So, I wrote this whole long post about TV money and conference realignment from my perspective as a media veteran. Apparently, my Contact form works just fine because I got a heaping helping of e-mails. Also, I saw plenty of comments online about the post.
Let’s talk about those, but first, an obligatory message that starts with two words:
Seriously. I put that post up because I think the stuff in it is really interesting. A friend shared it in a couple places, and I had no idea what would happen after that. Here’s what I’m saying thank you for:
- The post got shared in all sorts of places, many of which I either don’t know about or don’t have access to. It’s one hell of a compliment that anyone thought that what I wrote was interesting enough to share it. If you did that, thank you. Again, it’s a hell of a compliment, and don’t think I don’t know it.
- Guess what the average time spent reading the post is. It’s about eight minutes per person. (I don’t know much, but I do know how to read Google Analytics.) In other words, if you started reading the post, you probably read the whole freaking thing. Again, that’s a huge compliment, and I appreciate it.
And now, let’s talk about the opinions that were e-mailed to me and the opinions I saw online about the post (and no, it’s not possible that I’ve seen most of those opinions – lots of ’em are in places that are behind paywalls). At least, let’s talk about the opinions that don’t begin with “you should put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger” or imply that I am of a sexual orientation that I am not, but which I am not the least bit bothered by.
Basically, there were three types of objections/questions, so in an attempt to not repeat myself too much, I’m going to categorize them. The three types:
- That’ll never happen because university presidents will never sign off on it!
- We’ve always done it that way, and ain’t nothin’ ever gonna change it!
- What’s the deal with this thing anyway?
The comments – they’re in quotes – aren’t from any one person. I’m summarizing what several different people have said to me.
Type 1: No way are university presidents ever gonna sign off on that!
Here’s my generic answer to these objections: in a vacuum, you’re right.
None of this stuff is done in a vacuum. It’s done in a boardroom, where lots of money is being thrown around, and if you want to stick your snout in the money trough, you’re going to do what the folks who own the trough want you to do. Said differently, if you want to dine on those delicious stacks of cash that the nice people from Big TV and Big Apparel are serving up, you’re going to have to give them what they want. What they want is lots and lots of people watching the football games they’re dropping so much money on.
“There’s no way college presidents are going to sign off on a deal that could drop their football teams from major status.” If they truly have a choice in the matter, you’re right – they’ll never agree to do that. Also, if you truly had a choice in the matter, you wouldn’t agree to sign a contract with a cell phone company that essentially guarantees them your loyalty for a couple years in exchange for your being allowed to get that shiny new cellphone you really want.
You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to have a cell phone, and you do have the right to drop a huge pile of cash on an unlocked phone. However, the odds are that you’re going to do that deal even though you don’t want to. (Oh damn, and my deal’s coming up this summer, so I get to feel taken advantage of all over again.)
When it comes to big money TV deals, college presidents have less choice than you do. They don’t get to buy an unlocked iPhone or use their flip phone from 2003 until it dies completely. They have to negotiate collectively, and unless they want to take a big cut in the amount of money they’re raking in from various places, they’re going to be stuck with the terms that the people writing the big checks hand them. As I said last go-round, mid-majors will still be bringing in solid TV money, just not the massive bucks that a Texas or an Ohio State can bring in.
I’m not saying that doesn’t suck. I’m just saying it’s going to happen.
“Yeah, well university presidents will definitely not sign off on a deal with soccer-style relegation.” You might be right on that one. I said it in the last piece, and I’ll say it again here: I’m pretty iffy on that one, but I can definitely see it happening. Why? Because it adds a ton of drama – and therefore financial value – to games that otherwise lack it. Again, it’s money that comes first in the new world of college football.
To me, the biggest argument against relegation isn’t the fear of power programs going down – that’s never going to happen. It’s the fear of big markets going down. You can see Rutgers tanking from time to time and finding itself in the AAC or MAC or whatever, can’t you? I can, and I can’t see Big TV being happy about seeing the program with more fans in New York than any other dropping down to mid-major level. You can always write contracts that keep certain schools from being relegated, but that starts getting really complicated really quick.
For that reason, I’d say it’s 50/50 that relegation ever happens. But I know this: somebody in a position to negotiate is going to suggest the idea, and when they do, it’s not going to be tossed aside without a lot of serious consideration.
By the way, a tip of the hat to one guy who had an awesome suggestion: don’t automatically relegate and promote teams. Make it a bowl game. For example, the last place team in the SEC plays the worst team in CUSA for the right to play SEC football. I’d think most of those games would be blowouts (in favor of the first-place team), but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? I think it’s a brilliant idea, and it’s certainly worth trying as an experiment.
“College conferences are more than sports leagues. For example, all the schools in [beloved conference name here] are elite research universities, and they want to be associated with similar schools.” Isn’t that the reason that BYU isn’t currently part of the Pac-12 – lack of “cultural fit”? Other than that, the answer is pretty much the same as to the last question, but I’ll add in a reminder of something else (that we’re going to come back to in a bit): this is football, not life. Being in a football conference with a school that you do not perceive to be your academic equal is inconsistent with making as much money as possible on the football field.
So here, university president, with regard to football, contemplate which is more important to you: a heaping helping of Benjamins or being associated with your equals in the classroom and the research lab. Before you think that academic integrity has a prayer of winning out here, think about all the recruits who get into schools that they otherwise don’t qualify for academically simply because they have enough recruiting stars attached to their names. (And remember, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the schools. Some of those recruits are damn fine kids who just need a chance.)
Finally, bear this in mind: there’s no rule that says you have to associate with the other schools in your football conference for any other reason. In fact, let’s get into that right now.
