Conference realignment at the power conference level has seemingly ground to a halt after what has been nearly four years of rumors, Tweets and blogs speculating on apocalyptic moves. When I created the Big Ten Expansion Index, there seemed to be endless possibilities of how the college sports world would shake out. Now, tools such as grant of rights agreements have at least temporarily paused any realignment within the power conference ranks. However, there’s still a nagging feeling that the 10-member Big 12 won’t stay at its current size. While any belief that some outside force would demand that the Big 12 expand (i.e. the SEC or other power conferences in the new playoff system) should be discredited as completely erroneous (as every conference wants to respect each others’ full autonomy in determining its membership levels), the practical reality is that the Big 12 is the odd duck in a world where other conferences are seeking size and depth in terms of brand names and TV markets while adding conference championship games (as opposed to eliminating them). Just as there will continue to be speculation about the Big Ten expanding to 16 members until it actually does so (particularly with comments such as the recent ones in Inside the Hall from Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass calling 16 schools a “sweet spot”), the Big 12 is going to face the same questions until it gets back up to 12 schools.

With the peripheral rumor mongering noise dying down for the most part, I though it would be a good time to take a step back and create The Big 12 Expansion Index to assess where the viable candidates for that conference stand. To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to endorse the expansion of the Big 12. It’s perfectly reasonable for a Big 12 partisan to see the realistic expansion candidates as the equivalent of looking at a bar full of butterfaces at 3 am while “Closing Time” is playing in the background and saying, “No thanks. Call a cab for me to get the hell out of here.” Personally, I believe that the Big 12 needs to expand in the long-term regardless of any short-term revenue splitting implications, but this analysis can just as easily serve as justification for the conference to not get larger.

I. ASSUMPTIONS

In examining the Big 12 candidates, the following assumptions will be applied:

  • ASSUMPTION #1 – Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.

This was the most important rule when constructing the Big Ten Expansion Index and it continues here with the Big 12. Conference realignment decisions aren’t driven by which school is most highly ranked in the latest BCS standings, who the fans like, or even what coaches and athletic directors may want (no matter how powerful they might be at their respective schools). Instead, university presidents are the ones that ultimately make realignment decisions and they’re looking at the long-term off-the-field big picture much more than short-term on-the-field issues that fans are generally focused upon. To be sure, how well a school plays football (and to a much lesser extent, basketball) is certainly relevant, but TV markets, demographic changes and academic rankings are factors that really get university presidents get much more engaged.

  • ASSUMPTION #2 – The Big 12 lacks the ability to raid another power conference.

A number of Big 12 partisans wanted to believe over the past year that the league would be able to poach high profile schools from the ACC such as Florida State and Clemson. However, that prospect was simply never realistic due to a number of issues that the Big 12 needs to address, namely the demographics of the league outside of the state of Texas (which will be explained further in the index criteria below), overall academic reputation and national football brand names beyond Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 12 was able to save itself due to Texas wanting the Longhorn Network over the creation of the Pac-16 and Fox and ESPN paying a lot of money to keep the league together, but it is a paper tiger when it comes to expansion. As a result, the schools being evaluated in the index are all from the “Group of Five” non-power conference ranks.

II. EXPLANATION OF THE BIG 12 EXPANSION INDEX

The Big 12 Expansion Index assesses candidates on a 100-point scale. Please note that the schools are being graded on their values relative to only other Gang of Five schools. So, it doesn’t mean that if a school that receives a perfect score in the index that it would be as valuable as Florida State or USC. These values also have no relation to the figures that were calculated in the Big Ten Expansion Index*. This is only measuring the distinctions within the Group of Five universe that serves as the realistic pool of Big 12 expansion candidates. Here are the categories:

Football Brand Value (30 points) – As it was with the Big Ten, this is the most heavily weighted category as a reflection of the reality of the college sports landscape. The revenue generated from football is so massive in comparison to the other sports (including basketball) that it is the ultimate driver for expansion in every conference (including more historically basketball-focused ones such as the ACC).

