ESPN Remains King of Signing Day Coverage, While Big Ten Network Continues to Disappoint

We all have a morning routine.

Mine involves eating a bowl of cereal while watching the local news as my wife gets ready to start her day. As I am eating my breakfast, I am checking my email and scanning the headlines coming across in my Feedly so I can see what some of the top stories are.

Among the mandatory reads for me each morning is a daily post from Awful Announcing, the daily Viewing Picks from writer Ken Fang. In it, Awful Announcing gives me a simple rundown of all of the sports coverage that will be airing throughout the day, so I can know what might be worth watching at any point in the day in the home office, or perhaps later that evening.

On Wednesday, the Viewing Picks included a good chunk of college football programming. It was National Signing Day. Awful Announcing’s rundown showed me plenty of college football signing day coverage starting at 8:00 a.m. up until midnight on the East Coast. Despite all the options available to me, I wanted more.

I can tell you: Another National Signing Day has gone by, and ESPN remains the king of signing day coverage, while everybody else is fighting for a distant second.

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ESPN gets it like nobody else

It has come to be expected that ESPN will dominate the competition when it comes to signing day coverage. No other network in the game has the resources ESPN does, but kudos to ESPN for making use of all of its tools to provide top-notch signing day coverage.

ESPNU started off 11 straight hours of signing day coverage at 8:00 a.m. in the East and stuck with it until tipoff of a college basketball game between Connecticut and East Carolina at 7:00 p.m. In between ESPNU aired over 15 live commitment announcements from four- and five-star players while also providing updated recruiting analysis and commentary from people like Tom Luginbill and Mike Belotti. ESPNU also deployed a team of reporters to many top programs like Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, Michigan, Notre Dame, LSU, Penn State, Florida State, Clemson, Texas and Texas A&M. This team of reporters gave regular updates following big commitments, plus more interactions with head coaches.

ESPN would have won signing day among broadcast outlets with its ESPNU programming alone, but ESPN made sure other properties like SEC Network and Longhorn Network went the extra yard to tailor their content to those specific audiences. This is the game changer in how signing day is covered between ESPN and the competition.

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In its first year on the air, SEC Network was already on a different playing field than the more established conference network veterans at Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network. Having ESPN backing it is critical and influential, and it shows.

SEC Network aired five straight hours of SEC-specific signing day coverage, which continued with the network’s simulcast of The Paul Finebaum Show, and was later wrapped up on that day’s edition of SEC Now. Analysts like Greg McElroy and Booger McFarland have been solid in their roles at SEC Network, and signing day was no exception, along with the steady hosting of Dari Nowkhah. SEC Network even had its own recruiting expert, Derek Tyson, involved to help keep some consistency and not take away coverage from ESPNU. Sure, ESPN was technically competing against itself for a good chunk of the day, but the SEC Network served its primary purpose to provide coverage of the SEC, and it ultimately did not take anything away from what either network was doing.

The entire point of a network-specific conference is to showcase the conference. On signing day, the SEC Network hit a home run in its first at-bat and set the bar for the veteran Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network.

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Big Ten Network sticks with a round-up approach

btn1While the SEC Network and ESPNU focused on delivering live updates and announcements, the Big Ten Network once again settled for a more packaged approach with recorded interviews from coaches and school-by-school analysis throughout a two-hour signing day special of BTN Football & Beyond. The show focused much more on breaking down the recruiting classes after the fact, rather than expand beyond the norm for the BTN. This has been how Big Ten Network has covered signing day since it launched on the air, and change does not appear to be in the cards.

The Big Ten Network would be wise to follow in the lead of the SEC Network. While the SEC Network was giving its target audience live signing day coverage, the Big Ten Network was re-airing a women’s college basketball game. Ordinarily, replaying conference competition is fine during the day, especially in the morning hours, but signing day has become an event that BTN has struggled to embrace. For a network that has been on the air since 2006, some fans have become a bit irritated by the lack of coverage.

