If you’ve worked in media for a while, you’ve seen a boatload of what we lovingly call “consolidation” over the last couple decades. For those of us who’ve seen enough consolidation, what’s happening with college football looks awfully familiar, and we know what’s about to change.
Okay, not everything, but enough major changes are coming to make what’s already happened – 14-team conferences, West Virginia in the Big 12, Maryland leaving the ACC for the Big 10, traditional bowl alliances all but scuttled – look like minor alterations in the landscape. Get ready to watch the entire structure of Division 1 college football go through a ginormous revamp, and there will be winners and losers aplenty.
The stupidest thing to say right now would be, “And what do you think is driving all that change?” You already know the answer.
It’s almost pointless to talk about Nick Saban’s $7 million paycheck, so let’s leave it at that. Instead, how about this tidbit: Mark Freaking Hudspeth is making seven figures at Louisiana Lafayette! Assistants are now pulling sick money; for example, new LSU DC Dave Aranda’s three-year deal starts at $1.3 million and then escalates.
You already know where the money is coming from: Big TV. (Okay, so that quarter-billion dollar deal that Ohio State got from Nike tells you there’s someone else who’s also throwing ridiculous dough at the game. Big Apparel wants exactly what Big TV wants: more viewers watching “their” schools play football.)
There’s an old saying: he who has the money makes the rules. It’s an old saying for a reason: it’s true.
Given that Big TV already decides when games are played, how long do you think it will be before ESPN & Friends decide who gets to play in the games that matter?
Before we jump into the deep end, I’ll tell you up front that this little screed runs way past tl;dr, but face the facts: the season is months away, spring football is weeks away, and National Signing Day is in the archives. You’ve got time, so read on.
To fully see where this is going, there are a few basics you have to understand:
Step 1: It’s money that matters. We’ve already gone there, but to repeat, what happens next in college football will be all about money. Shocking, I know. Wanna laugh really hard? After the ratings for this year’s College Football Playoff took a 40% nosedive — in the media business, we call that “time to find a new gig” — the head honcho at the CFP tried to tell the media that money wasn’t his big worry, but rather, “That people have an experience they will remember the rest of their lives — the players, the coaches, the band members and the fans — and whether we provided the proper competitive experience for a team to win the national championship.”
In the current presidential election campaign, more wannabe presidents will tell more big fat whoppers than any American can count. None will be any bigger than that line of bullshit.
Step 2: In the media, market size = money. In the media, the bigger the market — the more people who can watch your product — the more revenue you generate. Consequently, if college football’s various powers that be — conferences, A.D.’s, university presidents — want to drive revenue, they need to make sure the most eyeballs possible are watching not just the playoff games, but those mid-October homecoming blowouts too. If you’re one of Jim Delany’s Big 10 minions, you didn’t decide to add Maryland and Rutgers to your conference to enhance the quality of the conference experience for the Iowa softball team that now has to jet to Jersey to play every year; you did it to add the New York, Washington, and Baltimore TV markets to your bottom line.
Wanna be bored? You can download the entire Nielsen TV market rankings right here. All you really need to know is that market #1 (New York) is more important than market #2 (El Lay), which is way more important than, say, market #21 (St. Louis), which is massively more important than market #201 (St. Joe, MO).
Remember that, because it’s media people cutting the big checks that make those huge salaries (and the ones that end up in university coffers) possible, they’re going to be thinking like media people when they decide whether to offer that next huge money fix that big-time college football is now hooked on. Consequently, they’re going to be thinking which markets matter to them.
Now, think about this: if your dear old alma mater is located in a small television market, how much value does its program have to the nice people who are writing massive checks to buy up the rights to show dear old alma mater’s games on television? Programs located in or around, say, Los Angeles (hello UCLA and USC) are, barring some curveball, a lot more important to Big TV than, say, programs around Syracuse, with 1/15th the population of L.A.
That’s exactly what the people who write the checks are thinking about.
