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ESPN's Super Bowl comes early with BCS

Cam Newton got the star treatment and lived up to the billing.
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Brian Lowry

A media columnist and critic for Variety since 2003, Brian Lowry spent seven years at the L.A. Times and has contributed to both NPR and TV Guide Network. He writes weekly for FOX Sports. A UCLA alum, Lowry proudly attended the '95 title game. MORE>>
 
   
 

The Super Bowl came early for ESPN in the form of the BCS Championship Game. Auburn and Oregon responded with a game worthy of the showcase, amid the kind of blanket coverage (hey, simple overkill is for sissies) we’ve come to expect from those world-devouring four letters.

“Settle in. Put another log on the fire up in Eugene,” play-by-play guy Brent Musburger oozed during the pregame, apparently thinking Oregon fans were watching the game back in the 19th century. “We got a good one coming.”

Musburger was so excited, he experienced a premature exclamation, yelling, “Touchdown!” on an Oregon pass in which the receiver was tripped up short of the goal. Hate it when that happens.

Fortunately, the game, for once, lived up to the hype. Auburn and Oregon exchanged turnovers instead of touchdowns in a scoreless first quarter, then began trading scores in the second, playing at the frenzied pace the Ducks have used to torture instant-replay technicians all season long.

Recommended viewing

 

Speaking of ESPN, there’s a dead-on spoof of “SportsCenter” on Comedy Central, “Onion SportsDome,” courtesy of the twisted minds behind The Onion. The show, which premiers Jan. 11, will regularly air Tuesdays prior to “The Daily Show.”

 

Driven by fearless coaching, the game featured a fake extra point for a 2-point conversation, a safety, a fake punt, a goal-line stand, a tying 2-point conversion, two major reviewed calls in the closing two minutes and a winning field goal with no time left. Say what you want about their flashy Nike-sponsored attire, but as a TV attraction — even in defeat, in which their vaunted offense produced just 19 points — the Ducks are ready for prime time.

The same couldn’t be said quite so consistently for ESPN’s coverage, though a game like this — tough, exciting, with big plays all over the place — is hard to screw up. Moreover, despite some miscues, commentator Kirk Herbstreit zeroed in early on the game’s ultimate key, noting that for all Oregon’s speed and pyrotechnics, they were “losing the battle up front.”

In the bigger picture, ESPN’s claim to the BCS beginning this year continues the steady exodus of marquee events from traditional broadcasting — what we once called “free TV” — to subscription-requiring cable. As a practical matter, that means roughly 10 million U.S. households (about 10 percent of those with TV) were denied the game — and indeed, the lion’s share of this year’s bowls – in their living rooms.

 

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Of course, ESPN’s press releases crowing about the solid ratings for the various BCS games ignored a crucial point: Every one of them before Monday’s title game — the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange — declined compared with 2010, when FOX still controlled the rights. Overall, viewership is down 14 percent year to year, according to Nielsen data, even though NFL ratings have been soaring. (Don’t be surprised if this game reverses that trend, and, needless to say, while I’m drawing a check for this column from FOX Sports, that doesn’t mean I shill for them.)

Unlike the broadcast networks, sports is where ESPN lives full time, and the coverage reflected it. The channel devoted the equivalent of its own football team — 11 announcers, including sideline and studio analysts — to cover the game from every conceivable angle.

As for Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, ESPN handled this season’s “controversy” regarding questions about his eligibility — because of alleged payments demanded by his father — much the way it did during the Heisman Trophy presentation: a perfunctory explanation during the first half, and now let’s get back to marveling at his ability to deal with adversity and scramble for first downs.

Finally, one note about the halftime festivities: While “support the troops” is an easy applause line, a Tostitos-orchestrated reunion of military families crossed the line from celebrating the troops’ service to exploiting it for promotional purposes. ESPN host Chris Fowler then compounded the error, glibly comparing those charged with defending the United States to Auburn stuffing Oregon for a safety.

Despite its status as the most influential entity in the nexus of sports and media, ESPN thus far has been denied the opportunity to televise the Super Bowl, with the NFL preferring to maintain tradition with TV’s preeminent event because of the wider reach broadcasting offers.

In lieu of that, what ESPN got Monday — a college game for the ages — will have to do.

Tagged: Auburn

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