“Basketball is a huge part of the money equation too. [Insert name here] is a huge basketball school, so nothing’s going to happen to the football program. There’s going to be basketball consolidation too.” Let’s dispense with the last part of this first: maybe there will be basketball consolidation too, though I doubt it. After all, part of what makes the NCAA basketball tournament so great is the annual discovery that [insert your favorite underdog here] can plow [insert your least favorite megaprogram here] straight out of the tournament and make it to the Final Four.
That, however, is really beside the point. This isn’t: the big bucks in college basketball come from different sources than the big bucks in college football. Who’s dropping major cake on March Madness? That would be CBS and Turner. Who are the big players in college football? Not CBS and Turner.
More to the point, there is absolutely no law that says that major athletic programs have to compete in one conference for all sports. To state the obvious, look at Notre Dame, which has a completely different arrangement for football than it does for all other sports. Look at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, a 38-school conference whose membership varies by sport and includes Cal Poly, Cal Baptist, Alaska-Anchorage, Seattle Pacific, Air Force…and UCLA, USC, Cal and Stanford. Oh, and Oklahoma.
So yeah, Kansas and Kentucky will undoubtedly try to leverage their value as basketball programs to maintain their major football status, and I think they’ll succeed. However, I could be wrong. More importantly, some other schools with basketball programs that are strong, but not UK/KU strong, will also try to leverage their programs, but probably with less success. (I swear I’m not deliberately picking on ISU, but here’s looking at you, Iowa State.)
Type 2: It’s always been that way, and it’s always gonna be that way!
You already know the generic answer to this one, right? Here we go anyway.
So you’ve always done it that way? Once upon a time, people rode horses and covered wagons to get around the country. Then, they rode trains. Then cars. Then planes. Things change.
They change in football too. I’m old enough to remember this magazine cover. Year in and year old, Nebraska-Oklahoma was arguably the best rock ’em sock ’em football rivalry on the planet. (And I don’t have a dog in that hunt.) How is it even marginally possible that Texas and TAMU don’t play every year? The Holy War, Backyard Brawl, Battle Of The Brazos, and Border War are in various states of “maybe/maybe not”? How the #@&* did that happen? The point is, things change – sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
In business, “we’ve always done it this way” are some of the most toxic words you’ll every hear. In football, things change for one reason more than any other: money. Speaking of things changing, Notre Dame and Michigan aren’t playing every year because…why? Speaking of which…
My favorite variant of this objection: “No way Notre Dame is ever joining a conference!” Oh, okay. You got a reason for that, other than “‘Cause we’re Notre Dame?” Y’all blew off Michigan (and some other traditional games) to play more ACC teams, Irish. Why? Because your academics and regional interests are suddenly more aligned with the ACC than the B1G?
Bottom line: if ND is faced with accepting a major TV deal requires it to join the B1G or ACC and leaves the Irish balling for a natty every year, and the alternative keeps them an independent making less money and playing in the Barca Lounger Whatever Bowl against a third-tier competitor every December, guess which way things are going to go.
“[Insert huge program’s name] is already making more money than anybody else. Why would they agree to this?” See the above about Notre Dame. As I said in the last piece, Texas didn’t all but go rogue on the Big 12 for any other reason than because it could. Money and power are intertwined, and Texas used its power to make more money than the rest of the conference, which is probably why it’s not currently part of a Pac-16.
At some point, however, no one school – not Texas, not Notre Dame, not anybody else – has more power to generate big revenue than than a larger collective does. That’s why, at some point, I strongly believe that all of those programs will come to the party too – because they have to, not because they want to.
“Existing contracts could prevent this stuff from happening.” In real life, I deal with contracts all the time. I have no idea of all the details in the various contracts that govern the stuff we’re talking about here, but I’ll tell you two equally important things: (1) this is the best argument against every single thing I’ve said, but (2) nothing is forever, including a contract you’ve just signed that includes the words “in perpetuity”. In the end, contracts were made to be
If anything delays the eventual consolidation of college football, it’s going to be existing contracts. (Well, that and politics.) If I’m the president of a program that’s getting bumped out of a major conference, I’m sure as hell not signing off on that if there’s an opportunity out there that protects me. That said, contracts (and hearts) were made to be broken.
Type 3: WTF is this all about anyway, dude?
This, mon ami, is an exercise in thinking about what’s happening with a sport that many of us love. In the immortal words of one Robert Allen Zimmerman, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
The wind is blowing in a new direction. 25 years ago, it was mindboggling when the SEC split into divisions in order to play a championship game. Now, that’s normal.
Twenty years ago, it was even more shocking when the Southwest Conference officially went buh bye.
Change is accelerating. Think about how you communicated with people twenty years ago. (Hint: it involved a telephone call, almost always from a landline, or writing something called a “letter”.)
That level of change is coming to all of the entertainment business, and guess what sports is. It’s entertainment.
Think about how you watched TV twenty years ago. If you had cable TV in your neighborhood, you had one choice of where to get it from. You’d never heard of satellite TV, which had just launched.
Oh, and you never would have read this because people weren’t writing about this stuff on the internet. To read anything like an opinion piece about conference realignment, you’d have had to wait to see it in a magazine or your local newspaper. Remember those?
So that’s what this is about. One potential vision of change, a monologue – or dialogue, your choice – about a subject that a lot of us who love college football are thinking about.
As a general matter, I’m not too fond of change – at least, not the kind of change I’ve been talking about. However, it’s happening.
Thanks for reading my thoughts about it. If you shared them with anyone else, double thanks for that. Oh, and if you shared your thoughts with me, triple thanks for that.