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Canzano: Oregon State and Washington State must amplify conversation
Teams fighting for survival.
I don’t know what the script was for Lee Corso on Saturday or if he even followed it. He’s 88 and paid to offer opinion on ESPN’s College GameDay. But I do know that one thing became evident — Washington State and Oregon State have a public-relations problem.
Corso either called the battle of the Pac-2 schools the “the nobody-watches bowl” or the “nobody-wants-us bowl.” Decide for yourself. I posted the clip on Instagram and TikTok. I watched it a dozen times and came away thinking it could be a study in auditory illusion.
WSU coach Jake Dickert heard “nobody-watches bowl.” I did, too, at first. Maybe because I was listening for it. But I can’t blame Dickert or anyone associated with the Pac-2 for being frustrated with a joke of any kind that threatens their existence.
The Pac-2 schools are fighting for their lives.
Dickert vented after his team’s 38-35 victory over Oregon State on Saturday. His team is 4-0. It beat the Beavers (now 3-1) in a game aired on FOX. WSU and OSU are in a legal battle together, suing the Pac-12 Conference and Commissioner George Kliavkoff.
Maybe a lawsuit against TV comes next.
It wasn’t any one thing that caused the downfall of the Pac-12. The conference had poor leadership for a decade, lousy vision and napping presidents. Entitlement? Arrogance? Incompetence? Pick your favorite culprit. I remain puzzled at how a room filled with so many smart people made so many stupid decisions. But in July, late in the Pac-12’s media-rights negotiations, I was told by one of the “Four Corners” athletic directors that the biggest threats were external.
What were they?
Peers from other conferences trying to “take the league,” the AD said.
TV executives trying to “own it all,” he offered.
A “major influence” from one TV group, in particular, he noted.
“FOX,” he told me.
Dickert is right. Lots of people are watching Washington State football games. The Cougars rate favorably when compared to current Pac-12 and Big 12 programs. Entering this season WSU ranked No. 4 among those conference members in TV ratings since 2015. And among members of the ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12, the Cougars had more games with one million viewers tuned in since 2015 than any program but Clemson, Florida State, Washington, Oregon and Miami.
Both teams walked into the stadium on Saturday ranked in the Top 25. Both were undefeated. Both have respectable TV ratings. Oregon State, in fact, drew 3.23 million viewers for its Week 1 game against San Jose State.
Dickert has repeatedly said “we belong” in a Power 5 conference. It’s a refrain that OSU coach Jonathan Smith has joined himself, calling the two schools “proven products.”
So why don’t the TV executives who control the conference media-rights deals view those two schools as ‘must haves’? Why were they slighted so badly in the expansion scramble? And what can be done about it now?
Pullman is a Pacific Northwest outpost, designed as such because it’s a land-grant university. Same goes for Corvallis. But lots of college towns with football teams aren’t located in large media markets. The real issue for Oregon State and Washington State relates to their brands.
The viewership data is solid. The product is good. I have no other choice but to think Corso was speaking for a swath of folks when he mocked OSU/WSU and pretended to cry for the left-behind schools. It’s great that two Pac-2 coaches are advocating for themselves, but it’s time the schools looked for some outside help when it comes to telling their story.
Oliver Luck is consulting with OSU and WSU. He’s typically the smartest guy in the room. A source in Corvallis told me that part of Luck’s pitch last month was a suggestion that they outsource a national public-relations campaign. In fact, Luck thought the schools should hire the same high-profile public-affairs team that worked behind the scenes for President Obama.
Most universities have working relationships with crisis-management firms and keep consultants on retainer. They also have in-house communications and marketing teams. Those are great for the day-to-day issues that come up as it pertains to campus matters. But college football realignment is a unique animal.
It’s why firms such as Endeavor, Navigate, and Anachel and some others have worked overtime in the last 14 months. Their clients (both conferences and individual schools) paid as much as $30,000 a month for help back-channelling, sorting through data and shifting narratives.
WSU created a wonderful video that does a nice job telling its story. It hired Dryland Media — a Pullman-based company — for the project. The video got more than 600,000 views on Twitter. But what it really needed was some PR rocket fuel to get the thing in front of 6 million people.
The realignment game being played is nuanced. The stakes are high. What the two folksy schools need this football season is a tidal wave of public sentiment. They have to make themselves difficult to joke about. Their plight is relatable. Their slight is obvious. The masses are waiting to rally around WSU and OSU.
Corso was probably just reading a joke off a sheet of paper that was handed to him. Did he say “nobody watches”? Or “nobody wants us”? Who cares? The bigger issue is that he and the other GameDay hosts should have been banging their fists on the table top, demanding to know how in the world OSU and WSU got left behind.
It’s a question ESPN — and the rest of the country — shouldn’t be able to ignore.
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