It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out stadiums for years whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 25 of the BCS rankings this year. A lengthy tradition of playing football at the top level also carries more cache compared to being a noveau riche program. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. Granted, it is much more difficult to find schools under this standard at the Group of Five level compared to at the power conferences, which is a large reason why those Group of Five schools aren’t in power conferences in the first place as of now.

National TV Value (15 points) – The calculation for TV values is a bit different for the Big 12 compared to the Big Ten. With the latter’s Big Ten Network, there was more of an emphasis on the value that schools would bring to that channel (which meant it was fairly large market-focused, albeit the Big Ten still ended up small market Nebraska first when all was said and done because of its extraordinary national TV value). The Big 12, though, is more concerned with the value of its national TV contract above all else since the league doesn’t have a conference network (and in fact, grants third tier TV rights to its individual members who then keep all of that revenue to themselves). Losing Nebraska was a major hit on that front and it led to the Big 12’s decision to add West Virginia instead of Louisville in 2011. As with the Football Brand Value category, there is much more weight on programs with longer histories of being national TV draws as opposed to the flavors of the moment. The issue with Big 12 expansion, of course, is that there are really only a handful of Group of Five schools that have any national TV value at all with respect to football.

Local TV Value (10 points) – While national TV value is more important to the Big 12 with respect to expansion candidates, there’s certainly still an interest for the Big 12 to expand to new TV markets (as the national TV contract can be impacted by local TV market coverage). The defections from the Big 12 over the past 4 years caused the conference to lose its only two top 25 TV markets that were located outside of the state of Texas (Denver and St. Louis). For this category, 10 points will be granted to a top 25 market, 7 points to a 26-50 market, 3 point to a 51-75 market, and then 0 points after that. Please note that any school that is already located in a Big 12 market will receive zero points in this category no matter how large its local market might be.

Demographics/Recruiting Value (20 points) – This was a category that wasn’t included in The Big Ten Expansion Index, but it would have been if I knew then that Jim Delany was going to use the word “demographics” in conjunction with expansion more than any other word over the past 4 years. While there’s some correlation between demographics and local TV value (as a larger market generally means more favorable demographics), the word “demographics” is really a code word for a very tangible concern for football fans and coaches: football recruits. It always irks me whenever I see comments to the effect that the Big Ten’s additions of Rutgers and Maryland didn’t do anything for the conference in football. Quite to the contrary, that expansion was very important for on-the-field matters because New Jersey and Maryland, according to a study by Football Study Hall, happened to be the top two non-Sun Belt states not already in the Big Ten footprint in terms of producing Division I football recruits (and it wasn’t even close).

The very real danger for the Big 12 compared to the other power conferences is that its coverage in the state of Texas (which is the nation’s top football recruiting state and a beast in terms of population growth) has masked its completely poor demographics in the rest of the conference. There’s no demographic depth at all in the conference once you get beyond the Lone Star State, which has come so close to collapse on multiple occasions over the past few years. Without Texas, the Big 12 dies (whereas each of the other power conferences might be severely wounded if their very top brand name school left, but they would likely still find a way to carry on since they have fuller slates of markets and populous states). In this category, 20 points go to any school in a state that is in the top 5 of Division I recruits annually under the Football Study Hall study (as there’s a huge gap between #5 and #6), 15 points go to any school in a state ranked 6 to 10, 10 points go to any school in a state ranked 11 to 20, 5 points go to any school in any other state that produces at least 20 Division I recruits per year, and 0 points for states under 20. As noted by Football Study Hall, the states that have 20 or more Division I recruits per year have produced 93% of all Division I football players since 2008, so any state under 20 isn’t helping the Big 12’s demographic cause. As with the Local TV Value category, any school that is already located in a Big 12 state will receive zero points in this category.

