The Hunt for Your Favorite Team’s Games

If you were a fan of the Oregon Ducks, the #2 team in the country, and you wanted to catch all your team’s games, you would have had to watch them on all of these channels:

  • South Dakota: Pac-12 Networks
  • Michigan State: Fox
  • Wyoming: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Washington State: ESPN
  • Arizona: ESPN
  • @UCLA: Fox
  • Washington: Fox Sports 1
  • California (from Levi’s Stadium): Fox Sports 1
  • Stanford: Fox
  • @Utah: ESPN
  • Colorado: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Oregon State: ABC
  • Arizona (Pac-12 Championship from Levi’s Stadium): Fox

If you were a fan of the USC Trojans, you would have spent time on all of these channels:

  • Fresno State: Fox
  • @Stanford: ABC
  • @Boston College: ESPN
  • Oregon State: ESPN
  • Arizona State: Fox
  • @Arizona: ESPN2
  • Colorado: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Utah: Fox Sports 1
  • @Washington State: Pac-12 Networks
  • California: ESPN
  • @UCLA: ABC
  • Notre Dame: Fox

If you were a fan of the #3 TCU Horned Frogs, you would have been watching these channels:

  • Samford: Fox Sports Southwest (or if not them, SportSouth, a handful of Plus feeds, or FCS Central)
  • Minnesota: Fox Sports 1
  • @SMU: CBS Sports Network
  • Oklahoma: Fox
  • @Baylor: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Oklahoma State: Fox Sports 1
  • Texas Tech: Fox
  • @West Virginia: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Kansas State: Fox
  • @Kansas: Fox Sports 1
  • @Texas: Fox Sports 1
  • Iowa State: ABC

If you were a fan of the Texas Longhorns, you would have been watching these channels:

  • North Texas: Longhorn Network
  • BYU: Fox Sports 1
  • UCLA (from JerryWorld): Fox
  • @Kansas: Fox Sports 1
  • Baylor: ABC (or ESPN3)
  • Oklahoma (from Fair Park): ABC
  • Iowa State: Longhorn Network
  • @Kansas State: ESPN
  • @Texas Tech: Fox Sports 1
  • West Virginia: Fox Sports 1
  • @Oklahoma State: Fox
  • TCU: Fox Sports 1

This isn’t limited to the Pac-12 and Big 12, two conferences whose rights are split between two different companies. The best teams tend to be plastered all over their conferences’ biggest channels, but if you were a fan of the Florida Gators, you would have been watching these channels:

  • Idaho: ESPNU
  • Eastern Michigan: SEC Network
  • Kentucky: SEC Network
  • @Alabama: CBS
  • @Tennessee: SEC Network
  • LSU: SEC Network
  • Missouri: ESPN2
  • Georgia (from Jacksonville): CBS
  • @Vanderbilt: SEC Network
  • South Carolina: SEC Network
  • Eastern Kentucky: SEC Network alternate feed
  • @Florida State: ESPN

If you were a fan of the Wisconsin Badgers you would have been watching these channels:

  • LSU (from Houston): ESPN
  • Western Illinois: BTN
  • Bowling Green: ESPN2
  • South Florida: ESPNU
  • @Northwestern: ESPN2
  • Illinois: ESPN2
  • Maryland: BTN
  • @Rutgers: ESPN
  • @Purdue: ESPNU
  • Nebraska: ABC
  • @Iowa: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Minnesota: BTN
  • Ohio State (Big Ten Championship from Indianapolis): Fox

And if you were a fan of the Miami Hurricanes you would have been watching these channels:

  • @Louisville: ESPN
  • Florida A&M: ESPN3
  • Arkansas State: ESPNU
  • @Nebraska: ESPN2
  • Duke: ESPN2
  • @Georgia Tech: ESPN2
  • Cincinnati: Fox Sports Florida (or if not them, one of a handful of other RSNs or ESPN3)
  • @Virginia Tech: ESPN
  • North Carolina: ACC Network (CBS4 in Miami (incidentially pre-empting Air Force-Army and potentially encroaching on Georgia-Florida), ESPN3 if no station in your area)
  • Florida State: ABC
  • @Virginia: ESPN2
  • Pittsburgh: ESPN2

