Is that conclusion true?
Certainly WVU lacks the national TV appeal of Notre Dame, and certainly WVU can't draw cable basic tier revenues from a city like New York for the Big Ten Network. But when WVU is compared to rival schools, perhaps it isn't receiving all the recognition it should be getting.
Let's look specifically at the comparison between WVU and its biggest athletic rival, Pitt. Pitt is generally considered one of the potential targets of Big Ten expansion, partly because of the Pittsburgh Designated Market Area, or DMA. The Pittsburgh market is numbered at 1,154,950 TV households, ranking it as the 23d largest in the nation.
By comparison, the two largest market areas considered for WVU are Charleston/Huntington, at 501,530 and ranked 63d, and Clarksburg, at 110,050 and ranked 108th. That seems like an ironclad case for Pitt and against WVU.
Astoundingly, however, Monongalia County, W. Va., the home of WVU, as well as Preston County, W. Va., and Garrett County, Mary., are all included in the Pittsburgh DMA. Granted, the Pittsburgh television stations might be available on cable in north-central West Virginia and western Maryland, but does anyone think there are more Pitt fans than WVU fans in any of those counties? Could anyone think the comparative numbers are even close? That's just incomprehensible.
If we remove Monongalia and Preston counties from the Pittsburgh DMA, and put them where they belong in the Clarksburg DMA, here are the new numbers:
Now let's consider another factor, the statewide appeal of WVU throughout West Virginia. Certainly there are many Pitt fans outside the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pa. But in terms of drawing cable TV revenues, it's doubtful that Pitt draws any areas that aren't already captured for the Big Ten Network (BTN) by the presence of Penn State. Indeed, one could make the argument that the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are already captured for the BTN by Penn State. There may be more Penn State fans than Pitt fans even in the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and Western Pennsylvania.
In the state of West Virginia, by comparison, the Mountaineers are king. WVU draws a huge proportion of the TV audience in its own markets. WVU brings with it not only the Charleston and Clarksburg TV markets (including Monongalia and Preston counties), but also the Beckley/Bluefield market (142,570), the Wheeling market (133,110), and the Parkersburg market (64,060). Adding those five markets together gives a truer estimation of WVU's TV market. How does that compare to the Pittsburgh market?
The resulting WVU TV market equals 1,069,826, which would place it at #27. The Pittsburgh market (minus Monongalia and Preston counties) equals 1,036,444, which would place it at #28.
That figure for Pittsburgh still includes several counties in Western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but as noted, it moves Monongalia and Preston counties into the WVU column. Both of those markets would rank just behind Baltimore and just ahead of San Diego, Nashville, and Hartford.
Those numbers are a little surprising, aren't they?
None of this is intended to diminish the appeal to any conference of the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt is a fine academic and research institution, has an excellent athletic tradition, and would be an asset to any major conference. Most WVU fans hope that WVU and Pitt remain in the same conference, whatever it is.
The point here is simply that when comparing TV markets, WVU doesn't seem to be getting its due.
One can make an argument that WVU also isn't getting its due when the University's academics are considered. One often-cited point of pride is that WVU has had 25 Rhodes Scholars, ranking it sixth among public state colleges and universities, far surpassing the number at Pitt or Penn State. Unfortunately, raising the national perception of WVU's academic and research standing requires more than that, and also requires a better appreciation of the educational mission of state universities.
But getting back to the subject at hand, TV markets, it clearly appears that dismissing WVU as a candidate for inclusion in the Big Ten or any other conference on the basis of its perceived small TV market is an uninformed conclusion.
Syracuse has the nation's 83rd-ranked market at 385,440. Adding the city of Buffalo, NY, and its 633,220 TV households gives Syracuse 1,018,660. That's still smaller than the WVU market of 1,069,826 as calculated above.
Finally, WVU is sometimes dismissed just because West Virginia is a small state in population. That characterization apparently doesn't hold for Nebraska. West Virginia's population is about 1.82 million, ranking it at number 37 among US states. Nebraska's population is about 1.80 million, ranking it at number 38. Yet the University of Nebraska seems to be considered by most pundits as a great prospect for the Big Ten, while WVU isn't. Again, this isn't intended to diminish Nebraska in any way. Certainly the Cornhuskers have a tremendous following and a desirable football program. It's only meant to suggest that West Virginia's population shouldn't be any more disqualifying than Nebraska's. And WVU has a tremendous following and fine football and basketball programs as well.
When one examines the TV markets a little more closely, and when one considers the loyalty of WVU's fans and the quality of its athletic programs, one can argue that WVU has much to offer any conference. Perhaps WVU deserves a closer look than it seems to be getting.
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Scott Bartlett, a long-time employee of the television industry, WVU, and the Mountaineer Sports Network, provided the concept and most of the research and data for this article. His significant role is gratefully acknowledged.