Academics (5 points) – The Big 12 would certainly like to add top tier academic schools, but it won’t necessarily nix any expansion candidate on those grounds. This is in contrast to the Big Ten, where the Academics category was weighted heavily enough to effectively exclude any school that didn’t meet the threshold as being a viable candidate. For the purposes of the Big 12, 5 points will be assigned to any school that has at least 2 of the following 3 qualifications: an AAU member, ranked in the top 100 of the US News undergraduate rankings and/or ranked in the top 300 of the ARWU world graduate school rankings. A school that has 1 of those qualifications will receive 3 points. Everyone else will receive zero (as the Big 12 would likely only be swayed by truly exceptional academic reputations).

Basketball Value (5 points) – As I stated in the Big Ten Expansion Index post, personally, there’s nothing that would make me more delirious as a sports fan than Illinois winning the national championship in basketball. However, when it comes to conference expansion discussions, basketball has been even less of a consideration than I originally thought 4 years ago. This is too bad since there is a whole slew of excellent or even elite basketball programs available in the Group of Five (much more so than football programs). That being said, if all things are relatively equal in the other categories, then basketball considerations could be the tipping point. An elite program and/or fan base will receive 5 points and a solid program and/or school with a fair amount of tradition will get 3 points.

Geographic Fit/Need (5 points) – Normally, this is a category that is based on pure geographic proximity. However, the Big 12 also has a geographic need to bridge the distance gap between West Virginia and the rest of the conference. As a result, schools in states that are located within that gap along with other states immediately adjacent to the current Big 12 footprint will receive 5 points, while everyone else will receive zero. This is an all-or-nothing category – either a school meets the geographic need or it doesn’t.

Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power (10 points) – This is a category that wasn’t considered for the Big Ten since it was really looking for established old money schools. In the Big 12’s case, though, its realistic expansion candidates almost all have warts of some nature. In fact, there are quite a few candidates that would be looked at in an entirely different light in a positive way if they were merely competent in on-the-field football performance (much less being powers). As a result, much like an unpolished prospect with a lot of athleticism in the NFL or NBA draft, the upside potential of a school should be taken into consideration by the Big 12. This is especially true for a school that could potentially have “monopoly power” of being the only power conference program in its home state. Other factors include whether a school is a flagship or academically elite, has a proven basketball fan base, or has made a lot of recent investments in football facilities.

(* Note that the Mutual Interest category that was in the Big Ten Expansion Index was eliminated here. Any Group of Five school would join the Big 12 in a heartbeat.)

III. EVALUATION OF BIG 12 EXPANSION CANDIDATES

The candidates are listed in reverse order from least desirable to most desirable. Once again, for the purposes of this evaluation, it is assumed that the only viable Big 12 expansion candidates are not currently power conference members and the calculations are based upon comparisons only to other schools within that non-power conference school group.

A. ALL HAT, NO CATTLE

RICE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 35
Overview: Fantastic academic institution with a lot of history with the former Southwestern Conference teams in the Big 12, but the lack of a new market or recruiting area is a killer for its candidacy. It would take some massive on-the-field accomplishments (i.e. winning the Group of Five bid to a top bowl in the new College Football Playoff system multiple times) for Rice to move up here.

UNLV
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 37
Overview: The Runnin’ Rebels score low right now due to a horrid stretch of on-the-field football performances over the past several years, but they’re a program to watch if it can get a new state-of-the-art football stadium into place. This is a school that provides the highest profile sports teams in the Las Vegas market with a strong basketball fan base, so their value skyrockets if they can avoid complete ineptitude in football.

COLORADO STATE
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 5
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 43
Overview: It’s a mystery why Colorado State doesn’t ever seem to be able to get its act together on-the-field. On paper, this is an institution that ought to be attractive to a power conference with its solid academics and location in fast growing and demographically desirable Colorado, yet their putrid football performances over the past decade have nixed them from any type of consideration. CSU, like UNLV, is looking to build a new football stadium to increase its chances to move up in the athletic world.

SMU
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 43
Overview: The issue with SMU (and any other Texas-based school) is that they’re not bringing any new TV markets or recruiting areas that the Big 12 doesn’t already have blanketed. Now, that isn’t an automatic disqualifier for a Big 12 candidacy (see the addition of TCU in 2011), but it would likely take perfect scores in the Football Brand Value and National TV Value categories to make that happen.

