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A look at the group of five television problems in college football

Understanding why the group of five are getting television wrong. Completely wrong

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Over the past decade or so I have argued time and again that the Sun Belt, MAC, CUSA, MWC, WAC and now that group minus the WAC and adding the AAC have for the most part taken the wrong approach to television and in relation to that, expansion.

What I have failed to do is outline fundamental reasoning the approach has been wrong. At times, I’ve mentioned they are trying to play the same game as the high resource conferences but not really explained how the path has diverged.

This is intended to explain why the high resource path is unavailable to the group of five with a bit of history mixed in. Bear with me, the intent is to not make this sound like some textbook discourse.

THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE.

The television networks have two primary sources of revenue. The first is advertising. That can be the commercial during timeouts or the Mega Insurance Corp. logo being on the screen showing the first down line. The second source is carriage fees. Whether you watch television on cable, satellite, a bundled internet package like Sling or Playstation Vue, or channels are available as part of your cell phone subscription, or internet subscription, they all work the same way. You pay someone for service and they take part of your fee and pay it to the producers of the content. That is a carriage fee.

ADVERTISING

With advertising the advertiser is paying to reach viewers with their ad or promotional message. While basically more viewers is better, that isn’t the whole story. Some viewers are worth more than others. Watch a golf or tennis tournament and keep track of the ads. More luxury cars, high end watches and such are being advertised than you see during Judge Judy or Bobs Burgers. The demographics of the audience matters as does the number of viewers. Real life example. Watch the NBA Finals and the NCAA Final Four. Similar audience sizes most years but the NCAA Tournament attracts an older and wealthier audience that tends to buy luxury goods while the NBA attracts a younger audience that so many advertisers desire because they spend more and set trends.

In college football the demographics of Arkansas State and Louisiana Lafayette are going to be very similar to the demographics of Arkansas and LSU. The primary difference will be size of audience. So, if an Arkansas State vs. Troy game draws 10% of the audience of Arkansas vs. Auburn why wouldn’t the Sun Belt’s TV rights be 10% of the SEC?

That takes us to the second part of the math.

CARRIAGE FEES

ESPN pulls in around half a billion dollars per month in carriage fees. To keep that flow of revenue coming in they need to have programs that people want enough that they will change how they get TV if their provider doesn’t offer the channel and programs that will cause people to continue paying a monthly fee.

If every North Texas fan gets mad and drops ESPN, the folks in Bristol may not notice. If one-third of Texas fans get mad and drop ESPN, they will notice immediately.

The networks will pay more to obtain and hold on to the rights of sports properties that can draw new subscribers or retain current subscribers. Those rights fees roughly approximate what a network believes will happen to their subscriber base if that property is added or lost or at least the value of keeping that property out of a competitor’s hands.

HISTORY AND THE G5 TODAY

For a good portion of time college football on television was basically controlled by the NCAA. Networks paid the NCAA a base fee for the right to pick games at a set price per game. The price per game varied based on whether the game was to be shown nationally or regionally and which network was carrying the game and the time slot of the game.

The network would call a school and make arrangements to show a game and the two teams would get a check each (or their conference) for the telecast.

The system worked quite well until a lawsuit by Georgia and Oklahoma against the NCAA declared the arrangement a violation of anti-trust laws.

College telecasts then broke into a contract controlled by the College Football Association, another by the Big 10 and Pac-10 working together and a myriad of smaller regional agreements. Then Notre Dame cut their own deal, and eventually the CFA collapsed with the departure of the SEC and Big East.

After that 1984 court decision having multiple competitors for college football contracts resulted in a 60% decrease in television rights payments.

When television wasn’t part of the business side of conferences, the conferences didn’t spend much effort on it and 26 schools played as independents in football.

The shake-up from the decline in TV rights led to the CFA collapsing, caused the formation of the Big East as a football league, led the WAC to expand to 16 and then split into two league creating the MWC, it caused the Big 8 to take on four SWC members and created Conference USA, the ACC, SEC, and Big 10 all expanded.

It is often thought that era of realignment was about making big bucks but the reality is it had more to do with trying to get revenue back to where it had been and maybe also make the difference in inflation over the decade or so.

The technology of the era created a problem in dealing with syndicated telecasts and regional telecasts. Monitoring viewership was difficult so estimates were created based on the size of the markets showing the game. This led to a belief that markets were vitally important. Now the ratings services use always on monitors to track sample televisions or simply extract the data from cable and satellite boxes.

All calms down in realignment after 1995 at the high resource level for almost a decade and then it all blows up because the big source of revenue is no longer advertising but carriage fees and the first shot is fired when the ACC adds Virginia Tech and Miami and a year later reaches 12 members by adding Boston College. The real earth shaker comes in the summer of 2006 when the Big Ten announces it will create its own television network.

Suddenly the race is on, not to find schools that draw viewers or raise the caliber play, but schools with big followings that can drive carriage fees.

THE CHALLENGE FOR THE G5

The group of five schools have failed to understand why the high resource schools have made the moves they made over the past few decades. They pursued markets when it was directly benefiting them by increasing how much could be charged for advertising when those rates were based on audience estimates instead of hard data. From 2003 forward the moves by the high resource conferences have all been about securing programs with large fan bases that will demand that their local cable provider will secure contracts with networks showing their team’s games or change providers if they do not.

In this environment, you get some results that seem odd. If you look at television ratings, you can make an argument that say Houston and South Florida should be roughly similar to Rutgers and Maryland in television value when you account for the networks showing games and opponents played.

If value to the high resource leagues were based on ad revenue the case for those two AAC schools would be very strong. Unfortunately for them, it is a carriage based economy. Houston will not bolster the Big XII nor the SEC in their position with TV providers in Texas. Likewise, South Florida will not help the SEC nor ACC with TV providers serving Florida. The hope either would have joining a high resource league would come from either the application of political pressure on league members in the state or the interest of a high resource league outside the region to stretch their footprint to pick them up.

THE SOLUTION FOR THE G5

As demonstrated after the NCAA lost the football television contract, the increase in providers of content competing to offer content deflated prices. Adjusted for inflation it took more than a decade to recover from the price deflation and that recovery was fueled by an increase in networks looking to offer content (the rise of ESPN, ESPN2, the strengthening of regional sports networks). Instead of ABC, NBC, and CBS competing to show games in one or two timeslots as was the case in 1984, they were joined by Fox, ESPN and ESPN2 and the ESPN networks were looking to fill three and four slots per Saturday it was that added competition that finally broke the deflation in prices from the mid-1980’s

The only viable path for the group of five to maximize revenue from television is to stop competing with each other and follow the old model that was proven to maximize revenue in an advertising based TV economy.

Under the current system if a conference were to demand a large increase, the networks can simply turn to a competing conference to fill the need. Currently the primary need of television is to fill content on weeknights and on lower profile channels. If a conference moves to a competing network, they are easily replaced so there is simply no leverage to demand much from the networks since another group of five will happily step into the void.

Without a united television contract covering all five of the conferences they will continue to deflate their own value.


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