Step 3: The college “market” curveball. About now, certain fans are thinking, “But…but…our fanbase is a lot bigger than our market size.” If you are, say, a Cornhusker, you’re absolutely right, and that’s the curveball. You can’t take this stuff literally. In fact, let me point this out in a couple parts:
Part 1: South Bend is TV market #96. It’s the 96th-biggest television market in the country, meaning there are plenty of markets more deserving of big time college football than South Bend. There is, of course, a football program in South Bend of some note. The reality is this: for media purposes, Notre Dame is located in Chicago. Yes, there are plenty of non-Irish fans in Chicago, but the town belongs first and foremost to Notre Dame. A program can own a huge chunk of a market that isn’t, literally-speaking, its home market.
Markets can also be divided between programs. L.A. is an easy example, just given the presence of UCLA and USC.
Let’s combine both of the ideas we’ve just talked about. Who owns the Houston market? (It’s market #10, meaning its freaking huge.) Texas and Texas A&M certainly own the largest shares of the market, while Rice and the University of Houston have a share, with smaller shares owned by TCU, Baylor, the rest of the Texas FBS programs. Oh, and LSU, which has a huge alumni base in H-Town.
Part 2: Even if the program in question isn’t located anywhere near a big market, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t, effectively, a big-market program. Rather than talk about Notre Dame’s huge national fanbase, here’s an easy example: Lincoln is market #105, in media terms, barely a blip on the radar. Of course, the nice program that plays its football in Lincoln also dominates Omaha (market #74) and something called North Platte (#209). Add ’em up, and they’re one-ninth the size of L.A.
You don’t think that Nebraska football plays that small, do you? Back in the days before cable TV and streaming radio, you could go into most big cities and find some AM radio station carrying NU football on Saturdays. Why? Usually, it was because Husker alums were paying for it – buying airtime just so they could hear their heroes play ball. Big Red is big everywhere. Because the Husker fanbase is so spread out and so passionate, Nebraska is, functionally, a major market program.
“Proof” Of Concept. Now that I’ve hit you with the idea, how about a little data? There isn’t a ton of data that will really spell this out for you, but there is one interesting study someone did six years ago. Don’t want to dig too deep? Nate Silver summarized it for you.
I can’t dig up the data to tell you the most popular teams in Houston (which I just guessed about), but the most popular teams in the New York market after Rutgers? Try Notre Dame, Penn State, Connecticut, and Michigan.
Similarly, because of fan passion, the biggest TV markets in the country aren’t always the biggest college football markets in the country. For example, Silver calculates that Birmingham, TV market #45, is America’s #6 college football market. Don’t get too carried away thinking about that, however. New York, L.A., and Chicago are still markets 1, 3, and 5. Atlanta and Dallas join them in the top five.
I’ll feed you a few more numbers from the study as we go along.
Okay. That’s the basics.
What does this stuff mean to you and me as college football fans?
Funny things about money: (1) the people who spend it don’t like doling it out unless they’re sure they’re getting their money’s worth, (2) those people writing the checks tend to expect certain concessions in return (like being allowed to tell you exactly when you’ll play your football games), and (3) the people receiving the money don’t like sharing with anyone unless they absolutely have to, and then they don’t like sharing a penny more than they absolutely have to.
You already get the last part of that. It’s why the University of Texas was perfectly fine with almost blowing up the Big 12 by forming its own television network. It’s also why Notre Dame remains an independent and why the nice people at BYU went the independent route, thinking they were the Mormon answer to the Irish. If you think the “big” programs, the ones that drive TV revenue, don’t want to share the wealth, you are absolutely right. Y’know what that means?
The Power 5 schools are not going to share the wealth with the Group of 5 schools if they don’t have to.
As to points (1) and (2) above, do you think that the good folks at ESPN, Fox Sports, and the various other entities that drop their cash on the rights to televise Saturday football want to pay big bucks for a matchup – any matchup – that features one program, much less two programs, that don’t have major reach? Of course they don’t.
Big TV does not want to televise Alabama vs. an FCS program like Charleston Southern. Frankly, Big TV does not want to televise Alabama vs. a G5 program like South Alabama.
