Much of the country was either asleep or watching Texas polish off the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS on TBS, but late in ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast of the Tennessee Titans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, an odd turn of events occurred and the revelation of why should be unsettling to sports fans and media critics.
With Tennessee leading 23-3 late in the fourth quarter and attempting to run out the clock, Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio began burning his three timeouts. Sports fans have all seen coaches use timeouts late in games when trailing in hopes of pulling off a miraculous comeback, even when logic indicates no comeback is possible. So what Del Rio did by calling timeouts even after the two-minute warning didn’t warrant anything other than a, ‘Oh c’mon, Del Rio, your team has no chance,” reaction. That is, until Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher spoke during his postgame press conference when questioned about why his offense continued to run the ball rather than asking the quarterback to take a knee.
“Jack used his timeouts,” Fisher said. “My understanding is they needed network timeouts, and that’s why Jack used his timeouts. They came over and asked me to do it, but I said, ‘I was hoping to get a first down and kneel on it.’”
That’s right. According to Fisher, ESPN representatives lobbied the coaches of both teams to call timeouts late in the fourth quarter of a game where the outcome was not in doubt simply so they could broadcast commercials.
NFL games typically include five commercial breaks per quarter that were sold by the broadcasting network. Prior to Jacksonville calling timeout, there had only been three advertising breaks in the fourth quarter, with the impending two-minute warning set to provide a fourth. So if neither team had called timeout and Tennessee ran out the clock, which it was content in doing, ESPN would have been one commercial break short in the fourth quarter.
“You can check with Jack. It didn’t bother me at all,” Fisher said. “I believe that they asked them to use them. It’s the first time I’ve heard of it. I just said I would have a hard time using them, because I’m ahead.”
Because of the stoppage in play, Tennessee continued to run the football and running back Chris Johnson broke free for a 35-yard touchdown, pushing the lead to 30-3. So in essence Del Rio succumbing to ESPN’s lobbying caused his team to lose by an even wider margin.
But what if an additional score was not all that happened during the additional plays created by the timeouts? What if a player had gotten seriously injured (several concussions occurred the previous day in the NFL)?
But this isn’t the only time this season on-field action has been affected by TV networks. Notre Dame first-year head coach Brian Kelly openly talked prior to the season about how Notre Dame and NBC executives met to determine how NBC’s length, frequency, and timing of commercial breaks could be altered during its broadcasts of Notre Dame home games to serve as an advantage for the Fighting Irish, who under the guidance of Kelly hoped to employ a fast-paced offense.
Fans had learned to live with the fact that TV networks for years have determined start times for games, whether it be determining the day of the week or the actual tip/kickoff time. College football is now broadcast by ESPN on Saturdays, Thursdays, and Fridays (to the chagrin of high school football fans). And ESPN and other networks that broadcast live sporting events often dictate that start times are pushed back or moved up to inconvenient times for home fans simply for convenience of the networks.
But when TV networks begin lobbying coaches to call timeouts during games, the networks are approaching gonzo journalism status.