on SportsCenter or something like that, but I just think it’s a boon for all sides.
HBCU Sports: How much of this is being driven by the popularity and notoriety of Deion Sanders being the coach at Jackson State?
Karp: It doesn’t hurt at all, but that yeah, that definitely helps. It’s like, why you would see Johnny Manziel Canadian football games on. It’s like ‘why are the Montreal Alouettes playing?’ Well, Johnny Manziel is on that’s why. So, it is a lot of star power-driven thing. But like I said, it’s a win. Last weekend when they had the Alabama State game on ESPN 2, you know that game did pretty much as well as the NIT did on ESPN in the same timeframe. So that’s why probably (they’re) like ‘yeah we can move this to ESPN and it’ll give us a decent number.’
HBCU Sports: If Deion Sanders didn’t exist, do you think ESPN would commit to elevating those games to the ESPN main channels?
Karp: Because it’s just a confluence of events being met through spring football for the first time that you’re able to show it does. I can’t deny that did Deion being there helps a lot and you know they’re going to probably talk about it ad nauseum during the game. But, you know, I’m sure it’s a win for him it’s a win for any school in the SWAC.
HBCU Sports: Delaware State is going to play Delaware on ESPN 2. Does this signal that ESPN either wants just the content on their network or are they really trying to promote Black college football?
Karp: I think it’s both. They’re invested in MEAC versus SWAC football. They’ve had that (MEAC/SWAC) challenge at the beginning of the season since 2005. That’s literally owned by ESPN Events so it’s something they’ve really tried to invest in, and in 2015 you saw them invest in the Celebration Bowl at the end of the season. Those are ESPN-owned and operated events that they’re trying to push forward. But them putting the Delaware State game on ESPN 2 shows like football is good content and people want to watch football. That’s why you can see people keep trying to start these leagues, whether it’s fan control football or XFL or any sort of spring football because the thing that people want to watch is football. But this is just incredibly good exposure for both of those conferences.
HBCU Sports: It is noticeable that no other FCS games are going to be displayed on the ESPN main channel or on ESPN2 according to the TV schedule. Is there any particular reason you think that is?
Karp: I think a lot of it is ESPN was focusing on (college) basketball. That’s another reason you see it (football) more now is because regular-season college basketball is over. While ESPN is promoting these games, they also still have a very strong vested interest in having games streaming. So a lot of those games might be on the ESPN Plus platform so they might be contractually obligated to be on the ESPN Plus platform. It just depends on the particular conferences. But they also want to drive interest to that and so a North Dakota State game goes there. That’s a very strong FCS brand. They want people to get on ESPN Plus. And it’s a way to drive them over to their streaming platform.
HBCU Sports: Could there be some type of future partnership in the fall with the SWAC or the MEAC to elevate some of those games to ESPN main?
Karp: I don’t know if they have anything in the works beyond that opening weekend game that they typically have (MEAC/SWAC challenge). Could they do some more games during the course of the season like have a handful of games like a MEAC/SWAC challenge throughout the season, sort of like the Big 10/ACC challenge? Could they do some of it? Sure, and football is king. It’s just when they would be able to play (because) there’s so much football ESPN already has on its schedule. That’s why we see conferences like the MAC willing to play on Tuesday and Wednesday night because that’s the only night that they can get the sort of exposure on ESPN in the fall. So it’s when can they play those sorts of games because it’s tough to replace an SEC game with a MEAC or SWAC game because you’re just cutting your audience by so much.
HBCU Sports: Deion Sanders has publicly pushed back on the notion of playing on ESPN 3. He wants the games to be on actual network television. Could those comments impact the league’s relationship with ESPN?
Karp: I get where Deion is coming from. He wants the exposure and he wants the highlights to be on SportsCenter. He wants that sort of thing. He wants it to be on in the background. But, I mean the way young people consume a lot of their sports these days they’ve cut the cord, and they’re watching digitally anyways. So, that is the future and that’s why you’re seeing in these new NFL deals that came out. It’s so much of the content is going to be streamed on behind the paywall platforms. So, it’s just where we’re at. It’s an interesting inflection point in how people are consuming football. And all of these networks, ESPN, Fox, CBS, all want to create and add good content for the streaming platforms. And this could just be one. Another way that they’re adding content for this particular stream was adding MEAC or adding SWAC football games there. But that doesn’t mean that if they’re on there they’re not going to end up with a highlight reel on SportsCenter. You see that happen all the time in random college baseball games that are on streaming platforms, somehow ended with a highlight on SportsCenter.
HBCU Sports: Do you think ESPN broadcasting SWAC or MEAC games will draw a lot of viewers or does it mean that ESPN just wants the content?
Karp: I think it’s going to get decent viewers. That Alabama State game on ESPN 2 got just over 200,000 viewers, and that was a lead into UFC prelims on ESPN2 later. And that’s pretty much true with top brand boxing and it drew big on ESPN. Those were bigger (audiences) like 233,000 to 265,000 viewers, respectively. The football game on ESPN 2 drawing in the same range when it gets on ESPN is big. That’s why they’re like okay we can move this to ESPN. I think it’ll draw a number. Do I think it’s going to be half a million viewers, probably not. This is kind of a slow time of year. I think one of the reasons they also moved that Alabama A&M game to that week is normally ESPN will have a long 4-hour Final Four on-site Game Day programming. I don’t know that they’re sending anybody this year. So, you replace that with a MEAC or SWAC game instead. Live content is king. So you’re not having to run, you know, a cornhole or disc golf just to fill time.
HBCU Sports: Would the interest in ESPN spotlighting HBCU spring football entice conferences to consider playing spring football permanently just to get the exposure?
Karp: It’s tough to ask these athletes to play in the spring because, I mean, you’re so used to playing football in the fall. And a lot of them are becoming draft eligible. Are they just going to leave in the middle of the season? Think about this North Dakota State quarterback (Trey Lance) who’s about to be drafted, he wouldn’t have played just spring, because it would have been the middle of the season. He would have been maybe screwing up his draft status just for the exposure. I think that they (FCS schools) really do need to lean into the streaming platforms to make themselves available on ESPN Plus. It’s an exclusive thing where you primarily are on streaming like the overwhelming majority of games are often because that is where things are going. The MEAC and SWAC need to lean into that.
HBCU Sports: A lot of fans want their teams to be visible on national TV. How can streaming be beneficial?
Karp: With the NFL you’re putting a whole package of games, exclusively on a streaming platform. The MEAC and SWAC need to take a step back and be like if it’s good enough for the NFL – and they’ve been studying this for years – I think there is something to that.