Sorry, Joel Klatt -- there's no spinning this as great for college football
It takes a unique talent to be Gus Johnson’s broadcast partner. Johnson’s larger than life presence behind a microphone makes it difficult for a color commentator to know when to chime in — or the proper volume with which to chime.
And at that difficult-to-acquire skill, Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt excels. He has strong knowledge of what’s happening on the field, and knows when to share it. It’s quality chemistry with Gus. And analysis I can trust.
But when it comes to analyzing what’s currently happening off the field in college football, Klatt is more off the mark than your stereotypical college kicker.
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It is incredibly hard to see right now, in particular if you're team is outside SEC or Big 10, but the long term outlook for fans is a good one…We will look back on these times as the moves that shaped a better post-season, more quality non-con games, & stronger governance
— Joel Klatt (@joelklatt) July 5, 2022
I think it is important to consider the potential CFB has as the clear #2 product in our country…Maximizing its potential hinges on the consumption from a national market rather than a regional one https://t.co/d98YJEdY48
— Joel Klatt (@joelklatt) July 5, 2022
To put it in Shakespearean terms: Sir, do not micturate upon my leg and tell me it’s raining.
The problem with “product”
“Product” is such a strangely clinical way to describe something that carries as much emotional weight as college football. As if it’s a brand of dish soap, or oatmeal.
Yes, fans are consumers in the strictest sense of the word. But they aren’t investing in the product because it tastes better. Or makes them look more handsome.
They invest because they have pride in their alma mater, or their parents’ alma mater, or their home state. Maybe it’s because they like the uniforms, or seeing a live dang buffalo running onto the field. But all of these things happen because something is stirred inside you.
Ohio State doesn’t X-out the letter “M” from every sign on campus the week of the Michigan game for consumerist reasons. The Buckeyes do it because they hate the University of ichigan. Miller Lite drinkers don’t go around to bars smashing kegs of Bud Light, because no one is that emotionally invested in “product.”
Only sports can elicit those emotions, and only familiarity can rile up the proper amount of contempt.
Texas and Texas A&M fans still hate each other’s teams. So do Missouri and Kansas fans. Or West Virginia and Pitt fans. None of those rivals have played in a decade, but the century that preceded it makes those matchups more important than any those teams currently play.
With the exception of Texas, which is regaining traditional matchups with A&M and Arkansas, this latest consolidation will continue to cost us more of those rivalries.
From a Big Ten perspective, consider the following thought exercise.
If the conference is divided into 2 8-team divisions, Purdue will likely move to the East to make room for USC and UCLA in the West. In that arrangement, Illinois would play the Bruins and Trojans — each 2,000 miles away — every season. The Illini might play the Boilermakers — 91 miles away — once every 4 seasons.
How does making it more difficult for fans to road trip to a visiting stadium make for an improved “product?”
The presence of a visitors’ section is 1 of the many positive differentiations college football has from the NFL. It results in a better in-game experience. Hearing a tiny hive of Troy fans go crazy in the corner of an otherwise silenced Tiger Stadium is a sound unique to college football.
The problem with Klatt and those currently making the decisions is that they are all ignoring the people who actually pay to experience those moments in person. All of these moves are happening in an attempt to court a larger television viewing audience to hawk other “products” to during possession changes.
It’s not about football. And it most certainly isn’t about any smaller college sport.
It may be profitable. But it’s also messed up. Alienating the people who already love your “product” in an attempt to woo those who haven’t already invested is a bizarre gambit. It’s like when a phone company offers you a free phone if you switch providers, but ignores you when you’ve been a loyal customer for years.
I’m a customer who helped make you rich. Why are you offering all the benefits to newbies?
Somehow, Klatt is not alone
It’s easy enough to understand why Klatt would be excited about college football’s consolidation into superconferences that will earn upwards of $1 billion in media rights. He’s on the No. 1 announcing team for one of those networks. And if you’re investing that much money to broadcast the games, you’re going to invest in the talent calling those games.
Al Michaels recently signed a 5-year, $75 million contract to call Thursday Night Football games on Amazon Prime. Troy Aikman will make even more as the new Monday Night Football color man — $90 million in 5 years. Tony Romo makes the same amount at CBS.
So of course this is exciting to Klatt. And I’m not hating the player, just the game. He’ll deserve whatever bag he gets when the dust settles on the B1G’s new media rights deal. He’s got skill.
What’s stranger to me is the cheerleading from anyone who won’t cash in from conference consolidation.
Sporting News’ Bill Bender, who like Klatt does his job very well, makes an argument that the streamlining will serve the sport better. And on a few points he is correct. Fewer conferences will result in a less disorganized sport, for instance. After all, this mess was created by college football’s lack of leadership.
Like Klatt, Bender touts the likelihood of football’s powers breaking away from the NCAA. This could certainly be a good thing. But I’d caution that the devil you know is often better than the devil you don’t.
Every party in this mess is acting out of self interest. Do we really think they can create a structure benefitting the common good? We couldn’t even get an “Alliance” to last a year without someone getting stabbed in the back.
Even if Bender is proven right in those regards, he downplays the biggest drawback in all this consolidation. He writes:
The biggest downside of the super conference model is the charm that will be ripped out of those places where college football became special in that generation. West Virginia, Texas Tech and Washington State are among the handful of schools who have had long-standing traditions. Utah and TCU have climbed up the ranks through BCS era success. Even schools such as UCF and Cincinnati have used CFP era success to make the jump to the Big 12.
Are these the schools that get left out? This is the price of admission for super conference football.
That’s like describing the iceberg as the Titanic’s “biggest downside.” The existence of such programs is essential to the game’s appeal.
Very few programs can actually compete for a national championship. That’s always been the case, and always will. But every team is capable of being the reason a contender doesn’t win a title.
No Pitt fan will ever forget the number the 5-7 Panthers did on West Virginia in the 2007 season finale. (Literally, just ask them the score.)
The 2018 Purdue Boilermakers were not a good team. A 6-6 regular season topped off with a 49-point loss to Auburn in the Music City Bowl. But those modest Boilers prevented Urban Meyer from winning another national title with a 49-20 de-pantsing of Ohio State. Jeff Brohm’s game plan belongs in the Smithsonian.
For each of these monumental upsets that hits, there are dozens more memorable near-misses. Oklahoma needing overtime to beat Army in a 2018 game that could only be viewed via bootlegged stream. Notre Dame needing a desperation rally to beat Toledo last season. Nebraska needing a 58-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left to beat McNeese State in 2014. And on, and on, and on.
That’s how it works nearly every season.
And that is the strength of the product. Outside of streakers, nobody rushes the field at an NFL game. There isn’t a David-vs.-Goliath matchup capable of producing that reaction. Unless, perhaps, the Detroit Lions ever win a playoff game. But you get the idea.
The notion that there’s some large, untapped audience craving to see less of that feels like the work of network executives who have very little idea how to read the room. These aren’t sports fans. They’re the types of people who greenlit a sitcom about the GEICO cavemen.
If people want to embrace that future, more power to them. But I don’t know what they’re watching.