The Big Ten Network missed a golden opportunity to showcase the conference on signing day, so soon after one of its more successful bowl seasons in recent years. Ohio State won the national championship, and some notable coaching changes occurred at Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was recently chastised for suggesting the Illinois media start writing positive things about his program, but this is exactly what the Big Ten Network should have been doing on signing day outside of a two-hour special in the mid-afternoon. (Ironic, yes, but still a valid point for a specialty TV network to absorb and then act on.) This is even more frustrating because the BTN has resources and personalities to carry even more coverage, and I personally really like the studio personalities the Big Ten Network has to offer.

It is beyond time for the Big Ten Network to start making a bigger deal out of events like signing day. Having live updates from programs like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State as ESPNU did is a no-brainer, but providing live coverage from other programs such as Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue, Minnesota and so on is what will attract fans throughout your expanded footprint. Wasn’t the point of expanding to Maryland and Rutgers to take advantage of new media markets? What’s the point of having them if there is no plan to use them?

This is what markets your conference. This is why your network exists. Maybe next year things will change.

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Pac-12 Network can learn similar lessons

The Pac-12 Network does not have the luxury of the backing of ESPN or the expanded viewership of the Big Ten Network, but it can still take lessons from each. The Pac-12 also has to deal with the West Coast time zone, which essentially can prevent the network from being on top of some of the stories around the recruiting world. This does not excuse the Pac-12 Network, though.

Like the Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network aired a special 2.5-hour signing day program that followed a similar format to the “BTN Football & Beyond” special: packaged highlights, interviews with coaches, and analysis from inside the studio. It’s not bad, but the Pac-12 could have gone the extra mile on a number of occasions. USC and UCLA were on a tear on signing day, yet not a single live announcement was carried on Pac-12 Network. The Pac-12 did at least make an effort to provide expanded coverage on the conference’s website, something the Big Ten was relatively lagging with outside of press conferences.

I can understand why a conference-affiliated network might want to shy away from airing a live announcement. The embarrassment of a high school player announcing on Pac-12 Network or Big Ten Network he is taking his talents to Auburn or Florida State would not look too good on either network. Shying away from that possibility makes sense to a certain degree, but on a day like this, it is news. The conference-specific networks should be prepared to carry the news whether it is good or bad.

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CBS Sports Network flies under the radar

After ESPN there may be no other network that covers college football as well as CBS. Home to the SEC Game of the Week, the Army-Navy Game, and a talented team of reporters, CBS knows what it is doing when it comes to college football. That carries over to the TV side of things on the CBS Sports Network. The network rarely gets much attention, but it is there. On Signing Day, it does a solid job that does not receive much respect.

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CBS Sports Network got started at 11:00 a.m. in the East, a few hours after ESPN. The Eye offered 4.5 hours of live coverage, which largely consisted of studio analysis and reaction along with a good number of phone interviews with coaches around the country. This year’s analysts included former Michigan coach Brady Hoke along with Houston Nutt and Brian Jones. Tom Lemming was in the studio as the recruiting expert and Adam Zucker served as the host. It’s not a bad team, and some interesting insights were provided. Live announcements are not all that common on CBS Sports Network, but the interviews seem to be more in-depth than other outlets get a chance to provide, so it marked a nice change of pace.

CBS has been doing this for a few years now, and it may never truly catch up to ESPN. Despite that, CBS Sports Network is still ahead of the signing day game compared to newer options like FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network. Neither sports network rival provided signing day coverage outside of segments on regular highlight programming such as FOX Sports Live.

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2016 Signing Day Coverage Wish List

What do fans want? More live coverage throughout the day on Big Ten Network. There is simply no excuse to be made in 2016. The same goes for the Pac-12 Network. ESPN, the SEC Network, and Longhorn Network have raised the bar, but Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network should be able to clear it for their target audiences.

FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network need to step it up*. Both FOX and NBC did well in terms of online content, with Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel conducting live interviews with coaches throughout the day and College Football Talk crushing it with coverage all day.*

However, next year should be focused more on live TV coverage. Fox Sports 1 could really thrive in a team-up arrangement with BTN and Pac-12 Networks along with various regional outlets that have Big 12 ties. NBC can utilize its partnership with Comcast and regional Comcast networks to make something big happen as well.

What did you think about signing day coverage this year, and what would you like to see next year?

*I am biased, but I will tell you it was a huge day at College Football Talk.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to NBCSports.com's College Football Talk, Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Host of the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and iHeart Radio. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.

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