NEW MEXICO
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 45
Overview: New Mexico is in a very similar situation to UNLV with an excellent basketball program and fan base with potential monopoly power in its home market… but its on-the-field football product has been unacceptably terrible for a long period of time. The Lobos actually have a leg up on UNLV in terms of academics and being a geographic fit with the Big 12, so they’re a school that can rise rapidly in the pecking order with merely some football competence (much less prowess).

HOUSTON
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 3
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 48
Overview: See the comments about SMU, only Houston has more basketball tradition. There is also the wild card that the Big 12 may want a physical presence in the Houston market in the same way that TCU is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, but the Cougars would still need to have some overwhelmingly extraordinary football success for this to be a possibility.

MEMPHIS
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 10
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 49
Overview: Memphis is essentially an Eastern mirror of UNLV: large urban basketball school with historically terrible football over the past decade. The advantage that Memphis has by comparison is that it’s located in a rich football recruiting area and aids in bridging the geographic gap between West Virginia and the rest of the Big 12. Memphis has shown that they have excellent basketball fans – if they can get that to translate to football, they have quite a bit of upside. The main drag is being the midst of heavy SEC competition.

B. INTRIGUING, BUT NOT PRACTICAL

BOISE STATE
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 52
Overview: From a national TV contract standpoint, Boise State might be the single most valuable school that is outside of the power conferences as of today. The question that university presidents will always ask, though, is, “How long will this last?” As you can see, Boise State doesn’t bring anything else in terms of demographics, academics, basketball or geography. This is a school whose attributes are purely based upon on-the-field football performance, which is actually exactly what university presidents tend to shy away from since such success is difficult to maintain even when a program has all of the financial resources in the world (see Texas and USC right now and Alabama prior to Nick Saban coming in). There might be a point where Boise State becomes the Gang of Five equivalent of Nebraska where markets and demographics become completely irrelevant with having such a strong football brand, but we aren’t there yet.

TEMPLE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 15
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 3
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 53
Overview: This is an interesting potential play for the Big 12 by going directly east of West Virginia. The good news is that Philadelphia is a massive market with access to an excellent football recruiting state*. The bad news is that Philly is a tepid college football market (and those that follow college football there tend to follow the king program of Penn State) and there’s a sense that Temple won’t ever develop into much more than what is now (which isn’t satisfactory for the Big 12). The school has had plenty of chances to become a legit power program and never succeeded.

(* For fans of “Friday Night Light”s (the TV series), just picture that fantastic final scene in the finale with the football in the air transitioning from Texas to Philly. If only conference realignment were as smooth.)

CONNECTICUT
Football Brand Value – 20
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 57
Overview: In a vacuum, UConn is arguably the most power conference-like school that isn’t in a power conference today. If this were an ACC Expansion Index, then UConn would be close to a perfect score. Frankly, there’s still a part of me that’s surprised that UConn isn’t in the ACC already, but I perfectly understand why Louisville got the nod last year. The problem with the prospect of UConn going to the Big 12 is that it’s not a good fit for what the conference is seeking in expansion. UConn has actually performed aptly in football over the past decade outside of the last couple of years, yet the New England region is a black hole when it comes for football recruiting (particularly considering how it’s a high population area) and the school’s men’s and women’s basketball prowess probably has the least value to the Big 12 out of any of the power conferences (as hoops mainly benefit conferences that either have networks like the Big Ten has or strong basketball syndication deals like the ACC). Now, UConn’s Big East pedigree and relatively strong brand name means that the school has a large amount of upside, but it may not matter to the Big 12 with Connecticut being so far geographically from the conference’s core.

C. NEEDS WORK, BUT KEEP AN EYE ON THEM

TULANE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 3
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 15
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 58
Overview: Tulane has been in the on-the-field football doldrums since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but the Green Wave might be resuscitating itself at just the right time. The school is building a brand new right-sized on-campus stadium and the football team is bowl eligible this season. Tulane’s academics are arguably the best of any school in the Group of Five besides Rice and the state of Louisiana is one of the best pound-for-pound football recruiting areas in the country. Honestly, out of all of the schools on this list, Tulane has the best chance out of anyone to realize its Tremendous Upside Potential and moving up to the top.

D. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

SOUTH FLORIDA
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 63
Overview: The allure of USF is purely about a demographic play – athletic directors and coaches fall all over themselves over the thought of combining the recruiting territories of Texas and Florida. (Note that this is a bigger reason for any fan of a school that’s not in the SEC to be scared of how successful that league can integrate Texas A&M.) USF has shown some flashes of football ability, but it’s been inconsistent. There is also extremely heavy power conference competition within the state of Florida (with Florida, Florida State and Miami gobbling up market shares), so there’s a limit to how large of a fan base that USF can realistically build.

CENTRAL FLORIDA
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 65
Overview: UCF has the exact same overview as USF above (just switch USF with UCF) except that UCF has a bit more upside as (a) being one of the largest schools by enrollment in the country and (b) having fresh chances to perform at higher levels of college football (whereas we’ve already seen what USF was and wasn’t able to do in the old Big East).

SAN DIEGO STATE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 67
Overview: San Diego State has similar attributes as UCF and USF on the opposite coast when it comes to football, but the Aztecs have the advantage when it comes to basketball value and the fact that it is the primary Division I sports school in the San Diego market. While Florida and Florida State have statewide fan bases in the Sunshine State, California is much more fragmented by market, which means that SDSU has more potential to “deliver” its home market despite the on-paper proximity of UCLA and USC compared to the AAC’s Florida schools.

E. THE ONLY CHOICES TODAY

BYU
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 5
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 75
Overview: BYU has strong enough of a national brand to garner an independent TV contrac with ESPN, a massive worldwide fan base, its own TV network and a solid football tradition. My criteria for demographics and academics likely undercount the true value of BYU, as its relevant demographics are really related to the world’s Mormon population and it has top tier undergraduate academics. Boise State might have the best record of recent on-the-field achievements out of any non-power conference school, but BYU is the one institution at this level that legitimately looks, feels and acts like a power conference program.

CINCINNATI
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 90
Overview: I’ve been mentioning Cincinnati as a strong Big 12 expansion candidate for awhile, but it wasn’t until constructing this index did I see how the school really does hit virtually every metric that the conference should be seeking. Among the Group of Five schools, its Football Brand Value is strong with multiple BCS bowl appearances and consistent performances over the past several years despite a number of coaching changes. The state of Ohio is a football recruiting powerhouse with only one in-state power conference competitor (albeit a massive one in the form of Ohio State). The school’s academics are solid, it has a great basketball history and its location is in a major market with probably the best geographic bridge to West Virginia of any viable candidate. The only question with Cincinnati is whether it can really perform any better on-the-field that it already has in football during the past few years. Still, that’s a minor issue compared to how the school has created a consistently competitive football program.

So, if the Big 12 were to expand today, it’s clear that Cincinnati and BYU have a huge gap over the rest of the field. Whether that type of expansion would be compelling enough to the Big 12 to make a move at all is still an open question.

(Image from Wikipedia)

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For the past year, I’ve been pointing out that conference realignment really hinges on three primary schools: Texas, Notre Dame and North Carolina. The first two are fairly obvious to football-focused fans, but UNC is really the true lynchpin to the ACC. So, it was interesting to see the emails that were circulated within the UNC leadership ranks in the wake of Maryland’s defection to the Big Ten last year that The News & Observer procured. Here are some key excerpts and my thoughts:

Emails to and from Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, reflect the uncertainty that fans, boosters, administrators and Cunningham himself shared in the days after Maryland announced its decision to leave the ACC. Financial concerns drove the speculation surrounding conference realignment. According to Maryland, those concerns also drove it out of the ACC.

