More college games on TV
By Rachel Cohen
The trees are budding and the birds are nesting ó must be time to sit down and watch some of the least compelling matchups in college football: green vs. white, crimson against cream, blue takes on gold.
Spring games are blossoming on television as sports networks discover the value of airing the glorified scrimmages, tapping into fervent college fan bases ó people who might otherwise be joining the tens of thousands at the stadium. Itís free advertising in the middle of the offseason for programs competing for the countryís top recruits.
The Big Ten Network is scheduled to broadcast live all but one of its schoolsí spring football games this year on TV or the Internet, including Iowaís open practice (the Hawkeyes donít play a spring game). ESPNís networks are televising five games this year, up from two in 2008. That doesnít include additional teams available online at ESPN3.com, some as replays or simulcasts of regional broadcasts.
The only ones who donít seem to be on the bandwagon are some college coaches, a bunch conditioned to fret over the tiniest of details.
New Big Ten member Nebraska is the TV holdout in that conference, for instance. The Huskers donít want to show their retooled offense to their new rivals.
ěI just prefer not to have it on,î said Oklahomaís Bob Stoops, whose teamís spring game was aired by ESPN in 2006 and ë07. ěWhy would I let everybody see, who weíre going to play early, what we like to do?î
Of the 25 schools in the APís final poll last season, 12 are planning to have their games broadcast in some form this spring.
Notre Dameís spring game will be televised nationally for the first time. Saturdayís scrimmage is on cable channel Versus, which is now a sister network to NBC, the Irishís TV partner, after the Comcast merger.
ěWe are going to try to get as much gamelike scenarios as we can,î coach Brian Kelly said.
ěI think we will get some excitement,î he added, ěmore so than the typical spring game.î
ESPNís foray into spring football started mostly as an attempt to find programming to fill the schedule at new network ESPNU.
The number that later caught executivesí eyes wasnít a rating but an attendance figure. In 2007, an overflow crowd of more than 92,000 attended Nick Sabanís first spring game at Alabama.
ESPNís telecast of Texasí spring game April 3 drew an audience of 226,000 households. The same time slot last year ó which included a replay of the college basketball 3-point and slam dunk competitions ó attracted 337,000 households.
Even if viewership isnít great, the games are valuable in other ways to ESPN, which is so heavily invested in college football.
ěWeíve been trying to make a concerted effort in making it a year-round proposition,î said Burke Magnus, the networkís senior vice president of college sports programming.
Magnus said schools had been receptive to having their games televised. LSU coach Les Miles would rather not have a spring game at all ó he believes itís an inefficient use of limited practice time. But these scrimmages bring in big bucks for the top programs. So if he has to have one, Miles doesnít mind it being on TV.
ěYour guys love to play on television,î Miles said before Saturdayís game, which was shown on ESPN. ěIt gives you the air of a big game. Your guys want to play better.î
Still, coaches whose games are televised may be more likely to hold back certain plays they donít want their opponents to see. Asked if he recorded Texasí spring game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables deadpanned, ěI donít know if I did or not.î
ěWere they on?î he asked to the laughter of reporters.
From the Soonersí standpoint, Venables said, ěI think weíre on TV as much if not more than anybody and we get plenty of exposure.î
Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, the Cornhuskersí former coach, was concerned televising the spring game would hurt attendance ó which has been more than 77,000 in recent years. Osborne said the school makes $700,000 to $800,000 in revenue from the game.
Coach Bo Pelini will be able to tune into his new conferenceís network to watch the scrimmages of all his Big Ten counterparts. Plenty of passionate, midwestern football fans are sure to do so.
They might even see something eyebrow-raising, like last Saturday when Purdueís Carson Wiggs connected on a 67-yard field goal ó yes, 67.
ěEven though itís not the most exciting broadcast or the most exciting brand of football,î said ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, who called Saturdayís LSU game, ěit kind of feeds that animal of college football.î
AP Sports Writers Jeff Latzke in Norman, Okla., and Eric Olson in Lincoln, Neb., and AP freelance writers Mark Bradford in South Bend, Ind., and Bryan Lazare in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.
The Associated Press