Conquest Chronicles has weighed into a discussion between Nestor of Bruins Nation and Kyle of Dawg Sports over whether there is an east coast bias in coverage of college football. Kyle’s most recent post hits on the question of apathy that Paragon SC covers on Conquest Chronicles, but I am not buying the argument that it’s a market issue driven solely by consumer apathy. In fact, I would contend that the argument that this is a consumer problem — not enough, not motivated enough — and that market principles can over-ride regional biases, is missing underlying reasons why in fact it is rational to be biased towards the east in broadcasting.
If you take an admittedly casual look at population distribution and relative economic indicators, as well as the simple nature of time differences, ESPN is always going to be biased against showing west coast games unless they have some broader (narrative) implication, as opposed to regional significance. As Kyle notes, it’s dollars and cents, but PAC 10 fans would do more to get broader coverage by breeding more prolifically than by attending more games in greater numbers.
First things first: television broadcasters are in the business of selling advertising, fundamentally, and ESPN is no different. The pay-per-view service they offer is simply a way of extending revenue by taking programming that is most profitable on a regional basis, and getting payment from people outside that region to see it. Chasing those dollars is precisely where an east-of-the-Missisippi bias comes in.
After all, if you are in the business of selling advertising, you go where the dollars are, and this is where I think the “fan-based” model starts to break down. Let’s start with the issue of fans in place.
While it is accurate to point out that fans in stadia are an indicator of the spread of appeal of a team, ESPN wants fans outside the stadium to watch. A smaller stadium — e.g. Autzen Stadium in Eugene — isn’t indicative of a lack of enthusiasm of Oregon fans, but it is indicative of local population sizes and density. If you take a look at the Census Bureau’s 2002 data for regional / state population density, PAC-10 states other than California are more like an Alabama than a Florida or a Georgia. (NOTE: I had formatting problems so all maps are linked to the Census Bureau site.)
Population Density by State
Population Density by Region
In addition to density of population, advertisers also care about economic performance. While California has a high overall economic profile, again the PAC-10 states drop off a bit after that. The midwest, by contrast, may not have the overall $$$ but there’s a more even distribution, so it makes sense for ESPN to chase the contract for Big-10 games and show them.
Economic Performance By State
Also, there’s the element of time differences. Unless the PAC-10 or other western conferences are willing to shoe-horn all their games into EDT / EST friendly slots, the games won’t available at revenue-maximising times of day. Case in point: last season’s USC – Fresno State game. I was able to take the wife out to a long dinner with friends, drive the sitter home, and still catch a large part of the game… on Fox College Sports Pacific, because who would be watching on the East coast at that time, other than obsessives with heart-burn?
Anyway, the point is that if you are a revenue-maximising corporation, you go where your best bet is on the dollars. In terms of population density, income spread, and time alignment, it’s not the west coast. It doesn’t have to be a normative bias — although often it can be — but it’s empirically driven. That’s why USC – Cal is being hyped as a rivalry with BCS implications, because there has to be a reason for people outside the west to tune in. Nestor, Paragon SC, and I all know that not liking the other team doesn’t make it a rivalry — if that was the case, USC would be the rivals of pretty much all of the PAC-10 because we’re not universally popular. (Hard as that might be to imagine).
The question of normative bias in the content of coverage (words, statistics, etc.) is qualitative and while people from the west know it when they see it, it’s hard to demonstrate. But a rational basis for market bias in college football broadcasting is a lot easier to argue. If I was in charge at ESPN, I’d only show western games on a national basis when there was some market reason so to do…