Hours after Maryland announced its move, Sports Illustrated posted a story on its website that detailed how much more money Maryland would make in the Big Ten. The first paragraph read: “The University of Maryland stands to make nearly $100 million more in conference revenue by 2020 with its switch from the ACC to the Big Ten. …”

Martina Ballen, the Chief Financial Officer of the UNC athletic department, emailed the link to Cunningham and UNC’s associate athletic directors. She included a short note: “Wow! Big $$$ if this is accurate.”

***

Other emails Cunningham received expressed shock that Maryland would leave, and they questioned whether the money in the Big Ten was that much greater than in the ACC. One came from Cappy Gagnon, a longtime Notre Dame athletic department employee who retired in 2011.

“I don’t get this one,” Gagnon wrote to Cunningham, who started his college athletic administration career at Notre Dame. “Maryland is going to be nobody in the Big Ten, with zero natural rivals and long travel. Is the money from the Big Ten Network that much greater than the ACC TV money?”

Cunningham’s response: “Yes. Likely $20 (million)/yr by 2017.”

This was one of the more surprising points in the sense that there seemed to be a genuine lack of knowledge among top level people of how much more of an advantage in TV money that the Big Ten had (and continues to have) over the ACC. That wasn’t something isolated to UNC – recall that University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh stated that he was “stunned” at the Big Ten’s financial projections and didn’t realize the extent of the financial disparities between conferences until going through realignment discussions. It would have been one thing if these were average sports fans just focused on on-the-field results, but it’s quite amazing that university leaders and athletic department officials didn’t seem to be as informed on college sports financial matters as, say, most of the people reading this blog or those that followed the reporting of mainstream media members like Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com, Andy Staples of SI.com and Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. It’s an indication of the insularity of many universities and athletic departments and partially explains why the inertia in favor of the status quo is often stronger than many conference expansionistas would like to believe. What we’re seeing is that it takes a real external crisis for the vast majority of power conference schools to take notice of the information that’s out there and consider switching leagues. (Note that this thinking doesn’t apply to the “Group of Five” non-power conference schools, who are going to be continuously and unabashedly actively looking for greener pastures.)

Cunningham had no shortage of input. A steady stream of emails from alumni, fans and boosters began on Nov. 20.

The notes came from everywhere: from people who graduated from UNC in the 1960s, and those who graduated in the past few years. Former athletes wrote in. There were Rams Club members. And emails from fans who had no tie to the school other than their allegiance.

One came from an Army major who wrote of how he’d followed UNC athletics throughout deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He expressed concern about a conference move and wrote, “I will always love Carolina, but my fervor towards our athletic programs would die a rapid death should we choose to enter the BIG TEN.”

The emails – many coming after UNC fans on the message boards at InsideCarolina.com organized a push to fill Cunningham’s inbox – shared roughly the same sentiment: Lead the Tar Heels out of the crumbling ACC, to a better place. The overwhelming majority of fans preferred moving to the SEC. Among the more than 150 pages of emails that Cunningham received in the 10 days after Maryland’s announcement, only one email favored joining the Big Ten.

This isn’t a shock that UNC fans preferred a move to the SEC over the Big Ten, as many purely sports-focused fans are generally ignorant or dismissive of the desire of university presidents to tie academic prestige to athletic conferences along with the TV dollars involved. As I’ve stated in previous posts, this plays to the ACC’s advantage in terms of retaining UNC: Tar Heel fans want a Southern-based athletic league, but university leaders care much more about being with their academic peers and maximizing revenue. So, the ACC provides the right balance of being Southern-focused (unlike the Big Ten) and having academic prestige (more so than the SEC).

And so it went, day after day. The most dire speculation was that Florida State and Clemson might also leave for the Big 12. The possibility came up in communication between Cunningham and Dean Jordan, an ACC consultant who specializes in TV rights contracts.

Jordan, who works for the Wasserman Media Group, worked closely with Swofford and helped convince Florida State and Virginia, among others, that the grant of rights agreement would help secure the ACC’s future. Jordan also discussed with ACC schools the possible benefits of developing a TV network devoted to ACC coverage.