Big TV wants next season’s Alabama vs. USC season opener to be more the norm than the exception. Big TV wants something like Alabama vs. Illinois to be the weakest game it shows each week.
Oh, and Big TV is facing financial challenges right now due to a couple things called cord-cutting and cord-nevering. In other words, as less people keep paying a grip of money each month to the Walt Disney Company, ESPN, along with its competitors, will not keep doling out bigger and bigger checks for crappy nonconference walkover games. It also won’t keep doling out bigger and bigger checks for conference games that can’t deliver an audience due to (1) market size or (2) lack of competitiveness of one or both teams.
Here comes consolidation – a lot more consolidation.
- Fewer teams will be cutting up the financial pie down the road.
- Nothing is sacred.
- When it comes to traditions, expect the unexpectable.
Some programs – okay, a lot of programs – are going to get left by the side of the road. Ditto lots of great college football traditions.
Unthinkable, you say? Sure, and it’s unthinkable to most of us that Texas and Texas A&M don’t play every Thanksgiving weekend. Hell, if you’re old enough, it’s unthinkable that Oklahoma and Nebraska don’t go at it every year any more. Even the most unimaginable things are quite imaginable when there’s enough money involved.
HERE COME THE PREDICTIONS
First prediction: three levels of Division I football.
The people that gave you #MACtion were smart enough to create a brand – mid-week football – that allowed them to get a bigger share of the money pie than they would by playing all their games on Saturdays when the big boys are being paid the big bucks and the mid-majors are, at best, filler content. (That’s not intended to insult the quality of Group Of 5 football at all; it is, however, a harsh financial reality.) Then, the good folks at the Sun Belt Conference, realizing that they’re heading down a bad road, came up with that festive #FunBelt hashtag to try and gin up a #MACtionlike vibe.
Here’s reality: Those are smart business moves. #MACtion works because the MAC branded themselves well and moved their late-season product to nights when there’s little to no competition from the majors. (They also got to market first, but that’s a marketing story you can learn about elsewhere if you want.)
If the choice on Saturday is between Alabama-LSU and Northern Illinois-Bowling Green, well, you already know who wins that fight. At some point, Big TV is going to want bigger matchups every week. Big TV is going to reject FBS-FCS games completely, and it’s not going to be happy about most Power 5 vs. Group of 5 matchups.
The solution is going to be to segregate the majors from the mid-majors. That’s what happened in 1978 when FCS was formed, and it’ll happen again soon enough.
At that point, we can probably assume that FBS vs. FCS games will either cease to exist or be extremely limited. (Here’s a solution to the argument that it’s okay to see the big boys bludgeon the little guys so FCS programs can pick up a much-needed paycheck: add a 13th game to each FBS season with the caveat that it has to be a game against an FCS opponent. Play them the first couple weeks of the season, possibly treating them as exhibition games, kinda like college basketball already does.)
Meanwhile Power 5 vs. mid-major games will also be strictly limited. Perhaps Florida gets one game a year against, say, Florida Atlantic, but that’s it. Again, perhaps those are games that must all be played before September is over.
In the end, I’d expect the top level of NCAA Football to consist of roughly 64 teams that will carve up the vast majority of the financial pie.
Second prediction: surprise winners and losers.
Given that tradition will continue to be less and less important, your place in a major conference today may not guarantee your place in one in the new world. There will come a time for a Malthusian cutdown – and changeout – of the programs that are considered “major”. Some programs that are currently playing in Power 5 conferences are going to be deported to the mid-majors, while some current Group of 5 programs will rise up. On the cutdown side, let’s look at a few possibly unpleasant scenarios:
- The great state of Iowa consists of the following TV markets: Des Moines-Ames (market #72), Cedar Rapids (90), Davenport (101), and Ottumwa (200). All told, those four are about the size of Baltimore (26). That’s not tiny, but it’s not enough to support two out of 64 major college football teams either. Somebody from the pairing of Iowa and Iowa State may be headed for a tumble (and it won’t be Iowa). If you go back and look at that Nate Silver piece, the Cyclones appear to be the 52nd-biggest program in the game. Just one thing: there’s absolutely no room for growth there. (Here’s what room for growth looks like: Stanford – fresh off its 12-1 turnaround season under Jim Harbaugh – was sitting at #69 five years ago. With the Cards in market #6 and with three Rose Bowls in the last five years now behind them, you may safely assume their audience has grown in a big way.)
