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The Problem With ESPN+

An honest plea to the 4 letters to step their game up

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still in the early aftermath of Tuesday night’s 62-61 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence, and since the end of the game Iowa State fans have only found more reasons to be angry. Forget the obvious missed goal tend for a minute. There’s no debate about what happened there. Kansas committed the violation, it was not caught, and by the letter of the law, it is not a reviewable play.

What is a reviewable play is something that came about 50 seconds of game time later. With Iowa State trailing 58-57, the ball came to guard Caleb Grill off an offensive rebound and he promptly made a long jumper to give Iowa State the lead. Immediately we had to stop the game for a review to see if this was a 2 or 3 pointer. That’s standard. No problem. What was called originally on the floor? I honestly have no idea. I think the officials originally ruled a 3. Here is where we zoom out and realize the situation.

Iowa State went 2-22 a season ago which resulted in the firing of Steve Prohm and the hire of TJ Otzelberger. The result has been a complete roster overhaul and a Top 25 ranking in January that has proven to be deserved. Even the most optimistic Iowa State fan couldn’t have predicted this (except one). The Big 12’s basketball TV partner especially couldn’t have predicted this when assigning games for networks this season. The Big 12 has a deal with ESPN+, the network’s streaming platform. The idea makes sense in theory. How do we get subscribers? Put some of our premier product on there. The conference certainly was compensated for agreeing to the move.

Let’s return to Lawrence and the replay review. If you were watching the game online (and congrats if you got the stream to work), you as a viewer were given about 3 seconds of grainy replay on the screen. If you’ve watched enough sports of any kind, you can make the assumption that there’s just no conclusive angle to show Grill’s foot on the line, so we’ll stick with the call on the floor and play on, right? Wrong. Quickly the officials rule the shot a 2 and the game continues. Kansas takes the ball down, gets fouled, makes both free throws, and regains a 1 point lead. The final 40 seconds of game time are played frenetically with no stoppages and the lead changing hands a couple more times before Dajuan Harris’ layup won the game for the Jayhawks.

Iowa State fans at this point are obviously upset about the goal tend. We saw it with our own eyes. Even the broadcast caught it. We’ve sent our anger to the officials and the Big 12 Conference. No statement on the game has been released yet, but we assume something is coming. Caleb Grill’s shot that should go down in Cyclone lore a la Donovan Jackson in that same building years ago is quickly forgotten. Except, in comes the evidence captured by a photographer in the arena.

This humble writer sees space between Caleb’s foot and the 3 point line. There’s the strong element of officiating malpractice at play, but not 100% of the blame belongs there. Let’s rewind one more time to this moment and play out what likely happens at the end of the game. Iowa State goes up by 2 points as they appear to. Kansas ties the game with free throws. Iowa State should be playing out the final possession and sending us to overtime at a minimum.

Why wasn’t anyone associated with the game broadcast or, I assume, the officials on the floor able to see this angle? ESPN’s streaming-only broadcasts do not have as many cameras and angles available. The game is not given the importance it so clearly deserves. The broadcast couldn’t even be bothered to confirm the original call on the floor. Viewers at home were given about a 3 second, grainy replay and told to go on with the game.

The announcers were remote, so it’s not like they can have more information or are withholding anything. I’m sure it looks good for the Disney corporation’s bottom line that they've found a way to cut costs while still maintaining the same amount of content, but there is the problem. If the race is to own the most content possible while saving the most money possible, why even bother? Who does that benefit?

It’s not exactly great for the customers who have no choice but to subscribe to see their favorite schools or teams. It doesn’t help the officials do their jobs. It doesn’t help the announcers educate anyone watching. Most importantly, the student-athletes on both sides do not benefit as now through no fault of their own, their seasons have been altered by the inattentiveness of the people in charge of showing the game.

This lack of attention will have long-term consequences on Iowa State’s and many other schools’ seasons. The Cyclones at 2-2 in league play with a win at Allen Fieldhouse and in the midst of the hardest stretch of their season is all of a sudden a real contender in the Big 12. Instead, we’re walking out 1-3 in conference play despite scoring more points than the opponent by the rules of the game. In Morgantown this fall, we saw a Breece Hall “fumble” be held up by replay despite pretty convincing evidence that it shouldn’t have been. That game was also broadcast exclusively on ESPN+ and no proper explanation was given to the viewers.

ESPN+ isn’t going away and most likely will continue to gain power, but it’s no secret that ESPN the network has been on a downward trend of losing subscribers to cord-cutting. I hope that this outcome can finally be the start of ESPN treating their streaming product with as much importance as anything on the main network. So this is my plea: don’t make a game on ESPN+ feel like a relegation. If it has to be this way, let’s make sure we treat it with the importance it deserves.