Back then, in the days after Maryland’s announcement, Jordan was like everyone else, trying to figure out whether Florida State might actually leave. In an email to Cunningham on Nov. 21, Jordan wrote:

“FSU’s life won’t greatly change in the Big 12. The Big 12 TV deal is pro-rata for any new member and their TV distribution is only about $1 (million) more than the ACC. The Big 12 is going to take in $13 (million) more in BCS money – around $1 (million) per school.

“So for $2 to $3 (million) bucks, FSU is going to go through the trauma of switching leagues?”

The Wasserman consultant crystallized what I had always thought about the prospect of Florida State and Clemson going to the Big 12: it just didn’t make sense when you just took a step back and saw what was involved. The Big 12 might have had the advantage in pure on-the-field football performance over the past several years, but that league is a paper tiger in off-the-field conference realignment discussions compared to the ACC and other power conferences. Florida State might have used discussions (or the rumors of discussions) with the Big 12 as leverage to get an audience with the SEC and Big Ten, but the Seminoles were never seriously considering actually joining the Big 12.

Cunningham didn’t just receive emails from interested colleagues and panicking fans. On Nov. 25 – six days after Maryland announced its move – former University of Cincinnati NCAA faculty athletics representative Frederick Russ wrote Cunningham in hopes of bolstering support for Cincinnati.

Russ and Cunningham spent time together days before at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.

“As I mentioned in Maui, I’ve been hearing all kinds of rumors about which schools the ACC might seek to add, and I wanted to let you know why I think adding the University of Cincinnati to the ACC would benefit the conference and both UNC and UC,” Russ wrote, before listing his reasons.

The ACC, though, already was finalizing its plan. Less than two weeks after Maryland announced that it would be leaving for the Big Ten, the ACC on Nov. 29, 2012 announced that it was replacing Maryland with Louisville. About five months after that, the conference had secured a grant of rights agreement, which effectively put an end – at least for the foreseeable future – to speculation and rumors that were never more prevalent than in the days that followed news of Maryland’s impending departure for the Big Ten.

Give Cincinnati credit for this: that school has been tireless in getting its message out for conference realignment purposes and taking nothing for granted. To be honest, I didn’t even really consider Cincinnati to be a viable ACC candidate in the immediate aftermath of the Maryland defection, but they managed to at least shoehorn themselves into the conversation when all was said and done (despite the fact that Louisville was ultimately chosen). Being aggressive in and of itself isn’t going to change a school’s position in conference realignment, but with the insularity among university and athletic department officials that I described above, taking every opportunity to highlight successes and future facilities plans (particularly in football) to the right people is critical. Louisville (Cincinnati’s competition) did just that over the past couple of years and went from being a marginal ACC candidate and possibly being left out of the power conference picture completely to grabbing the last spot in the ACC against formidable athletic (at least in basketball) and academic competition (UConn). Keep an eye out on Cincinnati when (not if) the Big 12 inevitably comes to the conclusion that it needs to expand.

All-in-all, the UNC emails highlighted the consternation that school officials and fans feel in times of conference realignment instability. As much as people like me are interested in the topic, I can certainly understand that no one in a leadership position likes dealing with periods of high stakes uncertainty. That being said, UNC is one of the few schools that is legitimately in control of its own destiny – both the Big Ten and SEC would take them in a heartbeat. The worst case scenario for the Tar Heels is that they are forced to join a league against their will that is wealthier and more powerful than the ACC itself. A fellow ACC school like Wake Forest, on the other hand, would feel quite a bit differently in the face of a conference collapse (just as Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State feared back in 2010 and 2011 with the Big 12 defections and UConn, Cincinnati and USF feel today in not being able to escape the then-Big East (now AAC). Schools will continue to place quite a bit of value on stability even if there is the possibility of larger dollars elsewhere.

(Image from Now I Know – It’s Gotta Be the Shorts)

Let me upfront: I’m an unabashed free market capitalist. I’ve never been bothered by TV contracts, conference realignment, ticket prices, rising salaries for coaches and players, sponsorships and the multitude of other financial issues in pro and college sports that fans generally complain about at face value (but then turn around and feed that money monster by continuing to watch games). At the same time, I have long given up the delusional notion that college athletes (at least in football and basketball) are somehow still pure amateurs. We crossed the proverbial bridge of top college conferences being semipro leagues a loooooong time ago. Finally, I’ve generally supported how Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has led the conference in exploiting new revenue opportunities and expansion (as long as we can forget that whole “Legends” and “Leaders” debacle).

