Tennessee football: Conference TV deals, Peyton Manning and the irony of an old conspiracy

Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning pose with the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club Saturday night before the actual award was made. 1997.Peyton Manning At Heisman 1997
Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning pose with the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club Saturday night before the actual award was made. 1997.Peyton Manning At Heisman 1997 /

One of the great outrages in Tennessee football history is the outcome of the 1997 Heisman Trophy. Peyton Manning lost out to Michigan Wolverines defensive back Charles Woodson, and the immediate conspiracy at the time was that voters affiliated with ESPN and ABC swung it.

There was reason to believe that for UT fans. Chris Fowler called the outrage a “trailer park frenzy,” suggesting how little ESPN thought of Rocky Top. That actually kept College Gameday away from Knoxville in the Vols’ 1998 matchup with the Florida Gators.

There was a deeper reason for the conspiracy, though. The Big Ten had been ABC’s oldest partner, dating back to when conferences could first secure TV deals in the 1980s. In 1996, ABC and ESPN merged as sister stations. That same year, the SEC on CBS began.

It may be a wild conspiracy, but Fowler’s comments combined with the SEC’s partnership with what had become a competitor to ESPN didn’t make it too far-fetched. Consider that 1996 would be the last year an SEC player won the Heisman until 2007, one year before the SEC inked a historic multi-billion dollar deal to re-link with ESPN.

Well, what’s happening now makes that Tennessee football theory insanely ironic. Based on a deal reached at the end of 2019, the SEC will be the flagship conference of ABC and ESPN, and that’s set to go into effect in 2024. Their relationship with CBS has come to an end.

Meanwhile, John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported earlier this week that the Big Ten would be ending its relationship with ABC after 40 years. The network will reportedly have deals with FOX, CBS and NBC, making a brilliant move to shop themselves around.

All of a sudden, ESPN and ABC have a vested interest in promoting the SEC specifically, and the rest of the networks have a vested interest in promoting the Big Ten. Talk about a dramatic turn of the tide. If Tennessee football is ever cost anything in the future, it won’t be due to the network that cost Manning back in 1997.

Now, there may be a question as to whether or not it favors the SEC to just be with ABC and ESPN while the Big Ten shops itself to multiple networks. However, that ESPN connection carries value. Sure, there’s Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, but despite their real flaws, ESPN is still the sports media empire.

Over the years, ESPN has clearly been growing more favorable to the league. However, that adds fuel to the conspiracy, and a dramatic reversal of events suggest that. You can almost trace it exactly to that 2008 deal with the league.

Remember, in 2004, the Auburn Tigers became the only team from a BCS conference to go undefeated and not play for the national title. Auburn became the only team of the BCS era to hail from a BCS conference and finish the season undefeated, including the bowl game, with no national championship.

Two years later, the Florida Gators were 12-1 and SEC Champions with the No. 1 ranked strength of schedule. They had to actually beg their case to be the No. 2 team to face the Ohio State Buckeyes in the national title game over the Michigan Wolverines, who were 11-1 and had just lost to OSU.

Florida won that case and blew out Ohio State for the title. The next year, their quarterback, Tim Tebow, became the first SEC Heisman winner since another Florida quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, in 1996. As mentioned, the SEC and ESPN linked up a year later, signing a 15-year deal worth over $2 billion. Things then changed.

Three years after that deal, the Alabama Crimson Tide got the break that SEC fans screamed Michigan shouldn’t get in 2006. They got to face the LSU Tigers in the national championship for a rematch over the one-loss Big 12 champion Oklahoma State Cowboys, although their 21-0 win in that game proved it was the right move.

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Seven SEC players have won the Heisman since Tebow from four different SEC schools. They get every break in the polls now. Tennessee football, if the program ever returns to prominence, will have a decided advantage now with its ESPN connection. That’s a dramatic change from 25 years ago, though.