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Manziel Story Puts ESPN-SEC Marriage To The Test

question-mark-tv-cameraAcross the US of A, there isn’t a single college fanbase that doesn’t wholeheartedly believe that ESPN is out to get their favorite school’s sports teams.  That view is most-certainly shared by fans of SEC squads.  From Cam Newton to Bruce Pearl, key Southeastern Conference figures have had NCAA investigations into their alleged misdeeds covered, covered, and re-covered by the four-letter network.

Ah, but outside of Dixie, there’s another belief that’s sprouted up in recent years.  To many fans of schools not belonging to the SEC, Mike Slive’s league gets extra love from the folks in Bristol because of the monster contract ESPN signed with the SEC in 2008.  Those who don’t wish to believe in the SEC’s strength ignore such pesky data as BCS championships, bowl wins and NFL draft picks.  They instead point to an ESPN-led plot to prop up and promote the programs in Slive’s league.

With another partnership in the form of the SEC Network on the way, there will be even more grousing about ESPN acting as the conference’s marketing arm.  Sadly, yesterday’s story concerning an NCAA investigation into Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel won’t convince those all those anti-SEC’ers otherwise.  They will just ignore the fact that ESPN broke the story because it doesn’t fit their theory.

SEC fans — especially those living in the Lone Star State — will not.

Welcome to the dangerous and silly world of conspiracy theorizing.  Many Big Ten and Big XII fans believe ESPN is out to aid the SEC because they are business partners (even though ESPN is business partners with just about every other league, too).  Some A&M fans believe ESPN is out to hurt the Aggies because the network has a partnership with rival Texas (it’s called the Longhorn Network, though few can actually see it).  And SEC fans in general believe ESPN is hunting SEC big game because, well… just because.

In reality, it appears that ESPN’s news division — at least when it comes to college athletics — is willing to report on any school that’s in the NCAA’s crosshairs.  That’s exactly what happened yesterday in Manziel’s case.

While some are claiming that ESPN has crossed a sort of line by bringing up Manziel’s latest controversy so close to the season, the network is actually just breaking the news that the quarterback is being investigated by the NCAA.  What’s controversial about that?  If it’s true — and it’s hard to imagine ESPN would miss on something so easily confirmed — the network is simply stating a fact: The NCAA is investigating Manziel.  Period.

The network’s sources also revealed that the investigation is tied to signed memorabilia.  Perhaps that’s incorrect, but the network included a score of details on who’s running the investigation, who they’ve talked to and when they did their talking.  Again, it’s hard to believe ESPN would be too far from the facts considering they had so many to share.

The network isn’t digging up dirt on Manziel.  ESPN is reporting that the NCAA has dug up some dirt on Manziel.  Whether the NCAA can prove the presence of said dirt will determine whether or not Manziel and Texas A&M — and all the fans who’ve loyally defended Manziel — suffer any consequences this fall.

All that said, this issue does raise a pretty big question about the soon-to-come SEC Network.  While the channel won’t launch until next August, how would it have handled this Manziel story if it had been kickstarted last week?

SEC and ESPN officials have suggested that the new channel will, for the most part, promote the conference, its brand, and its teams.  Obviously, this Manziel/autograph story wouldn’t fall neatly into the network’s mission statement.

This type of incident will be an issue moving forward.  ESPN will not stop covering SEC-based news stories whether they are positive or negative.  (A good friend once told me there is no positive or negative in real news coverage because “the truth has no polarity.”)  So how much of ESPN’s coverage of stories that don’t make SEC officials happy will find its way onto the SEC Network?  Will the SEC’s channel ignore scandals just as the Big Ten Network attempted to do during the Penn State/Joe Paterno mess?

Hopefully, there are some folks in Bristol, Connecticut and Birmingham, Alabama hashing out a few of these issues today.  This latest Manziel episode gives both parties a perfect “what if” training scenario.



"ESPN is business partners with about every other league" is a fair comment. However, the level of partnership varies greatly. The ACC was near to becoming the next Big East, but, by selling their soul to ESPN as their exclusive partner, they are now perceived as one of the big five conferences. Their upper tier teams are mentioned in the discussion about national championships. Notre Dame is attracted to kind-of join the league. THAT is the power of ESPN in college sports.

The ESPN news side does modify their coverage to reflect their programming. Compare the coverage of hockey and soccer. There is a reason hockey gets very little coverage. No ESPN contract. And there is a reason that the Pac 12 and The Big 10 have added ESPN programming. More and better news coverage. The NBA deal with ABC/ESPN has helped change the league from being a second or third tier pro league to arguably being only behind the NFL, filling the down time between football seasons. The SEC was very smart to partner with ESPN on a near exclusive basis. It won't keep stories like this off the ESPN news side, but the spin will almost always be favorable to the SEC and their members, where possible.


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