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OSU football: ESPN apologizes for broadcast fiasco

The fiasco on the ESPN Plus broadcast of the Oklahoma State-Kansas State football game continues to reverberate. I wrote about the broadcast for the Thursday Oklahoman, a column which you can read here.

ESPN issued an apology for the problems, which was a class thing to do: “During Saturday’s Kansas State at Oklahoma State game, our production encountered issues that affected the viewing experience of our fans during brief portions of the game. We apologize for the problems. The issues were offsite routing and transmission issues, as well as lightning in the Stillwater area, and were not related to our Big 12 Now on ESPN+ platform. We are working to ensure these isolated issues do not happen again.”

That doesn’t change what happened Saturday night, but who cares? What really matters is if it changes things going forward. The idea is gone that a game streamed on ESPN would have the same broadcast quality as a televised game. No one in this part of the country believes that, and it will take ESPN a long time to prove otherwise.

The Big 12 Now contract between ESPN and the conference stipulated that for the minor sports, the schools would produce the broadcast, but for football and basketball, ESPN would provide the production at television-quality.

That didn’t happen. A Big 12 source said that ESPN didn’t seem to have nearly as much personnel at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday night as typical for a televised game. So it’s quite possible that ESPN cut corners and it backfired.

Here are some other things I’ve culled from a couple of days of reporting on the Big 12 Now on ESPN Plus:

* Eight Kansas basketball games will be televised on ESPN Plus. Can you imagine the trepidation going through Jayhawk Nation today, after reading all about OSU-KSU football?

There are three national brands in the Big 12: OU football, Texas football, Kansas basketball. Everything else can be discussed rationally, but you go messing with the Sooners or Longhorns on the gridiron, or the Jayhawks on the hardwood, and nobody’s job is safe.

ESPN has the contractual right to put OU or Texas on ESPN Plus – ESPN owns certain Sooner and Longhorn games and can do what it wants with them – but it’s quite unlikely that OU or UT is headed for streaming anytime soon. The outrage from those fan bases would be massive, and besides, their branding brings the television ratings that ESPN covets.

That means games like OSU-KSU and Kansas-West Virginia are the guinea pigs for the new platform.

But basketball is different. It’s not as high-profile as football, and there are more games, and KU hoops figure to bring a ton of new customers to ESPN Plus. I would recommend placing the best possible production personnel in Allen Fieldhouse for Kansas games this coming season, else the tempest be raging.

* Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he’s been assured that ESPN Plus’s football broadcasts are finished for this season. But man, what a contractual oversight, giving ESPN the wiggle room to move games from cable to streaming on the internet. As another Big 12 source told me, that really hurts the Big 12 brand, especially when it’s a high-profile game like OSU-KSU, which was one of the three best matchups of the week in terms of rankings.

* We’ve been down this road before. This is only slightly different from when games migrated to cable television. Not everyone had cable in the early 1980s, when games started popping up on networks other than over-air stations.

Heck, when ESPN started placing games on ESPN2, it was a major scandal. ESPN moved Duke-North Carolina basketball to ESPN2, which had been viewed as mostly an extreme sports channel. And ESPN2 was not a staple of all cable packages. But Duke-UNC sort of legitimized ESPN2, and now we don’t even think about the difference.

Maybe Big 12 Now will help legitimize ESPN Plus, particularly with the older generations.

* Speaking of us old codgers, if you want to remain a hard-core Big 12 fan, you’ve got to jump on board.

OU has three men’s basketball games on ESPN Plus this coming season. OSU has 10. Kansas State has 13. Welcome to the future.

* This seems like a good time to repeat the good side of ESPN Plus. Teams get to set their kickoff times. OSU-KSU might have been an 11 a.m. game, had it been on ESPN or ESPN2. And mid-week basketball games can start at 7 p.m., instead of the too-early 6 p.m. or the too-late 8 p.m.

* Part of the problem with ESPN Plus is that it was marketed as a place for third-tier programming – one football game a year, non-conference basketball, minor sports. That’s clearly not the case.

It’s a good lesson for us all. Read the fine print.