- The schools of the former Pacific 8 conference have competed almost continuously against each other for a century. (UCLA joined in 1928, and there were a weird couple years in the early 1960’s, but whatever.) The Arizona schools joined the party almost 40 years ago. If you’re sort of located in Spokane (market #73), while in a state where you’re the second most important program, your value to Big TV is surprisingly small. You wouldn’t want to be in Washington State’s shoes when the time comes. We could have a similar discussion about the future of Oregon State football.
- And now, let’s look at the almighty SEC. Let’s say you’re a great basketball school (Hello Kentucky!) or just a great school (Here’s looking at you, Vandy!), but your football program typically underperforms, and frankly, you don’t really own the markets you’re located in – yes, we’re saying that Tennessee owns the Nashville market and that several programs (including Tennessee) own a big chunk of the Louisville and Lexington markets when it comes to football. You realize, of course, that there’s nothing unusual about schools belonging to different conferences for different sports. Could the Wildcats continue to play SEC basketball while moving to, say, Conference USA for football. Why not?
There are currently 64 schools playing Power 5 football, plus Notre Dame and BYU. If some programs are going down, who might be on the way up? Let’s think about it from a regional perspective.
- Out West, the permutations are endless. San Diego is market #28, and while its football stadium is widely panned on the NFL level, it’s a pretty damn good college stadium. A problem, however: does San Diego State really own San Diego, which is also full of UCLA and USC alums and immigrants from the desert land known as Arizona? Las Vegas is a huge and still growing market. Yet, its football program sucks. Boise has a great football program…in a teeny tiny market, but with a national audience. Y’know how Fresno State plays with that green V on its helmets? Well, the Fresno market is #54, but when you add in Bakersfield and a chunk of the Sacramento market that’s really part of the San Joaquin Valley (hence the V), you’re looking at reach about the size of San Diego with a really devoted fanbase and no local competition. Could one or two out of SDSU, UNLV, Fresno State, and Boise State replace Oregon State and/or Washington State in Pac-12 football? Don’t be surprised if that happens.
- In the Midwest, we’ve already touched on the Iowa State issue. With a weak football history and limited audience reach, the Cyclones could easily be headed to the MAC for football. What about, say, Indiana or Purdue? Purdue’s football history is certainly stronger than Indiana’s, but with the Boilers located in market #187, while Bloomington is part of the Indianapolis market, that may not matter. Of course, IU doesn’t entirely own the Indy market by any stretch of the imagination. You may be reading this and thinking, “Sure, but who in the Midwest moves up?” Again, remember that the B1G now includes Rutgers, Maryland, and Penn State, and you start to get an idea. Then, take a look at the AAC. Cincinnati and Memphis are top-50 markets fit for promoting, UConn would increase reach into the Northeast Corridor, and then there are two crazy ideas: hideous old Temple is in market #4, plays in an NFL yard, and isn’t exactly awful any more. Throw in Big Ten money that would amp up the Owls’ basketball program too, and the mind reels. Oh, and there have been occasional rumors about the B1G trying to reach into the Southwest. The University of Houston is turning into a major program (more on that again in a minute) and one that currently has an obvious Ohio State connection.
- Down South, once again, we already hit on potential SEC losers. Could Kentucky play its football in CUSA or the AAC and everything else in the SEC? Sure, though the Wildcat basketball program is so powerful that the guess here is that that’s not going to happen. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is another matter, particularly with Memphis ascendant while UT really owns much of the state, including the Nashville market. Look at the ACC, and Wake Forest stands out like a sore thumb. Y’know what else stands out: Raleigh-Durham – the Triangle to its residents – has three major athletic programs. Add in Charlotte, and the market for those three programs is almost the size of market #10, but three is still one program too many. The weak sister of those three is North Carolina State. Could NCSU be a victim here? It seems unthinkable, but you might want to think it, particularly when you think about the great state of Florida. Combined, Florida is almost 10% bigger than market #1 (New York), making up about 7% of the United States. Could USF and UCF join the Power 5 party? All other things being equal, if you’re the SEC or ACC, would you rather have the programs located in Tampa (market #11) and Orlando (#19) in your conference or would you rather have largely noncompetitive programs in big, but still smaller markets?
