The news story of the 2019 Frisco Bowl was about Kent State’s high-scoring, come-from-behind win over Utah State to secure its first bowl victory in school history.
But the tale of the tape proved to be about something else: Utah State star quarterback Jordan Love’s future career. Indeed, by the time the game was over, ESPN’s broadcast crew had referenced Love’s NFL prospects 24 separate times. (Four months later, he would be taken 26th by the Green Bay Packers.)
That was the most references to a player’s pro potential during any of the bowl game telecasts that season, according to an initial analysis by the College Sport Research Institute, shared exclusively with Sportico. But it was hardly an outlier when it comes to the ways college football bowl games are presented to the American public.
As a follow-up to its past work deconstructing the televised productions of college sports championships, CSRI recently examined the broadcasts of 18 bowl games concluding the 2019-20 campaign—right before the pandemic upended intercollegiate athletics and accentuated the gap between some of its self-professed ideals and money-oriented realities. Specifically, CSRI analyzed some 7,374 graphics that appeared on the screen during the broadcasts as well as every word spoken by TV commentators over a total of 45 hours of airtime.
In the case of college football bowl games, the hyper-commercialized nature of these purportedly scholastic sporting events should be readily apparent to any viewer. But when you statistically break down the images and audio of the broadcasts, the NCAA’s rhetoric about amateurism and education really seems to falter.
Consider this fact, alone: Those bowl game telecasts, on average, displayed graphics from corporate sponsors for 27 minutes of airtime each. During the 2020 College Football Playoffs, that increased to an average of 35 minutes. That represents a dramatic uptick in the games’ commercialization over the past decade.
While the anticipation of players’ future Sunday workload was often noted, their status as college students barely registered in the commentary. In all of the 2019-20 bowl games combined, CSRI found a total of just 35 academic comments during the broadcasts. A third of those comments were said in the course of just two bowl games—those featuring Wake Forest and Virginia. Meanwhile, four other bowl games featured zero academic-related commentary whatsoever, while two games mentioned academics only in the context of football players being ineligible to play due to poor grades.
Perhaps indicative of its increasingly tenuous hold on the biggest revenue-generating college sport, the NCAA fared only scarcely better than academics when it came to on-screen recognition. College sports’ governing body was graphically represented an average of five times per telecast, for an average of 36 seconds. Contrast that to the three games that comprise the College Football Playoffs, in which the CFP logo appeared an average of 141 times—for an average of 23 minutes—per broadcast. CFP games averaged a greater number of corporate graphics, as well.
Although it didn’t take nearly the same beating that it would eventually endure in, say, Supreme Court oral arguments, the NCAA was generally portrayed in a less-than-flattering light during the games: 62% of the commentary referenced players violating the association’s bylaws.
The NFL, on the other hand, made out significantly better.
On average, 16 comments were made each game related to the NFL Draft, ranging from statements about a “future first-round pick” to minutes-long digressions about a player’s future in the league. By contrast, comments related to academics or education occurred an average of just two times per contest.
CSRI tallied 35 instances in which commentators compared college bowl game participants to current or former NFL players—and these pro analogies were highly racialized. In fact, of almost three dozen references, CSRI found just one where a current college player was compared to a pro player of a different race.
The professional-focused commentary might have been dictated as much by the teams in the booth as those on the field. The ABC/ESPN broadcast crew of Dave Pasch, Greg McElroy and Tom Luginbill uttered the most pro talk, collectively making 35 comments related to players’ NFL futures during the 2020 Citrus Bowl between Alabama and Michigan. Pasch, who also is the radio play-by-play voice of the Arizona Cardinals, alone made 24 professional comments, the most of any bowl broadcaster. Interestingly, the ESPN quartet of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Maria Taylor and Tom Rinaldi––the network’s top college unit––averaged the second-fewest pro comments per broadcast, despite handling the national championship game between Clemson and LSU, who together saw 21 players get drafted.
NFL Draft ranking and projection were also featured prominently on many of the ESPN bowl broadcasts. Within those, a total of 27 comments were made regarding a player’s draft ranking by ESPN’s draft analysts, for an average of two references per game.
Though marveled at for their ability to “play on Sunday,” the college players were notably distinguished from their professional peers––and grown-ups, in general. Athletes who were all old enough to vote and join the military were frequently referred to as “kids.” The worst of the analyst infantilizers? Under-50 former pros.
Anthony Becht, the 43-year-old ex-NFL and West Virginia tight end, was a one-man Toys”R”Us jingle, mentioning “kid” or “kids” nine different times during the Belk Bowl matchup between Kentucky and Virginia Tech. Four of Becht’s invocations were directed at Kentucky wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr., the father of a two-year-old son at the time.
Matt Hasselbeck checked in close behind by saying “kids” six times during the Pinstripe Bowl featuring Michigan State and Wake Forest. Hasselbeck, 45, specifically referred to MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke, unironically, as a “23-year-old kid,” one of the three times he was characterized as a child. Lewerke, by that game, was making his 43rd career start as a fifth-year senior.
Chris Corr is a doctoral candidate studying sport and entertainment management at the University of Sport Carolina. Prior to that he worked in football recruiting at two programs in the Southeastern Conference.
CSRI, which is housed in the Department of Sport & Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina, serves as a national clearinghouse for college sport inquiry and research. In addition to its other work, the institute annually publishes Adjusted Graduation Gap reports, which examine discrepancies between reported federal and NCAA graduation rates among college athletes.