Football Fanatics

ESPN and AT&T have us by the short hairs so we pay and pay.

Posted by John Branston on Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 10:21 AM

You're welcome, Nick Saban and Les Miles, the highest-paid football coaches in the South. Glad to help you out with that move from Wisconsin to Arkansas, Bret Bielema, and welcome to the Southeastern Conference. No need to thank me, Tommy Tuberville, now that you got that new job and fat paycheck at Cincinnati. And it was really nothing, Derek Dooley, to make a small contribution to your buyout.

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College football may be crazy and salaries for head coaches stratospheric, but we have no one to blame but ourselves. I did my part to support this All-American enterprise, because I subscribe to ESPN in my telecom package from AT&T. I get the mid-priced 270-channel television package for $79 a month, the cheapest package that includes ESPN. The "family" package would save me $20 a month and the "basic" package of local channels only, guaranteed to shame you before your friends and family, costs $26, or $53 a month less than I now pay.

The must-have channel in the $79 package is ESPN, because I'm hooked on sports although far from a fanatic. There are at least 200 channels in that 270-channel package that I never watch, and there are probably only 20 channels I watch more than once a week. But I pay for all of them, because that's the only way to get ESPN. Sorry, Giada and Guy and the rest of the stars of the Food Network, I'm just being honest here.

College football, as ESPN freely admits, is a gold mine. We watch it in real time instead of recording it and viewing it later. That means we even watch the commercials instead of fast-forwarding through them. We watch games on the West Coast and the East Coast, because they have implications for the national rankings and the bowl games and the future playoff system to determine the national championship. And for this privilege we pay.

"Because of college football's widespread popularity and the incredible passion of its fans, few events are more meaningful than these games," said ESPN president John Skipper in a recent announcement about a 12-year championship games rights deal for $470 million a year. "We are ecstatic at the opportunity to continue to crown a college football champion on ESPN's outlets for years to come, the perfect finale to our year-round commitment to the sport."

The $636 a year I pay for ESPN instead of "basic" is not chump change. It's more than the failed half-cent increase in the local sales tax would have cost me. It's more than the city property tax reduction I'm getting due to the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter and merger with Shelby County Schools. And it would buy me good seats at 10 Grizzlies games.

It has been said many times that television rules sports — that television is driving the break-up of conferences like Conference USA and the Big East and the formation of super-conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC. The University of Memphis and its struggling football program are caught in the middle of this. Television made the Big East less relevant if not irrelevant, which makes spending money on Liberty Bowl Stadium a dubious proposition and the celebration over Memphis joining the conference look silly.

It is also true, however, that sports rules television. An episode of The Good Wife or CSI loses nothing whether it is watched now or later. But a football game on tape, when you more than likely know the outcome, is another matter.

When I signed up for AT&T U-verse last year, my monthly bill for television, internet, and a telephone land line was $120. Pegging the monthly cost of bundled services is like trying to predict the weather or the stock market. A fee here, an equipment charge there, and 16 months later my bill is $158 a month and going up next year.

I have cut my phone service to the bone and settled for the less-than-optimum $49 wireless internet package. The biggest component of the bill is television, and the driver of television, as AT&T well knows, is ESPN. I expect to hit $200 a month next year.

When that happens, I hope I have the intestinal fortitude to cut the cord. It's not like there's no college football on the local stations. And I have a feeling that Nick, Les, Tommy, Bret, and the rest would be just fine without me.

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