- And then there’s the Republic Of Texas. Add up all the TV markets, and you’re looking at a state that’s 1/6th bigger than New York, makes up 7.6% of the United States, and is chock full of college football fans. The question there is obvious: in a state somewhat dominated by one (UT) or two (add in TAMU) major state schools, how do you apportion the 8.632 million households – by the way, you’re not a person to television; you’re part of a household – by football program? However you do that, the 5% of Texas that lives within hailing range of Texas Tech isn’t entirely Red Raiders country. On the other hand, how much of the Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio markets belongs to Rice, UH, SMU, TCU, and even, dare we say it, UTSA? Could Texas Tech get sucked into the Group of 5 undertow while, say, Houston jumps up to TCU level, complete with a head coach now making $2.8 mil a year?
There are no easy decisions here, but if you think that the people who hand out the money and the people who split up the money that gets handed out aren’t thinking about these questions, you’re wrong. Oh, and because there are no easy decisions, here are two wacky predictions:
Third and fourth predictions: here comes relegation…with a regional twist.
These might seem iffy, but I wouldn’t count them out.
You probably know enough about European football, er, soccer to know that the worst teams in the top flight league get bumped down a peg every year and replaced by the best teams in the second-best league. If you feel the need, read about how they do it in England. Want to (1) eliminate the weaker programs and (2) add a hell of a lot of spice to that late season Indiana-Purdue game?
Howzabout relegating the last-place team in every major conference to the mid-majors while promoting a better team?
Again, before you write it off, realize that, if you’re cutting down to roughly 64 top-level college football programs, that means you’re maxing out at 32 games a week, and with bye weeks, that number will be more like 28-29 games a week. (Not that the mid-majors won’t continue on TV; they will.)
Big TV will be looking for ways to spice up every single game.
You know what spices up otherwise boring games? Fear. Fear of getting booted off your perch is a pretty powerful motivator, and fear drives television ratings. (Or were you wondering why your local Eyewitness News leads with stories of horrible, fear-inducing events and runs happy, feel-good stories in the last few minutes of the nightly news?)
Picture the last-place team from each power conference getting booted down a notch each year, while the champion of each mid-major takes a step up. Big TV suddenly gets a lot more value out of both the crappy major games and the better mid-major matchups that now go largely ignored. (For example Toledo-Northern Illinois, a great game, would be a hell of a lot more interesting if a spot in the B1G were on the line.) Also, Big TV gets fresh new matchups every year. (Oh look! Navy kicked ass in the AAC last year. Can the Mids handle a steady diet of Clemson and Florida State?)
How might that work? Simple: pair the leagues. The Pac-12 goes with the Mountain West; the B1G goes with the MAC, etc. You’re probably thinking of two reasons why this can’t possibly happen, so let’s talk about them:
- Ohmigodohmigodohmigod, what happens when Notre Dame or Ohio State gets relegated. THAT CAN’T EVER BE ALLOWED TO HAPPEN! Actually, it won’t happen. Ever. Okay, so Notre Dame had that 3-9 disaster in 2007. That, friend, is a massive outlier. The last time USC fell into the relegation zone was…never. ‘Bama? Not since Bear Bryant built the Tide into the power it is today. The most endangered major market program might be UCLA which has fallen into relegation territory…once, in 1971 in an eight-team conference. Given the money available to the biggest college markets, the truly major market programs aren’t going to fall down that far, and frankly, if you think something barring specific programs from ever being relegated can’t be written into TV contracts, you are quite mistaken. That wouldn’t be “fair”, but when did fair become part of this equation?
