Thu. Sep 20th, 2018

Can Finebaum Thrive in Big 10 Country?

When I say the name Paul Finebaum what comes to mind? Do you think about a rabid Bama fan calling to explain why he poisoned trees on the Auburn campus? Do you think about Phyllis in Mulga losing her mind over Colin Cowherd’s comments about Nick Saban? Maybe it’s Tammy from Clanton calling in to yell about officials being biased against Auburn.

Whatever your answer is, whether you are from the South or not, my point is you think about something related to SEC football. It is where Finebaum’s bread is buttered. It is why he wrote a book called My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.

Finebaum and ESPN are locked in a contract dispute right now and according to Clay Travis at Outkick the Coverage, who you may be tempted to dismiss because of his constant head-butting with ESPN, the relationship is close to irreparable.

According to sources Finebaum, who declined comment to Outkick, was told in October of last year by then-president of ESPN John Skipper not to worry about his soon to expire contract. Nine months later, with limited contact from ESPN executives, Finebaum has now reached the limits of his patience with the network and is preparing to depart. That’s despite substantial efforts by an increasingly frustrated SEC office over ESPN’s inability to get the deal done.

Whatever your thoughts on him, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Travis here. He and Finebaum are close friends. I trust that he has some insight as to where Finebaum’s head is at right now.

Paul Finebaum walking away from the SEC Network wouldn’t be the end of the world. After all, the guy was already successful long before that channel was even a spark of an idea in either Bristol or the league office in Birmingham. Finebaum was already Finebaum even before he was on Jox 94.5 in Birmingham.

What is a little hard to believe though is Michael McCarthy’s report in The Sporting News that Fox and their Big Ten Network would have interest in snapping Finebaum up if he walks away from ESPN. McCarthy says that some executives for that conference believe Finebaum’s show might be BTN’s missing piece.

But Fox Sports has a history of poaching ESPN talent, like Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, Jason Whitlock and Erin Andrews. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is said to be a huge Finebaum fan.

Some Big Ten executives have lamented the absence of a “Paul Finebaum-like show” on the network’s programming schedule. Fox owns 51 percent of the Big Ten Network.

I talked to a few program directors of stations in both the Southeast and in Big 10 country to get a gauge on what they expect of Finebaum and the challenges he would face trying to swap out the SEC for the Big 10.

Arky Shea is the program director at The Ump in Huntsville, AL. I asked him how important his home state (and to be fair, mine too) has been to Finebaum’s success.

“Alabama is the meat of the stew. Auburn is the potatoes,” Arky said in a conversation over Twitter DMs. “The rest of the SEC and their fan bases are the spices and vegetables – depending on what’s in season. Paul has a legacy because of that state and Birmingham.”

Bama and Auburn fans seem to be content to see Finebaum’s focus go conference wide since launching his partnership with ESPN and the SEC, but how would they react to Finebaum moving to the Big Ten Network? Maybe he could talk about Bama or Auburn from time to time, but the Big Ten Network would probably want him focused on the Big Ten, right? That would be a very different show from the one Finebaum’s long time fans are used to.

“After all the smack he and his callers have dished out on the Big Ten and others, that’s traitorous territory,” Shea says of a potential move.

“The average Big 10 fan in Wisconsin would need to be ‘won over’ and heavily educated about the who and why of Paul Finebaum,” Tom Parker (the program director of 105.7 the Fan in Milwaukee, not the colonel that managed Elvis) told me in an email. “He’s an SEC insider with sources and contacts. Why would the Big 10 even want what appears to be ‘a project’? Except for times when he’s said something crazy in the past that got some run (very little here), I doubt a Big Ten fan would have even heard of him. Maybe Fox sees him as another Stephen A or Skip. Willing to say crazy things for attention?”

That very well could be. After all, if a deal to do a televised version of his radio show on BTN did become a reality, you would have to assume that Fox would also use Finebaum on its Saturday college football coverage in the fall. That may be where Finebaum is the most valuable. Fox’s coverage is pretty good, but they are missing the headline-maker ESPN has in Kirk Herbstriet or even their own “face of college football,” something ESPN has a seemingly endless supply of. Finebaum could fill both of those roles for Fox.

Brad Lane now programs 1500 ESPN in Minneapolis, but he grew up playing football in Texas. He is very aware that football means different things to different parts of the country. He says the Midwest isn’t a college football wasteland. Fans are aware of Finebaum.

“I DO think fans here not only know who Finebaum is, they ‘get’ why he’s successful in SEC land. He’s got the southern drawl, he seems to have deep connections with a lot of the coaches & programs, and he has great self-awareness and the ability to make fun of himself and the way he looks,” Lane said in an email.

