October 14, 2008

College Football On The Front Page: Automatic Touchdown

A fall chill is in the air, thousands of fans are in the stands, the teams are on the field and college football is on the front page.

On Oct. 5, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported the Hawkeyes’ "Failure to Convert" in their loss to Michigan State. But the Press-Citizen hasn’t failed to convert interest in the University of Iowa Hawkeyes into newspaper content. It publishes a four-page wrap-around section for each home game.

"Hawkeye football is huge news in Iowa," Executive Editor Jim Lewers said.

And college football is front-page fodder for other newspapers — whether it’s Opelika-Auburn (Ala.) News and its column on the firing of Auburn University’s offensive coordinator, or Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star and the reporting of a Huskers fan accused of theft after keeping a kicked ball.

What brought college football into the big leagues? Economics, said Malcolm Moran, Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State and director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

"For years, the bowl with the largest payout was the Rose Bowl with just over $4 million," Moran said. "Now all the bowl championship series games … have payouts of more than $15 million. Individual schools do not receive that much because of a revenue-sharing process, but the increase has been dramatic."

And economics come into play in considering the newsworthiness of college football.

"[Hawkeyes] Coach Kirk Ferentz is the state’s highest-paid public employee. The team draws more than 70,000 fans for six or seven weekends each fall, filling hotels and restaurants all over the area," Lewers said. "And when the Hawkeyes are playing, our city’s eyes are on them."

New York City’s sensational press is credited with developing sports coverage and a public interest in college football in the late 1890s. In his book "King Football," Michael Oriard said that before television "what college football offered fans that professional and high school football could not was a local team competing in a national arena."

When the University of Michigan and Stanford University met in the 1902 Rose Bowl, an "Extra" edition of the Los Angeles Express printed photos of coaches and captains in a frame of roses. (Michigan was "too swift and skillful" and won, 49–0.)

College games and post-season bowls proliferated in the 1920s and 1930s, Oriard wrote, as "football teams became public symbols of universities, communities and entire regions."

The Chicago Evening Post called it "the biggest crowd that ever got together to see a football game" on Nov. 16, 1929, when Notre Dame and Southern California met before about 120,000 fans. The allure of college football was too irresistible, and the Evening Post also touted the Chicago-Illinois game and the Northwestern-Indiana contest on its front page.

Both college football and the press are different today, but front pages remain interested in the collegiate sport. And that interest is rewarded with circulation gains.

"We see circulation and online traffic go up quite a bit when they are winning," Lewers said, "particularly after they win a home game."

When the Oregon State Beavers upset No. 1-ranked USC, news of a "Stunning Win" took up two-thirds of the Sept. 26 Gazette-Times in Corvallis, Ore.

And when Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Tulsa marked "A 5-0 first," the Oct. 5 Tulsa World said, "State teams stay perfect in historic start." Explained Executive Editor Joe Worley: "Football is king in Oklahoma, and we didn't need a huddle at the Tulsa World to decide to put our three undefeated teams on A1."

A Newseum-produced video on the history of sports reporting runs daily in the Newseum’s Sports Theater.

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