* Bottom line, from Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor, who told the Kansas City Star that “if this is our platform and they want people to buy it, and they want to drive our fans to it, it has got to get better.”

* A week earlier, ESPN Plus broadcast West Virginia-Kansas, without most of the problems that arose in Stillwater.

I talked to West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, and he had a more moderate view of ESPN Plus.

“There was mixed emotions about it,” Lyons said. “Obviously, being in a state of 1.8 million, about 80 percent of them do have access to broadband, gets enough band width to be able to stream without it buffering and all that. We have some remote areas that don’t have access to that band width or don’t have any at all.

“So I think I heard from a lot of them of the concerns of not being able to get the game and stream it. Obviously they have cable or Dish or DirecTV, but not the streaming capabilities.”

Lyons estimated that 1.4 million West Virginians have access to broadband, and he figures that number is way up from five years ago.

“What we envisioned as a conference … is it something in the future?” Lyons asked. “We knew there was going to be a little bit of heartache in the early days of this transition. It was going to create concerns among the fan bases among the Big 12 schools. Especially in states like West Virginia.  And I do think some of the cities in Oklahoma as well as Kansas are remote as well. I think it’s part of the growing pains.”

Lyons acknowledged that the schools were somewhat blindsided when they discovered a couple of conference games would be switched to ESPN Plus.

“I was alerted by the conference office a week or so prior that this could be a possibility and kind of made me raise an eyebrow a little bit,” Lyons said. “I wasn’t sure how that was all going on. It was a little bit of a surprise.”

Lyons said from what he was able to see on his phone and what he’s heard from fans, the WVU-KU production “ran smooth. The announcers seemed to go pretty well. The one thing that was missing, that we alerted them to, and I think it was just the oversight, was the first down marker was not there, so my fan base let me know. But all in all, and I had people back here in Morgantown that were streaming, they felt it was along the same production lines as the ESPNU broadcast. It’s not the ESPN or ESPN2 talent that’s doing it, but they felt the production as well as the announcers and everything else was not an issue.

“Our biggest concern coming out, obviously I knew there would be concerns among some of our fan base throughout the state. It’s a learning curve, and obviously, your younger generation didn’t have a problem with it. People my age and above that don’t understand streaming and how to get it, and those that don’t have access to it. That caused probably the most consternation.”

Lyons pointed out a problem area – ESPN has yet to establish a process for bars and restaurants to carry the game, unless they do it illegally.

* Bowlsby said the Big 12’s alliance with ESPN Plus is a chance to get in early on the newest platform. “Cable’s not going away,” Bowlsby said. “Broadcast TV didn’t go away. Radio didn’t go away. But linear cable subscriptions are declining. Every product that’s on linear cable, their viewership and subscription is going down.

“It’s not going away anytime soon. But the fact is, mobile consumption is going up very dramatically. There are some non-traditional suitors for live sports rights. I think we’re on the right side of technology. I believe that with all our heart.

“Our content is the highest-quality content that is on ESPN Plus. We’re investing with a partner to try to make something special.”

Related Photos
Kansas State's Skylar Thompson (10) escapes the tackle of Oklahoma State's Mike Scott (91) during the college football game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Kansas State Wildcats at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.  OSU won 26-13. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

Kansas State's Skylar Thompson (10) escapes the tackle of Oklahoma State's Mike Scott (91) during the college football game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Kansas State Wildcats at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. OSU won 26-13. [Sarah Phipps/The...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e199a29f8ee0834313ead203cf7765e9.jpg" alt="Photo - Kansas State's Skylar Thompson (10) escapes the tackle of Oklahoma State's Mike Scott (91) during the college football game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Kansas State Wildcats at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. OSU won 26-13. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]" title="Kansas State's Skylar Thompson (10) escapes the tackle of Oklahoma State's Mike Scott (91) during the college football game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Kansas State Wildcats at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. OSU won 26-13. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]"><figcaption>Kansas State's Skylar Thompson (10) escapes the tackle of Oklahoma State's Mike Scott (91) during the college football game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Kansas State Wildcats at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. OSU won 26-13. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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