This is the question I frequently pose to myself when ESPN, Fox and CBS report on anything about college realignment issues in general.
It's especially true about this report made by Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports.Com, which purports to be an inside look at who has the "most say" in realignment - TV networks or the conferences themselves.
The good news is that there are a lot of revealing insights into the top men running the show in collegiate athletics, including media people and conference commissioners. The bad news is that it reads like the writer is trying to snooker the reader into thinking that TV has no influence over realignment - when a keener, more independent look at the quotes reveals anything but.
I don't want to sound like I'm ripping to far into Mr. Fowler's work. He's clearly done a lot of interviews and taken a lot of time to gather information from a lot of people. And as I said, his piece is a treasure trove of different, interesting tidbits of information like the following.
Generally, all major college football brokers have distinct roles.
Coaches want to stay employed and win games. Athletic directors and presidents want to grow the program and revenues while sustaining collegiate principles. Television execs want good games, ratings and exposure for both parties. Commissioners must throw all the elements in a blender and hope it doesn't taste like wheat grass.
"Find the appropriate sweet spot," said ACC commissioner John Swofford of the television-conference balancing act.That's a pretty great summary right there about all the different factions involved when it comes to realignment. Too often (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone), people forget about each interested party - people who group teams regionally tend to forget about TV value, those that group by TV value forget about coaching considerations like flying their teams 1,000 miles for league games in all sports, etc.
And the article is loaded with nuggets like this - revealing insights and some good analysis.
Unfortunately, in its effort to be balanced, it seriously downplays TV's influence in the whole process, as you'll see below.
So, to assess the TV-conference dynamic and decipher who really gets final say on important matters, CBSSports.com spoke to more than 20 sources, including six conference commissioners and several television executives.
Most people interviewed highlight the same theme: Television has input and influence but isn't dictating to conferences.
At least not at the highest levels, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said.
"The guys at the top dictate terms -- they have more leverage, they can control their terms," said Delany, who says he didn't consult ESPN or Fox when adding Maryland and Rutgers last fall.
First of all, something like this coming from a specific network always troubles me. Remember, this article is coming from someone writing for CBS.com. Why should I trust CBS to tell me the truth that they don't "dictate terms", when they themselves, theoretically, are one of the subjects of the investigation?
And parse this a second. "Most say that they have input and influence, but isn't dictating to conferences". Then, the writer turns around and says, "At least not at the highest levels." So, praytell, it is at some level?
This is a general problem I have with getting my sports news from not only a corporate entity, but one that finds the core of its profits generated by the very thing they're reporting about. Is someone from CBS, Fox or ESPN going to report something that makes it look like they are pulling the strings behind the scenes in terms of realignment? Not if they cherish their jobs they're not.
Furthermore, look at Delany's statement more closely. "The guys at the top dictate terms." That could be read in any number of ways. Remember the old adage, whomever has the money makes the rules. Who has the money? Fox, ESPN, CBS.
Networks and conferences can worry about their jobs without heavy meddling, Fox exec Larry Jones said.
"I wouldn't have the commissioners produce a football game and I wouldn't run a conference," said Jones, the executive vice president of business operations for Fox Sports, which has partnerships with the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and more. "They don't sit there and call me and say, 'What do you think about this school and that school?'"
Conference realignment "worked both ways," says Alabama athletic director Bill Battle, the founder of Collegiate Licensing Company.
"I think it was networks saying, 'You can make a whole lot more money if you do this," Battle said. "And I think it was conferences back some time ago saying, 'With television eyeballs, there is an opportunity if we can expand in these areas that it makes sense to command more money from the networks.'"
Adds another power-conference athletic director who spoke on condition of anonymity: "I think (television) influences when it can."
Many liken the relationship to a marriage -- both sides don't always say yes, but "we do as partners do," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
"When our TV partners call, I take their calls or I return them as quickly as I can," Bowlsby said. "They are important business partners for us. But they don't dictate to us."Somehow, if I'm calling Mr. Bowlsby, he's not returning my call. But if it's a TV executive, he "returns them as quickly as he can." I wonder why? Perhaps it's because they're - wait for it - influential?
My biggest problem with the article is it seriously underplays the influence TV entities have on the whole process.
Take the Bowlsby quote. Does sound to any human being alive like those television people aren't strong influences on the conference people at the highest levels? After all, who's above Bowlsby in the Big 12 hierarchy?
Great pains are made in the article that TV doesn't "dictate" to conferences. But TV can have a giant amount of influence without "dictation". Did the Godfather ever kill anybody? Not in the first Godfather, but he sure as hell had influence. He didn't "dictate" to people, but he certainly got a lot of things done to benefit his "family".
There's no more clear case study in TV meddling than the case of Pitt and Syracuse going from the Big East (with a TV contract from ESPN) to the ACC (which also has a TV contract with ESPN).
One (old) Big East source said the league never privately questioned ESPN's role in the ACC's additions and frankly had little room to complain -- ESPN offered a pretty good deal that was denied.
"But at the least, (ESPN) knew what was going on," the source said. "There's no way the ACC's adding Pitt/Syracuse if they are going to make the same amount of money 14 ways instead of 12, so there's no question they went to ESPN and said, 'If we add these schools by name, how much money would we get.'"Well, yeah. Isn't that just normal due diligence on their part? I mean, if I made an investment in a company, and it was losing two top executives to another company, I would pay attention, too.
A key element in this are intermediaries.
Swofford said his conference's talks with ESPN on Pitt and Syracuse were "limited and of a more general nature," relying heavily on internal analysis alongside television consultant Dean Jordan. One source with knowledge of the moves said the conference approached ESPN on an "objective analysis" basis.
