If you're like me, you've spent the past week gorging on the New York Times' incomparable series of articles on the success of ESPN, particularly how it pertains to college football. They're an insider view of why ESPN not only dominates the college football industry, but in some cases is the college football industry. Anybody trying to challenge ESPN will not only have to compete with its excellent coverage of the sport, but corporate dominance as well.
That's why, no matter how good Fox's College Football Saturday and other shows surrounding their B/B+-level package of games are, it's going to take a real long-term commitment to make any real impact within the sport. I'm here to critique that coverage, but part of me wonders if it's a rather pointless endeavor, because Fox has such a long way to go, even if it has already established itself as No. 2 (at least in terms of quality games) right off the bat.
Even when it comes to studio programming, you have to wonder how Fox really expects to compete with the the Worldwide Leader. There's rumor of an expensive, strategically planned attack on SportsCenter because there are people who viscerally hate SportsCenter (are they right to do so? in most cases, not really) and will support something that runs against it. College GameDay is considered almost unimpeachable among sports fans, and I don't know that anyone was looking for an alternative.
In addition to all that, Fox plans to regularly broadcast its pre-game shows from a network center in Los Angeles, rather than GameDay's practice of doing it from campuses and stadiums. It's going to be a different show no matter what you do, because of an inherently different atmosphere. As much as Fox likes to promote "fun," there's not a chance in hell their talking heads come up with anything in studio that will be as fun as the spontaneity of what ESPN caught at Clemson on Saturday. It's just different.
Let's try to judge Fox College Saturday on its own merits, of which it has some. First of all, Erin Andrews has improved a bit as a studio host. She's mixing it up a little bit better with her set of analysts and is clearly a competent broadcaster. I still don't know if she's up there with the impressive set of presenters ESPN has (though, to be fair, putting anyone up against the likes of Chris Fowler, Rece Davis and John Saunders isn't going to help), but you can see improvement. Things are helped along by analyst Joel Klatt's work as co-host.
The network's analysts are a bit of a mixed bag. Klatt is notable for his ability to host the program as well as provide analysis as a former college QB. Mike Pereira is well-dressed and well-informed as always. Petros Papadakis is a little too much for me, as he tends to speak in short outbursts rather than reasoned sentences. Eddie George seems to be trying to mix it up, but still hasn't quite found his footing in his second season.
Clay Travis is a name that draws a lot of opinions throughout the world of college football, and I know I will be angering some by saying that he is very good on television. He kept the trolling to a minimum (though calling ESPN's GameDay hosts Clemson, essentially, a wannabe SEC school was funny) and was opinionated without being obnoxious. He also brought information on a potential injury to Alabama QB A.J. McCarron. The guy is fairly well-versed in broadcasting and self-promotion, so it's not the biggest shock to see that he's good TV.
Everything is in Week 1 here, so the entire cast feels more like moving parts than an actual ensemble. Fox tried to use that to its advantage by splitting up the cast for various segments, keeping the show moving with a lot of short features that highlighted various storylines. That said, the show was fine, professional, and at times amiable. It will still take a lot of work to even make a dent in College GameDay's market share.
Where Fox Sports 1 has a winner is in its halftime shows, which dump much of the cast in favor of former ESPN and Fox Soccer host Rob Stone, alongside Klatt and analyst Coy Wire. The three have an easy chemistry, and Stone is an excellent host who's often quite funny. They'll be running Fox's primetime pre-game show when the big network begins airing games next Saturday, and you have the feeling it could be a real winner with no real competition in the timeslot.
As far as game coverage goes, Fox Sports 1 didn't really have much that stood out, though none of its broadcasters did so in a bad way, either. Gus Johnson and Charles Davis have better chemistry than they did last year, and if you like Gus, that's really all you need. FS1's graphics were fairly clean, though they did choose to keep their "Bottom Line" on the screen during game coverage, an ESPN trick that annoys me to no end.
Fox Sports 1 put its best foot forward this weekend (they also had games on Thursday and Friday) and it'll take a lot of time to see if they can make progress. The network has been beefing up college football for two years now, and they consolidated their coverage without too many hiccups. It may be a mountainous, uphill climb, but it can't hurt to start off in a professional manner.