“But more than all that he seems to have tapped into the language & world of SEC football fans; he is a reflection of who they are and what they want from their teams,” he says before adding “Would that translate to the Big 10 if he were to move networks? Highly doubtful. I have no idea how old Finebaum is, but his sort-of ‘old man/southern charm’ seems to speak to and reflect a culture down south that won’t work nearly as well up here.”

I wondered if Finebaum might be giving up a position of power with a move to the Big Ten. After all, the SEC footprint has very few cities with multiple pro teams. There are a lot of cities with a lot of sports options in the Midwest. In his email, Parker illustrated just how much of a stranglehold the NFL can have in the region, saying “Here in Milwaukee, the top team conversations are 1)Packers, 2)Aaron Rodgers, 3) Rumors about the Packers, 4) Rumors about Aaron Rodgers, 5) NL leading Brewers and at a tie for topic #6) Bucks rumors and Wisconsin Football. (props to Joe Zarbano at WEEI – I adapted his NE topic sheet haha).”

My impression has always been that is normal for the Big Ten footprint, but Jeff Rickard of 107.5/1070 the Fan in Indianapolis says that is a little off base.

“While the B1G conference has campuses near several big cities, (New York, Chicago, Minneapolis etc.) it’s roots still exist in some of the greatest college towns in America. In places like Ann Arbor, Columbus, Bloomington, Madison or beyond the college game is just as alive and well here as anywhere in the country. In football there are traditional powers with fan bases scattered all over the country. If you’re talking OSU, PSU, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska for example (a ton of titles in that group) they’re not sliding to the side for anyone. In basketball, places such as Bloomington, Madison, Ann Arbor, West Lafayette or East Lansing are as electric on game day as any other place in the nation.  Sure, Rutgers or Maryland can get lost in the shadow of NYC or DC but the entire midwest is B1G country and you’ll see the bumper stickers, t-shirts and yard flags representing those schools everywhere,” he told me in an email.

Jeff added that passion doesn’t look the same in the Big Ten as it does in the SEC, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t passion. “Fans in B1G country are just as passionate for their teams as any other conference, they just don’t feel the need to convince everyone of that. They already know who they are and feel pretty good about it, too.”

Justin Acri, who is the program director of 103.7 the Buzz in Little Rock, says that while the Big Ten Network may be an uphill climb for Finebaum, it’s not like he is a force of nature across the SEC footprint. There are plenty of markets where he isn’t aired at all and plenty of listeners that simply don’t like the show. “I have tried to listen a few times, but alas it is not for me. The one time he was a topic of conversation was when he and Saban had their tete a tete at SEC Media Days a few years back. That being said, I tip my cap to him for his continued success.  Every show will not appeal to every man of course and this is a case in point.”

Brad Carson feels very differently. “I think Paul Finebaum is solid and can do whatever he wants. I think he’s good at football in general as we’ve seen with how much fun he’s had with the Harbaugh stuff,” the program director of Memphis’s ESPN 92.9 told me. “He’s awesome on SEC and can translate that other ways, likely. I’d bet he’ll be awesome on national topics because he’s smart and interested in what fans want to hear in terms of topics. He’s got energy and info.”

So the previous 1500 words and all of those quotes are a long way of saying “Paul Finebaum shifting focus to the Big Ten would be weird.” How successful would it be? That is a little harder to say.

Personally, I have always believed that as a radio host, Finebaum lives and dies with his callers. Taking his show to the Big Ten Network would most likely mean football in that conference would move to the A block of his topics list. Would the passionate fan base he has already established stay loyal to a show like that? Probably not. Would he be able to build a passionate fan base in Big Ten country doing the same thing he did in SEC country? I don’t think so. From a radio standpoint, the move wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But maybe Finebaum is thinking beyond radio. A move to Fox makes a lot of sense from a TV standpoint. The guy knows college football beyond just the SEC, so the fact that the conference has no relationship with Fox is irrelevant. Besides, it’s not like Fox won’t talk about the SEC at all. The network’s various college football shows will cover everything going on in the world of college football, just like the college football shows on ESPN and CBS do.

What makes the most sense for Paul Finebaum? That depends on what his goals are. If he wants to expand his profile beyond the Southeastern United States, a move to Fox would expose him to a brand new audience. If his goal is continued domination, a new deal with ESPN makes the most sense.

Plenty of people in our industry are of the mindset that Finebaum’s interest in the Big Ten Network is merely a negotiating tactic, and to be honest I am one of those people. Whatever the motivation and wherever he is calling home next month, what is clear is that Paul Finebaum is a valuable brand name in the world of college football.

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