Today is the day so many fans around the Big Sky Conference have been waiting for. The Big Sky announced it will be joining the ESPN family. Time to rejoice! There have been two things most Big Sky fans seem to @ the Conference office about the most, dropping teams and streaming/broadcast. You can check one of those off your list. Got to ask ourselves is ESPN really what we wanted? 

I know, people just spit out their coffee to yell, “Of course we do, you (insert swear word here).” Well, I’m just going to lay out why I for one am very “eh” on the whole ESPN thing. I feel it is a horizontal move being sold to us as a vertical move. Let me explain. 

First I don’t blame the conference office at all for the move. I am on record saying I think the Big Sky is one of the best ran division one conferences. When you get tweets and emails daily about dropping PlutoTV and Root Sports and moving to ESPN, you find the path of least resistance to be appealing to the mob. After all it is what the people think they want, so the move for conference leadership is a win. They look like heros. I totally understand the move and there are some incredible things they negotiated. Like two football games on ESPNU and one hoops game a year. Something not many conference at our level, with our budget can pull off, and the Big Sky was able to. Cemeting itself again as one of the best ran conferences. But lets be honest, 99% of your relationship with this deal will be spent on the ESPN+ system.

The things most people dislike about the Big Sky’s current TV/streaming arrangement is access to Root Sports and quality of PlutoTV streams. I think there is a common misconception that somehow ESPN has a magic wand and all the quality issues are going to be fixed. Idaho State is going to have better camera angles, UC Davis is going to give the JAMM students the boot and bring in professional crew from the bay area and Northern Colorado is going to buy twelve 4k cameras to watch Dylan McCaffery high fiving dad. None of this is going to happen. 

Just like on PlutoTV, the broadcast standards are set by the conference and the individual institutions are in charge of putting on the broadcast. People may hate the Root Sports games because they are hard to get without DirecTV. But, it is no secret the production quality is A+. Why? Because it is a professional crew out of Bellevue,WA. That when they aren’t covering the Big Sky they are covering the Seattle Mariners of Major League Baseball, and before ESPN ruined college football were the broadcasters of Pac 12 games for Washington and Washington State.

A similar situation takes place at Montana, Montana State, Idaho and Eastern Washington.These schools all have SWX help put on their broadcasts. SWX is a regional digital sub channel network that focuses specifically on sports broadcasts. When SWX isn’t in charge of the production and the actual institutions are, it is noticeable. Just like when KJZZ cover Weber State. They are professionals crews, not employed by the individual insituions. So the quality is that of a proper broadcast, because it is a proper broadcast. Not a stream. It should be noted that Dennis Patchin of SWX was on our podcast and did say he is not a fan of PlutoTV, maybe we will have him on again to discuss in more detail now

ESPN +/3 does not have stricter standards than what we just had on PlutoTV. If you read ESPN’s School productions broadcast manual you can actually see what the bare minimum is.

ESPN MINIMUM EQUIPMENT SPECS
The following equipment is the minimum needed for an ESPN3 Network production.
Cameras
 2 hand held camera
 2 hard camera
Lens
 3 – (14 x 4.3)
 1 – (40x)

  • All “tight” lenses must be of no less than 40x and must include extender feature. (If less than
    40x production must have special approval from ESPN3)
  • All cameras must be 720p or 1080i / 59.4 frames per second
    Replay system (Digital server based)
     Minimum 4 input / 2 output
    Video Switcher (minimums)
     10 inputs
     2 keyers
     1 ME
     8 auxiliary buses for isos, monitors and transmission
  • All switchers must be 720p or 1080i / 59.4 frames per second (minimums)
  • Optional router depending on production needs
    Audio Consoles
     24 inputs
     8 sub mixers
     2 output
  • Additional audio to complement production – camera microphones, crowd microphones
    Video
     All ESPN3 Network telecasts must have video operator on site to handle video needs of
    production. No cameras can be put into auto-iris function at any time.
    Graphics
     All ESPN3 Network productions must have a graphics system capable of supporting the ESPN
    Network graphics package. Most reasonable option: Ross Xpression.

Now does any of this really sound different then the current Southern Utah broadcast? Other than the fancy ESPN graphics that must be used? NO. Because the conferences set the standard of what their member institutions must meet in production quality. This is not going to be like when Idaho was in the Sun Belt. This is going to be the same broadcast just presented to you in an ESPN package.

Go watch our peer conferences around the FCS. St.Francis does not have even C- quality broadcast, nor does Dayton. Heck ask Bobcat fans in 2018 who couldn get stable broadcast from Western Illinois game on ESPN+. It was so bad many resorted to bootlegged Instagram live feeds from fans in attendance. Wetsern Illinois is a member of the Missouri Valley, one of, if not the biggest conference at this level. Small budgets, means small production. ESPN is not the savior, the people that think it is, are going t dissapointed really quick when watching Sac State v San Digeo and the camera is pointed at the sky and you get a paintball highlight from 2007 after a touchdown, but were expecting the same quality of Tulsa v North Texas.

I know I just came across as a debbie downer and that ESPN is evil and PlutoTV is a blessing. PlutoTV was not perfect and ESPN provides a very accessible product to wide audience. I am just trying to temper some peoples expectations. We are not going to have MAC quality broadcasts over night. Why? Because they have multi-million dollar TV deals. Not just the rights to stream their content on ESPN the Ocho.

The Mid-America Conference is set to make 24 million in 2021 from TV Deal with ESPN/ABC. The Big Sky I imagine is going to make next to $0. Why were Idaho’s broadcast so much better in the WAC and Sun Belt? The Money we had to put into production to meet conference broadcast requirements. It was easier in 2017 to put on a better broadcast because Idaho was receiving around $475,000 to $500,000 to put on the productions.