- WTF, are we seriously going to relegate a team from either the SEC or the ACC to the Sun Belt, and are we seriously going to allow a Sun Belt team to play with the big boys? Sorry to pick on you, #FunBelt, but look at yourself. Half of your programs were playing FCS ball not too long ago, and most of the other half should be there right now. (Here’s looking at you, NMSU and Idaho.) There’s a simple fix for that that also fixes the playoff, and here it comes.
Fifth prediction: the playoff and further conference consolidation.
Two years in, the College Football Playoff already needs fixing. Ratings for the semifinal games were down 45 and 34%. The national championship was down 23%. (Remember, the people paying out huge TV bucks do not like that one bit.) While the drop was probably driven by (1) less novelty in Year Two, and (2) the ridiculously lame decision to play the games on a Thursday that happened to be New Year’s Eve, the call for an eight-team playoff is already getting louder. (Google “eight-team college football playoff” and be prepared to laugh at the volume of posts on the subject.)
Oh, and we still have the Sun Belt to deal with. So, here’s your solution, and really, it’s quite simple.
For relegation/promotion purposes, we pair the Pac-12 with the Mountain West; the B1G gets joined with the MAC; the SEC meets CUSA, and the ACC is now kissin’ cousins with the AAC.
I’m sorry. Did you say that I’m forgetting something? No, not really.
Goodbye, #FunBelt. A handful of you may stay in mid-majordom by joining CUSA or the AAC if they’ll have you. The rest of you are cordially invited to return to FCSland, and really, isn’t a chance at a real playoff and national championship more enticing that playing in the Marmot Outoftheway Bowl? Again, sorry for the unfairness and cruelty of it all, but c’est la TV.
Oh, and adios Big 12. You may now move about as you see fit, perhaps with the Texas schools (finally) joining hands with the Pac-12 (except for that new Mountain West power Texas Tech), the Oklahoma schools jumping into the SEC, Kansas the B1G, West Virginia to the ACC, and Iowa State and K-State…uhh…umm. Again, sorry guys.
Yes, I’m suggesting four 16-team leagues, each broken up into two eight-team divisions.
The playoff just became easy, didn’t it?
The four conference championship games just became the national quarterfinals, thus eliminating concerns like, “Gee it’ll be too expensive for fans to travel to three neutral site games at the end of the year.” Let a committee seed the four conference champions, and they can still play as part of the “New Year’s Six” if that’s what the CFP really wants. The rest of the bowl games not only continue as they are now, but picture a non-playoff Rose Bowl featuring the Pac-12 and Big 10 runners-up. This year, that would have been USC and Iowa – still a pretty good game that looks like a traditional Rose Bowl. The other games could likewise return to conference roots, meaning we’ll never see, for example, another Sugar Bowl pairing Michigan and Virginia Tech.
Oh, and Notre Dame, it looks like you just decided to join the ACC or the B1G, doesn’t it? Yeah, we know, you’re Notre Dame. Sorry, even you aren’t bigger than the kind of money that’s being thrown around these days.
Conclusion: change is a-comin’, and it’s bigger than everything that’s already changed.
So, there it is.
For those of us who are traditionalists, it’s not fun to think about traditional conference lineups and the regional pairings getting tossed out the window, but that’s already happened anyway. Now, we’re just looking at more of it. A lot more of it.
At the end of this, we return to the beginning of this.
Money is driving everything that’s happening in major college football. The people providing the money all have a vested interest in making sure that the most people possible observe every single game they televise so they can see those lovely Nike, Underarmour, and adidas logos the players and coaches are sporting along with those same ten TV commercials that get repeated over and over and over. (Memo to Warren Buffett: your GEICO spots are really good, but after we’ve seen them a couple gazillion times, they’re just plain annoying. Please quadruple your creative output.)
The more money they invest in the product – and major college football is an entertainment product – the more they’re going to want to make sure their investments pay off.
Love it or hate it, here’s where things are going. Let’s hope that, when it’s done, your dear old alma mater is still playing its archrival in a Division 1-A (or whatever they end up calling the top division) football game during the last weekend of the season.