"We've never considered it our place to make specific direction or make specific recommendations to anything," ESPN senior vice president of college sports programming Burke Magnus said. "Nobody has ever come to us and said, 'I'm going to give you three schools, which two are the best?'"
But the roles of these intermediaries are glossed over, and only serve to try to unsuccessfully defer the blame to the "consultants", even when it's near certain the network people call the shots.
Take Swofford. He has his consultant, Jordan in his war room in regards to realignment. Are we to expect that Jordan had no contact with TV executives, even though he's a television consultant? Of course not.
Furthermore, even though the TV executives might not know everything that goes on in the war room, just the questions asked by consultants would likely reveal a boatload of information. For example, if Jordan is going to ESPN and asking, "How much TV revenue might we get the Syracuse and Pittsburgh TV markets?" ESPN would have to be morons to not know who's in play.
And remember, ESPN would be getting information from the Big East "media consultants" too - asking similar questions from the other side. Not revealing information the knew, too, would play a huge part.
Let's take this a step further. Wouldn't it be extremely easy for ESPN to manipulate the answers to guide the conferences into making decisions?
What if ESPN told the ACC consultant "Pittsburgh is the best market in the world, you'd get $1 billion per year and you'd be rich," and they make their decision based on that false information. And then turned around and told the Big East consultant, "Don't worry, nobody would want Pitt, their market is crap?"
And isn't this likely what happened here?
On the Big East side, there was plenty of manipulation in the press going on, too, in terms of losing Syracuse and Pitt that was visible to the naked eye as well. When Villanova was publicly mulling over a move to FBS and playing their games in Chester - which would have made the Big East tantalizingly close to 12 teams and a conference championship - the press was getting anonymous quotes from Big East schools about PPL park in Chester not being "good enough" for football.
And ESPN is the only entity knows how much money they might make across all sports and platforms by peeling off two schools from one conference and putting them in another. ESPN and the media companies are really the only entities that makes money - a fact conveniently omitted by the article.
It's the conferences that get paid by ESPN, Fox, and the network that pays the writer of this article, CBS, in the form of the TV contract. The TV money trickles through the networks where it ends up with the conferences. That gives TV more influence than everything put together.
The statements in the article are all technically true - Swofford has a network consultant in his office and no "direct contact" with the networks, and ESPN didn't "tell the ACC or Big East" what to do. But they still could have - I'd argue definitely - goaded the conferences into decisions that benefit them. After all, ESPN had an extraordinary amount of information at their disposal in regards to this deal - more than both conferences combined. Their actions, or lack of actions, had huge sway in the process.
Burke Magnus said ESPN offers opinions to conferences about expansion only in cases that obviously make sense (when Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas asked his television partners whether Notre Dame would add value) or when a conference is "on the doorstep of expansion" and simply aims to confirm media value.
"That's different than, 'Hey, we're thinking about expanding, give us some ideas,'" Magnus said.Oh, really? Let's go back to 2010, when the Big 12 was falling apart, and Andy Katz of ESPN leaked this interesting tidbit:
In an unprecedented move, a number of influential people inside and outside of college athletics mobilized over the past week to save the Big 12 Conference, stave off the Pac-10's move to expand to 16 schools and prevent a massive reorganization of college athletics.
An NCAA source with direct knowledge of what occurred told ESPN.com that the aggressiveness of the Pac-10 caused various factions of the collegiate sports world to coalesce. They then worked to slow and try to stop the pace of moves that would have left a number of schools searching for a new conference home.
The source said the people involved were business executives, conference commissioners, athletic directors, network executives with ties throughout college athletics, administrators at many levels throughout the NCAA membership and a "fair number of them without a dog in the hunt."
According to the source, this collection of interested and influential people made phone calls, visited in person and held conference calls with the Big 12 schools that were being pursued, including Texas, as well as Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe. The influential group also helped broker the new television deal between Texas (and the other schools considering leaving the conference) and Beebe, who represented the remaining Big 12 schools.
Which directly contradicts Magnus' assertion that ESPN was, and is, only consulted about "obvious" media value - unless you somehow believe that "network executives with ties throughout college athletics" didn't include ESPN, home of almost every postseason FBS bowl game, back in 2010.
Front and center in terms of the subject of the meeting? What a surprise - a TV deal for Texas, which ended up being the Longhorn Network. Run and distributed by ESPN. Which prevented them from going to the Pac-12. With a new Pac-12 network run and distributed by Fox.
One can only conclude that ESPN, as well as other TV executives, were consulted to keep a conference from falling apart - how else to describe it?
Trying to say that TV doesn't have the influence to keep conferences together or blow conferences apart is pretty ridiculous the more you pull all the evidence together, and you don't have to look too far to come to that conclusion.
Does ESPN "dictate terms" with realignment? Probably not - but that's not to say they don't have more influence than anyone else on the process. Just like with the ACC/Big East stuff with Pitt, Syracuse, and Villanova. Not "telling the conferences what to do" - just "influencing".
Because they, in the end, the networks control the money. Money gives you influence. There's really no way around that. That's the large, unsaid piece of the article that wasn't said, and needs to be said again and again.
Considering how conferences work to position themselves for the college football arms race, even the most naïve fans understand television is influential.
But many conference officials reject the perception that television gets special privileges out of their deals.
"You pay for rights, not for the conference," TCU athletics director Chris del Conte said.
Even though the conferences might reject that perception, the reality is different. Money gives TV special privileges and outsized influence, no matter how you'd like to spin that fact.