Let us also not forget the lack of interest ESPN has showed in our product of football. Outisde of the FCS playoffs (which they are contractually obligated to televise), they televised less than five games this past spring. When Americas most popular sport was competing with Cornhole, Bowling and World Series of Poker coverage on their six channels, and the FCS brand of football lost. Despite having the rights to 65 of the 84 teams participating this past spring.

Meanwhile what did PlutoTV do for us this spring? They became in essence the hub for FCS coverage. They were the host of all the FCS All-In episodes this spring. Which was an almost bi-weekly check-in from every conference about the season, or a peak into some history in every conference. This seemed to be well received on the twitter verse and FCS Fans Nations’ (the fan hub for FCS) Facebook page. Noteworthy is fact this was all free. It was not behind a paywall.

Now while ESPN+ is techincally behind a paywall, it is 2021. Most peoples cats have subscriptions to ESPN+ or the Disney bundle. I just think PlutoTV was a ready and willing partner to the FCS and specifaclly the Big Sky Conference. But do to a spell of misinformtion about how the broadcasts actually work, took the blunt of the twitter hate for any productions flaws. I was one of them, I wrote a slighlty beer fueled tweet in 2019 during the Idaho vs Central Washington game. Being so furious my feed kept cutting out and i was unable to watch a healthy chunk of the game. I took to twitter at-ing the Big Sky Conference, PlutoTV and even Deputy Commisioner Dan Satter. Claiming this stuff never happened when Idaho was in the Sun Belt and we were on ESPN platform. I was so mad I started to research the issue to write a blog bagging on PlutoTV, Big Sky and FCS as a whole. Turns out I was wrong. It was not PlutoTV or the FCS fault, it would be the same on any platform. The problem was Idaho and in larger degree the Big Sky for not requiring a better product. Thats why it worked for Idaho at Sun Belt and not the Big Sky.

But what is the conference to do? Yes they could require better production standards. That is the obvious answer. But how do you tell a program like Eastern Washington, that is in debates whether to field a football team at all over budget issues, to invest in production quality? Or Schools like Northern Colorado that are trying to just get their facilities to a competetive level in FCS. Individual schools are going to focus on improving product on field and in person expirence before they improve at home expirence. Northern Colorado doesnt make any money from you sitting on your couch and watching the game on ESPN+, so they need to invest in gameday experience. They need fans on campus spending money in the bookstore, at the ticket booth, concessions stands etc. To put it polietly they dont care about the Bobcat fan that is pissy the stream sucks to watch, that makes them 0 dollars. If anything it works in their favor as it entices you to attend the game in person next time. Again, making them money!

ESPN+ does have its benefits. Most sports bars have ESPN+ these days. Making it easier to explain to a bartender in Pocatello, ID how to put on the UC Davis v Weber State game. Rather then saying “you need to download this free app called PlutoTV, and dont worry after the game is over you can use it to watch James Bond or MTV dating shows on repeat.” The ESPN platform puts us in front of many more eyeballs. This is a true statement, we will have way more eyeballs scrolling past our games on their way to find the Wisconsin v Nebraska game. We need to be honest about what our product is and what it isnt. It is a niche viewing expierence. The average breakdown of people watching the Causeway Classi is probably 90% fans of Sac State and UC Davis, 6% other Big Sky fans, 1% FCS Fans, 2% Sacramento area people <1% of random ESPN scrollers. The overwhelming majority of people watching our games will be watching them regardless of the platform they are on. The difference now is we traded in a platform in Pluto that seemed to care about the product, to ESPN which lets just say shows a lack of detail to FCS schools. FCS games on ESPN+ are notoriously mispelled or have the wrong logos or colors. Which at end of the day who cares. But maybe we should?

More voices are becoming louder about making the FCS brand stronger and more respected. While ESPN on the surface does that, it also slaps us in the face more times then not. And while having two games on ESPNU is a huge win, as no other FCS confernce outside of the SWAC has anything like that. We all know it going to be Brawl of the Wild and a flex game. If you are not a Griz or Bobcat youare still not going to be on TV. All it means is the bigger schools will continue to have local broadcast entities like SWX and KJZZ broadcasting the schools with the big budget. Allowing them to not have to invest in production themselves. While the NAU (who has been rarely mentioned because they actually do a fantastic job on NAUTV), SUU, Cal Poly and Idaho State will still have to pay money out of pocket to put on games and increase production quality.

I liked PlutoTV for being unorthodix and the Big Sky seemignly trying to be on cutting edge of whats next for broadcasting. The same things being said about PlutoTV and being an obscure app were said back in 2010 when I used to have to go the SUB on Saturday at 11am to watch Idaho v Virginia on ESPN3 because being on AirVandalGold wifi was only way to get ESPN3. I would have loved to see ESPN be the backbone for all our sports, but have found a way to standout from the crowd for football. The MLS and Concacaf soccer have expiremented with having games live on Twitter, Amazon has been looking to add a sports catalog to Amazon Prime Video and YoutubeTV has created MLS team specific channels in the past if you lived in the area and were available on ESPN+ if not. I would have loved to see the Big Sky make an advancement for the sport and not just become another coat in the coffers of ESPN. The conference slogan is “Expirence Elavated”… this is is a minor elavated expirence, one in which I am confident we will have similiar twitter tiraids about in a few short months when people realized nothing has changed. ESPN is not a silver bullet, it is kicking the can down the road on fixing the true qaulity issue. Hope I am wrong and im sure we will get more information in coming days.

*** As always im not a journalist so just take your gramatical error comments and put em in a bag next to you know whats I give.

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