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Could ESPN's marginalization of college basketball push the Big Ten away?

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Recent concerns surrounding ESPN's coverage of college sports might make the idea of leaving the Worldwide Leader attractive for Big Ten teams. The first of our two-part series looking into ESPN's coverage -- and where the conference might go next season.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

During this college basketball season, viewers have criticized ESPN for how it has covered the sport.

The overexposure of coverage towards LSU forward Ben Simmons - whose team isn't all that good - has rubbed viewers the wrong way for the past few months now. Simmons is a good basketball player, and the Australian phenom has some really nice offensive post moves and can get to the bucket effortlessly. However, ESPN has covered his game without any critical lens all season, and has hyped him in such a way that he needs to be appointment viewing, despite the fact that his LSU team is 16-12 on the season and just lost by 20 to Arkansas.

For Indiana fans, this was most blatant in both of the team's games against Wisconsin, since LSU had a game immediately following the Hoosiers and Badgers on ESPN. In the first game, ESPN displayed a "Best Player in College Basketball" banner throughout the IU/Wisconsin game to advertise Simmons, whereas in the second game, ESPN spent most of the halftime show discussing Simmons, and cut to the studio to preview LSU's game during a timeout in overtime.

And this problem extends beyond Simmons. ESPN has spent most of the college hoops season talking about "Green Room Guys" whenever a game is on. The joy of college hoops is that there are multiple ways to develop and craft a team, and there's no set way to build one. Sure, Kentucky under John Calipari always has a ton of five-star recruits and projected first-rounders, but Villanova doesn't have any this year, and they're currently #1 in the country.

Yet, to focus on these Green Room Guys shows that ESPN cares most about one thing - how current college players will project into the NBA. The reason for this type of coverage seem cynical and profit-driven - after all, regular-season college basketball TV ratings are, on the whole, down this season, and while NCAA Tournament ratings remain solid, ESPN doesn't have the rights for March Madness. Therefore, why not focus on facets of the game related to the NBA, since ABC holds the rights to the Finals, and with which the station recently negotiated a 9-year, $24 billion deal? The motives aren't hard to see here. All that said, NBA Saturday Primetime ratings aren't vastly different than college ratings despite the ESPN hype machine. On Saturday night, Indiana-Purdue did a 0.5 rating among the 18-49 demo. The Warriors-Clips matchup on ABC? 0.9 among the same demographic.


The last straw for IU fans may have been last weekend, when ESPN chose the Kentucky/Texas A&M game for its College Gameday basketball coverage instead of going to Bloomington for the IU/Purdue game. While an A&M football game is on my bucket list, College Station, Texas is not necessarily known for its college hoops scene, and the Gameday crowds were lackluster.

It was also a disappointing choice since the entire week had been hyped as Rivalry Week, and Kentucky and A&M aren't exactly age-old rivals like IU and Purdue are. Many people, including ourselves, suggested that ESPN skipped over the IU/Purdue game - despite being in the 8:30pm timeslot - because they didn't want to draw attention away from their Saturday night NBA coverage on ABC, and the A&M/UK game would segue nicely into that much-hyped NBA contest.

But it's not just basketball that has driven B1G fans crazy about the conference's relationship with ESPN. College football is what helps drive athletic department revenue these days, and ESPN has come under criticism for its coverage in that sport as well. Fans have accused the Worldwide Leader of hyping one conference above all else - The SEC. This is not unwarranted, either - after all, ESPN owns the SEC Network, which has its own traveling pregame show each week in addition to ESPN's own College Gameday. But even before the advent of the SEC Network, fans of schools from the Big Ten and other conferences have complained about SEC bias from the network, and too much coverage of its star athletes, particularly Tim Tebow. And while ESPN does air the College Football Playoff on its network, the accusations of SEC bias might also stem from their NFL coverage. After all, the SEC is often also perceived as the best conference for NFL prospects, and ESPN spends almost $2 billion per year to televise Monday Night Football.

Tomorrow: With a rights deal looming, we'll look at the Big Ten's upcoming options next season and the implications for the conference.