By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — At the conclusion of the Central Arkansas Bears’ 34-14 victory over Tennessee tech, Bears special teams player Rojae Jackson wrote on a coaches’ marker board, “See y’all in Montana.”
Oddly enough, the fact that not enough people would potential be able to “see” Central Arkansas vs. Montana — and also New Hampshire at Montana State, the other Treasure State playoff game that will be contested this weekend — that caused a huge stir in Montana last week.
Some college football fans think that FCS playoffs do not inflame the same passions as the big-money bowl system. But anyone who saw pictures of Montana and Montana State fans burning ESPN signs as a form of protest ought to revise their thinking.
Once the playoff brackets were announced, both Montana State and Montana fans had plenty to cheer.
The bitter rivals both got home, second-round games in the FCS playoffs.
That joy rapidly turned to anger, however, when it was discovered that the local band of local broadcasters would not be allowed to broadcast the game live on their networks.
ESPN’s TV rights to the FCS playoffs included a guarantee to televise one game in round one, two quarterfinal playoff games, both semifinal games, and the national championship game in January in Frisco, TX.
As a part of the agreement, ESPN owned the rights to all of the other games, too, and made a decision to broadcast it on their Internet-only streaming solution, ESPN3.
For some markets, this worked fine, as some cable companies pay to offer this service to their subscribers.
But in the state of Montana, only one, tiny cable company in the corner of the state offered ESPN3 to their subscribers, meaning that the throngs of people who could not get tickets to either game would be unable to watch the game at all.
In a state where all Montana State and Montana regular-season games are broadcast for free through the air, it caused an uproar, not only with individuals but with businesses as well, who broadcast every single game, home or away of the Bobcats or Grizzlies.
“(They) told me the prices, thought I was gettin’ there and then they said, ‘Well, you’re not even in our area, you can’t buy it.’ I said, ‘Well, find a way.’ They did say, ‘We’ll look into it.’ That’s all they said,” one local bar owner, Gordie Fix said to KPAX in Missoula, Montana.
His place of business, the Press Box, had broadcast every Griz game since he can remember.
KPAX, the local station which broadcast Montana’s epic second-round game against South Dakota State last year, attempted to contact ESPN to pay for the rights to broadcast the game over the air to their loyal viewers, but ESPN wouldn’t budge.
Online petitions and a Facebook page popped up demanding that ESPN make the games available for broadcast.
Even Any Given Saturday, the preeminent national message board for the Football Championship Subdivision, got into the petition act.
In the span of a few days, 5,700 angry Cat and Griz fans signed up on Facebook, and the number ballooned to 20,000 fans almost immediately.
It even sparked a formal, public letter to be issued by Montana Senator Jon Tester (D) and Montana’s two members of the house of representatives, asking ESPN to make the games available for the citizens of their state, and linking to the Facebook page as well.
Local news media channeled Montanan anger from the common fans as well.
“If ESPN really cares about athletics and fans they will release the rights to broadcast these games,” one fan mentioned in a report from KTVQ in Montana. “Why would the NCAA sell the broadcast rights to somebody who doesn’t even plan to show the game?”
Some Cat and Griz fans even set up a bonfire, torching ESPN signs to state their disapproval.
“I’m offended by ESPN’s discrimination against Montana and I take it very personal,” Bobcat fan Fred Thomas told KXLH in Helena, “because they’re covering games today that are from the east coast and they should be more fair and equal throughout America in their coverage.”
Thomas was referring to the James Madison/Eastern Kentucky matchup on ESPNU, which was ESPN’s choice for a first-round football broadcast, and is 361 miles east of the Mississippi river.
Oddly enough, there wasn’t the same level of uproar in Conway, AK., whose playoff game against Tennessee Tech was only available on ESPN3 and had two other games broadcast over the internet in the same way this year.
It could be, as Log Cabin Democrat writer David McCollum said to Dennis Bragg of KPAX news, that it wasn’t an issue because the main cable provider in Conway provides ESPN3, and it was already available to most of the Bears fans — which wasn’t the case in nearly the entire state of Montana.
With a deadline looming and Montana fans “bombarding ESPN with calls and emails”, in KPAX News’ view, ESPN finally relented and allowed anyone who subscribes through their pay-per-view provider, ESPN Gameplan, to purchase the game to be available on TV.
It is amazing that such a no-brainer of a decision took so long to resolve.
Owners of sports bars across the country – not just in Montana — heaved a huge sign of relief with the decision.
Many local businesses already subscribe to ESPN Gameplan as a matter of course and now can guarantee the influx of business that a playoff game on a large TV will generate.
And almost immediately, everywhere from Durham, New Hampshire to Bozeman, MT., viewing parties for the local teams started to get organized.
“We even went as far as buying the XBOX 360, looking into buying the gold plan to see if we could get in it,” local Montana Buffalo Wild Wings marketing director Mike Bilanski said. “We looked at remote signing-on with other companies such as Comcast. But in the end, ESPN came through.”
This battle by the loyal fans of Montana and Montana State sent a strong message to ESPN — Don’t mess with our playoff games.
And in the end, ESPN had to let them have them — causing a win not just for Montanans, but for fans of schools across the country as well.