John Clay: ESPN trolling for football fanatics and Finebaum is right man for job

Radio host Paul Finebaum conducts his radio show, Thursday, May 17, 2007, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)
Radio host Paul Finebaum conducts his radio show, Thursday, May 17, 2007, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Rob Carr) ASSOCIATED PRESS

ESPN reportedly laid off nearly 400 employees earlier this week, but on Thursday the World Wide Leader announced a hire that sets the tone for the future.

ESPN confirmed the Wall Street Journal's scoop that controversial and popular radio host Paul Finebaum had joined the network.

A free agent since his contract with a Birmingham radio station expired in January, Finebaum reportedly signed a five-year deal with ESPN to do a radio show, starting in August, and make numerous television appearances.

The radio show will be originally offered primarily to ESPN affiliates in the South with hopes of growing it into a national attraction.

Chris Cross, program director of the local ESPN affiliate WLXG, said Thursday he would be very interested in carrying a Finebaum program, depending on time and availability.

The 57-year-old Finebaum, a Memphis native and Tennessee graduate, will have his radio show simulcast on the SEC Network when it launches in August of 2014.

The reason for Finebaum's hire can be summed up in two words: College football.

Here in basketball country we tend to put hoops first. Elsewhere, however, the opposite is largely true. Your average fan likes college basketball. Your average fan loves college football.

And in 2014, college football is set to explode.

For starters, 2014 is the start of the first college football playoff system. After this coming season, the BCS is no more. The CFP — the simple "College Football Playoff" name for the, well, College Football Playoff — will take over with two national semifinal games feeding into a national title game at Cowboys Stadium on Jan. 12, 2015.

The inclusion of two more teams in the process will only up the ante for a sport whose national footprint is on the rise. The expansion isn't likely to stop at four. Many predict the system will grow to eight teams by 2020.

This change comes at a time when the BCS title game has consistently outdrawn the finals of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on television.

Even though Alabama routed Notre Dame in last January's BCS title game, cable ESPN drew 26.4 million viewers for the 42-14 Bama win. Three months later when Louisville beat Michigan 82-76 in one of the best basketball title games in years, over-the-air CBS drew just 23.4 million viewers — its highest rating in 19 years.

True, college football's network ratings actually dropped last season. That had nothing to do with fewer viewers for the sport, and much to do with more networks televising the sport.

The SEC will add its own television network in 2014. The SEC Television Network is the final shining piece of league commissioner Mike Slive's legacy. To be based in Charlotte in partnership with ESPN, the SEC Network is expected to ultimately be a cash machine for the league's 14 member schools.

The reason is college football. The SEC has won the last seven consecutive BCS title games. The state of Alabama has won the last four with Bama prevailing in 2009, Auburn in 2010 and the Tide winning back-to-back the past two years.

Alabama is where Finebaum built his radio show into a syndicated network carried by 30 stations and picked up by SiriusXM. He deftly tapped into the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, not as a supporter of one school poking at the other, but as a neutral observer flexible enough to bend to the prevailing winds.

In the essence of full disclosure, I've been a Finebaum guest on numerous occasions over the years and he has always known how to hit the buttons that prompt listeners to pick up the phone.

One such listener became infamous when Alabama fan Harvey Updyke revealed on Finebaum's show that he was responsible for poisoning the historic oak trees at Auburn's Toomer's Corner.

That's the passion ESPN wants to tap into, a passion that drives up ratings and is born primarily out of college football, the college sport right now that remains on the rise.