Forbes published a report on conference earnings that just might defy the agreed-upon logic fueling realignment. The prevailing mindset since conference realignment erupted in the summer of 2010 is that bigger is better, but the smallest of the five power conferences, the Big 12, offers the most bang for the buck. Not bad for a conference once teetering on the brink of extinction.
The 10 Big 12 members earn roughly $26.2 million apiece, from a pot that ranks fifth in overall revenue. Leagues expanded their geographical footprints, and thus their television distribution rights. Fatter TV contracts, more teams playing in bowl games and participating in the NCAA translates to loftier overall ledgers for the Big Ten ($310 million), Pac-12 ($303 million), ACC ($293 million) and SEC ($270 million).
But more members also means more pieces of pie to divvy up. New York Times statistical guru Nate Silver dove headfirst into this topic when the Big Ten expanded its reach to the Eastern Seaboard this fall, adding Rutgers and Maryland. Silver sums up the Big Ten, and transitively, all of conference realignment’s motivation thusly:
[T]he main rationale for adding the schools seems to be economic: the prospect that they would give the Big Ten, and its cable network, access to the New York and Washington media markets.
But he goes on to detail each university’s regional indifference toward college football, which historic on-field futility exacerbates. There’s so much more detail that cannot be expounded upon here — just read the column. In summary, and too put a modernized spin on an old proverb, if a football game is played in a city of millions but no one watches, did it really happen?
Now, access to a high population area isn’t without benefit. But it might be overstated. Communicative technology continues moving away from regional models. Internet streaming, satellite and digital cable make more games from more conferences available to consumers. So a tier 3 broadcast rights game that would have been relegated to regional coverage is now available to a nationwide audience.
Moreover, the Big Ten’s addition of two traditionally middling football programs defies its original expansion rationale. The conference added Nebraska, a small market program with a rich tradition of football success. Despite its small market, Nebraska’s track record makes it a more valuable product.
The SEC may not have the biggest television markets in its footprints, but it does have the best football. And that’s what will win the conference the most lucrative of television deals as it renegotiates. The SEC’s renegotiated deal and postseason stake is expected to increase the league’s revenue by 50 percent. The conference’s members can thank on-field success for that.
The SEC might have one of the more compelling cases for conference expansion being a boon. The most football obsessed of the leagues extended its reach into the most football obsessed state, Texas, with the addition of Texas A&M. A&M’s quick and seamless transition into the SEC couldn’t have hurt. But had A&M struggled, like fellow Big 12 refugee Missouri, the realignment would be no different than what other conferences are facing: more accounts with which to share revenue and only the promise of a payoff in the future.
Therein demonstrates the underlining issue during conference realignment: expansion has only for expansion’s sake. Quality is secondary to distribution area in TV negotiations. Consider the programs that moved into the five majors conferences, as defined by the new playoff format. Of the 12, just a quarter have played in BCS bowl games during the past decade. Two of those — West Virginia and TCU — joined the Big 12.
Big 12 expansion may have been more the result of necessity, simply staying alive in the changing landscape, but the conference ends up winning out with the addition of quality over quantity. Meanwhile, the league is working a way to maintain its current status without reactionary expansion, but still find strength in numbers via inter-conference partnership.
The massive super-conferences that seemed like the inevitable endgame of realignment might not be the direction college football is headed.