Does Realignment's Market Theory Hold Up?

The theory touted in realignment was that market size is the ball game. The larger the market you are in or near, the more valuable a program is. But do TV ratings bear that out?

When trying to make sense of TV ratings it is hard to sort out the impact of the market theory.

For example San Jose State in a large market would be expected to draw a decent number of viewers but if Stanford or Cal play opposite of the game or the local NHL Sharks or major league baseball teams conflict, you lose the impact of the market. Market theory says Memphis is worth more than Arkansas State all other things being equal, if Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Arkansas aren't playing at the same time.

You have to account for the difference between Lousiana on ESPN vs. Louisiana Tech on CBS Sports when CBS Sports is in so many fewer homes.

So how do you sort it out?

The best answer I have is Tuesday and Wednesday night football. All games (with one exception) are on ESPN or ESPN2. The teams involved aren't national brands with their own nationally established interest like schools in the SEC or Big XII. There are no NFL conflicts nor are games going head-to-head vs other teams of interest locally with the exception of Toledo at Northern Illinois which started an hour after Ohio and Ball State on ESPNU but the markets do not overlap other than both games involved the MAC.

In this more controlled environment, we can look at the home markets of the schools vs. the actual TV viewership to see if there is a relationship between market size and viewership in the six games that aren't impacted by other football competition and are on channels with similar reach.

1. Toledo at Northern Illinois 3,894,350 TV homes combined.
2. Louisiana at North Texas 2,817,340 TV homes combined.
3. Akron at Toledo 1,894,690 TV homes combined.
4. Ball State at Toledo 1,499,250 TV homes combined
5. Bowling Green at Ohio 1,340,010 TV homes combined.
6. Arkansas State at Louisiana 310,060 TV homes combined.

1. Arkansas State at Louisiana 778,000 viewers
2. Bowling Green at Ohio 719,000 viewers
3. Ball State at Toledo 570,000 viewers
4. Toledo at Northern Illinois 557,000 viewers
5. Akron at Toledo 542,000 viewers
6. Louisiana at North Texas 366,000 viewers

The two games featuring the smallest combined "home markets" drew the highest television ratings.

Even sanitized from competition from the name schools and having the benefit of the most popular sports channels behind them, the large market games did not perform especially well.