When it comes to college football coverage, it doesn’t get bigger than ESPN.
The cable network turned self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has been the standard for showcasing college football for decades. Not only do they hold the rights to cover four of the five Power 5 conferences but thanks to shows like College GameDay and College Football Final, ESPN has maintained its influence over college football and how many perceive it. If a school gets picked to host College GameDay or a player gets a helmet sticker on College Football Final, it’s a big deal.
It’s worth taking note that after an offseason filled with major conference realignments, ESPN has begun their coverage this season focused on one conference in particular — the Sun Belt Conference.
Fans of the 14 Sun Belt schools have been aware of the potential of this new-look conference for almost a year. With JMU, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss all officially joining the conference earlier this year in July, the excitement for this season has been palpable, and ESPN has noticed.
While on screen, ESPN’s coverage didn’t seem to single out the Sun Belt at first; off-camera, ESPN’s relationship with the conference has grown exponentially. On July 26, 2022, at Sun Belt Media Days, conference commissioner Keith Gill announced that the conference had expanded their media rights deal with ESPN, adding 6,000 Sun Belt events onto the ESPN networks.
“This new agreement is a recognition of the growth of the Sun Belt Conference and our commitment to excellence in all sports,” Gill said at the press conference announcing the deal.
ESPN may have recognized the growth of the Sun Belt, but the company’s business deals don’t influence what the journalists working for ESPN choose to cover. Despite this, ESPN’s reporters were given a pretty good reason to cover the conference as soon as the season kicked off.
In the first ever Sun Belt game of the season, Old Dominion knocked off in-state rival Virginia Tech—the Sun Belt’s first upset over a Power 5 team this season. More quickly ensued: The next day, JMU started their first ever FBS season with a 44-7 win over Middle Tennessee State. That game led to the Sun Belt’s first major shoutout from ESPN — A helmet sticker given to graduate QB Todd Centeio by Mattie Barrie on College Football Final.
While the excitement for the conference was slowly gaining steam in Week 1, it exploded in Week 2.
In the span of mere hours, the Sun Belt orchestrated three Power 5 upsets. First, Marshall defeated No. 8 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, followed by Appalachian State dethroning No. 6 Texas A&M at College Station, Texas, before Georgia Southern capped off the day by beating Nebraska in Lincoln.
Seemingly overnight, the Sun Belt became the hottest conference in all of College Football.
“[Last week was] just an outstanding week for Sun Belt football, and It’s great that we were able to showcase that on national TV in the way that we have.” Gill said during the conference’s weekly coaches’ call,
Not only did both Marshall and Appalachian State receive team helmet stickers on College Football Final but the Mountaineers were selected to host College GameDay for their matchup against Troy on Saturday — it’s only the second time GameDay has gone to a Sun Belt school, the first being Coastal Carolina in 2020.
One day away from the first week of conference play, ESPN’s spotlight is shined squarely upon the Sun Belt.
“GameDay is going to be like a great infomercial to showcase Sun Belt football.” Gill said in the coaches call, “The whole Sun Belt is going to be exposed for the quality institutions — the quality football we have.”
With the GameDay bus headed to Boone, North Carolina, and Sun Belt fans across the conference ready to see which teams will win their respective division over the coming weeks, it’s safe to say that ESPN will continue to give the Sun Belt national exposure as the rivalries heat up and the football stays interesting.
This time one year ago, 14 fan bases were wondering aloud what the revamped Sun Belt could bring in the future. Now, thanks to the efforts of one media outlet, the entire College Football world is watching.