Alabama-Georgia: ESPN’s white elephant?

At a time when the NFL’s popularity is on the decline, college football’s is on the rise.

Back in October, Gallup conducted a follow up to its 2012 poll, asking Americans which sports they were a fan of.

The poll found support for professional football sank 10 points from a high of 67% in 2012, to 57% in 2017. In contrast, support for college football rose two points from 54% to 56% over the same time span.

Those numbers should come as welcome news to folks over at the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” Instead, storm clouds are on the horizon, and tonight, there’s a good chance they pour.

After last summer’s infamous purge, when over 100 journalists, staffers and on-air talent, including Trent Dilfer, Ed Werder and Danny Kanell were let go in order to cut the bottom line, ESPN hoped to reshape the company into a modern sports media powerhouse, built around how viewers consumed their content.

Contributing to ESPN’s financial woes are burdensome contracts the network signed with the NFL and NCAA which cost the network billions of dollars while producing meager results.

Monday Night Football has flopped in recent years, with lackluster matchups and a revolving door of forgettable play-by-play and color commentators trying to replicate Al Michaels and John Madden.

Any given Saturday, ESPN has to compete with CBS, the Pac-12 Network, Big Ten Network, Longhorn Network and a bevy of FOX entities (FOX, FS1, FS2) for college football ratings.

And so, when Alabama put the nail in the coffin on Clemson’s season in a much-hyped Sugar Bowl letdown on New Year’s Day, honchos at ESPN likely emulated Charlie Brown and let out a, “good grief!”

Why?

Because an all-SEC college football championship has happened before.

It bombed.

In January 2012, Alabama took on LSU in a rematch of “The Game of the Century” that LSU won two months prior, 9-6.

Nielsen ratings showed Alabama-LSU II, a 21-0 blowout by the Crimson Tide, was at the time, the third-worst rated title game in history.

And that game is eerily similar to tonight’s matchup between Alabama and Georgia.

2012: LSU came in as the higher ranked team and had home field advantage (the game was played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans) against Alabama.

2017: Georgia comes into the game ranked No. 2 in the country (Bama is No. 4), and the game is being played in Georgia’s backyard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Even though the game will feature, “the two best teams in the country,” vying for a national title, Alabama-Georgia comes with a lot of baggage for ESPN.

1.) Outside of SEC country, people hate the SEC.

Call it the Tom Brady effect. Outside of New England, Tom Brady is largely loathed by football fans. They see him as arrogant and pompous, the pretty-boy who’s married to a supermodel and always wins.

The same goes for the SEC. Since 2000, the SEC has nine national titles*

They’re the pretty-boy that’s always selected to the College Football Playoff, and more likely than not, the team that wins.

2.) Even in SEC country, people will have a hard time with this matchup.

In North Florida, home to the University of Florida in Gainesville, people are celebrating the Central Florida Knights as the national champions. That isn’t saying every Gators fan would agree that a team that wasn’t selected for the CFP is a national champion, but good luck getting them to say hated rivals Georgia or Alabama are either.

Across the rest of the SEC states, how do you choose who to root for?

Auburn fans most definitely will not cheer for Alabama.

But will fans of teams in the SEC West cheer for Georgia, and fans in the SEC East cheering for Bama?

Or will they, like a great deal of Americans, give up, and watch The Bachelor instead?

3.) Why is the national championship game featuring two teams from the same conference?

A lot of people have a hard time fathoming how Alabama, a one-loss team that didn’t win its division or conference, was selected for the CFP over a one-loss division champion, but conference loser, like Wisconsin, or two-loss division and conference champion, like Ohio State or Southern Cal.

It’s still bugging people a week after the Sugar Bowl, with ESPN’s Facebook page getting comments along the lines of, “Bama doesn’t deserve to be in the championship.”

ESPN currently owns the television rights to the College Football Playoff and Final through 2025.

So they’re wedded to this thing whether it succeeds or fails.

But at a reported $470 million annual price tag, having a game like Alabama-Georgia flop, is something the network can ill afford.

If the game draws viewers, like Clemson-Alabama II, then it’s a hit and everyone’s whining was for naught.

If it bombs, like LSU-Alabama II, then ESPN will lobby the playoff committee hard to eliminate the possibility of an all-SEC CFP Final ever again.

* LSU and Southern Cal are considered co-champions of the 2003 college football season according to official NCAA records.

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