Every one of these schools has their games spread across at least five different networks. As mentioned, the better teams in the conferences with fewer partners have it better; Oregon and TCU had exactly five networks each (as would have #1 Alabama had I included them), #4 Florida State had all but one of their games on ABC or ESPN, and #5 Ohio State had ten straight games on either ABC or BTN, but if you’re not one of those top teams following your team is an exercise in hunting down what network has your team’s game this week. And I haven’t included any teams outside the power 5 because you’re less likely to be following them on TV, but rest assured it isn’t because they don’t have to go through this; if anything they may have it worse. To follow all of Boise State’s games, you would have had to watch ESPN, ESPN2, ABC (or ESPN2), CBS Sports Network, ESPNU, and for the Mountain West Championship, CBS. Lesser Mountain West teams would likely have needed to find where their game was streaming on the “Mountain West Network” at least once; Conference USA teams, including Marshall, had to hopscotch between Fox Sports 1, CBS Sports Network, FSN, Fox College Sports, and whatever station was airing the American Sports Network game(s), with ESPN swooping in for the conference championship game, all just for conference games; the MAC and Sun Belt faced the prospect of watching most of their games on ESPN3; and all the Group of Five conferences except Conference USA faced the prospect of at least some games on ESPN3 or ESPNEWS.

I mentioned last week that the oversaturation of the cable network market is made apparent when cable networks play format musical chairs in a desperate attempt to attract an audience, but don’t think the relative health and lavishing of attention and money on the sports network market doesn’t mean it’s not immune to this problem. There is ultimately a very short list of sports and sports events that will attract substantial audiences to a network. College sports is much more decentralized than professional sports, allowing all the general-purpose sports networks (except NBCSN) to make a serious effort to grab a piece of the rights to whatever college conferences are popular enough to draw audiences. Whatever conferences’ rights they can’t get, they lure their most popular schools to play road games against schools in conferences whose rights they do have. That may be good for the chances of getting strong nonconference games (ESPN’s dominion over college football has resulted in them arranging attractive non-conference matchups for the purpose of their own ratings, but power-conference teams have also taken road trips to C-USA schools they wouldn’t otherwise visit so FS1 can have them, or to schools in conferences CBS Sports Network has the rights to), but it means fans often find themselves jumping from network to network to find the one that has their school’s game this week, lured to networks desperate for their eyeballs – before we even get to conference-owned networks or, in the case of the ACC, Big 12, and non-power five schools, the multiple platforms for games that would otherwise air on a conference network.

The relative centralization of pro sports, where each league rarely has more than one or two rights partners, means this is less of a problem there, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. The situation in the NFL, with two networks airing most of the games of each of the two conferences with some of them getting siphoned off to NBC, ESPN, and CBS/NFLN, is fairly simple, just in terms of why certain games are on certain networks based on their time slots, and in the other major sports most of your team’s games will air on their respective regional sports network, with a few occasions when you have to switch to the national partner, which is an event marking you as a good team and can be fairly easily predicted by what day it falls on. (The NHL has NBC and NBCSN; the NBA has ABC, ESPN and TNT. MLB is the least simple; it’s okay in the regular season with Fox, ESPN and Fox Sports 1, but then TBS and MLBN join in during the postseason under a scheme that doesn’t quite make sense because of baseball bungling their last contract negotiations.) In college football, only the worst, least-attractive teams can count on appearing on the conference network or other regional partner on a regular basis; for the others, not being on national television is the exception and not the rule, and unlike with the NFL, that means switching between several different partners seemingly at random with no correlation with time slot (as if it wasn’t bad enough the time slots themselves are only being determined two weeks in advance), for reasons that only make sense if you pay close attention to how the meat of the college football schedule is made, and doesn’t always make sense even then.

Could this problem get worse in the future? It depends, for example on whether or not the cable bubble starts to burst or how future contract negotiations play out with FS1, NBCSN, or CBS Sports Network becoming bigger players, or whether or not entities recognize the potential for confusion from switching back and forth between networks. But with the Big Ten set to rack in a big payday from being the last big contract up for bid for several years, I hope their fans know what they’re getting into. If ESPN and Fox share the rights, as I expect and sort of hope, this is what you have to look forward to.

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