So, I have no issue at all with money flowing through college sports and institutions profiting from high profile teams. Let’s stop pretending that it’s (a) not already happening at a rate on par with the pro leagues and (b) inherently a bad thing. What I have a massive problem with, though, is that this money isn’t flowing at all to the people that are generating all of this revenue. I’m a firm believer that people should be compensated in accordance with their free market value*, and in today’s world, college football and basketball players at the top level aren’t getting paid that way.

(* Note that I don’t look at over-compensation or under-compensation in absolute dollars in the way that much of the populist public likes to do. LeBron James, for instance, is a clear example of someone that is underpaid. If there weren’t the artificial restraints of the NBA salary cap and collective bargaining agreement, he would be making much more than his current $19.07 million salary. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that he’s the rare athlete that can single-handedly increase the value of a franchise by hundreds of millions of dollars and sellout all arenas that he plays in. Even though LeBron’s salary for a single game (much less an entire season) is more than what 99% of American households earn, he is still underpaid in comparison to what his true value is in the marketplace. In contrast, there are minimum wage earners that are making more than what the free market would dictate if that artificial floor weren’t in place, so they would arguably be overpaid.)

With the “pay for play” issue not going away in college athletics, Jim Delany stated that he would like to see football and basketball players be able to sign with leagues directly out of high school in the same way that baseball players do. From ESPN.com:

“Maybe in football and basketball, it would work better if more kids had a chance to go directly into the professional ranks,” Delany said. “If they’re not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish. Train at IMG, get agents to invest in your body, get agents to invest in your likeness and establish it on your own. But don’t come here and say, ‘We want to be paid $25,000 or $50,000.’ Go to the D-League and get it, go to the NBA and get it, go to the NFL and get it. Don’t ask us what we’ve been doing.”

What Delany states isn’t necessarily wrong conceptually, but there are tons of issues from a practical standpoint and he’s ultimately being disingenuous and further exposing much of the hypocrisy of college sports:

(1) The Interests of the NFL and NBA Ultimately Rule – The power brokers in college sports can complain all that they want, but the NFL and NBA need to be convinced that it’s better for them to pay for and build minor league systems on the scale of Major League Baseball. I’ve seen plenty of arguments that the NFL and NBA could expand create such systems, yet it’s hard to see why it’s better than the current college model from their perspective. Unlike baseball, the NFL and especially NBA have long had a greater need for their athletes to come into the league as ready-made stars and that’s only exacerbated in this social media-driven world. Such star power simply isn’t incubated well in minor league settings at all (as seen in baseball and hockey). College football and basketball provide vehicles where sports fans are introduced to top players on a first name basis and can step in immediately at the next level.

Plus, lest we forget, the NBA tried the “direct from high school” route not too long ago and the results were pretty abysmal. Too many high school players were jumping into the draft that weren’t ready, which meant that (a) lottery slots that used to go to well-known college stars were being taken up by unknown (at least to the general public) speculative draft picks based on raw athleticism with little regard to skills and (b) on the flip side, other high school players that would have been aided by some college experience got drafted lower than expected or not at all and ruined their NCAA eligibility. The NBA wants nothing to do with going back to that model and, in fact, the owners would have pushed for a 2 years out of high school age minimum requirement (instead of the current 1-year standard) in the last collective bargaining agreement negotiations if there weren’t so many other fundamental salary and revenue-sharing issues to deal with. This gets to the next point…

(2) Players Need to be Protected From Themselves – On the one hand, it would be easy for a free marketer like me to try to apply real world concepts to the realm of sports to state that players and team general managers take risks with respect to the draft and then they need to live with the consequences. However, on the other other hand, that real world free market application fails because a draft is specifically not the free market. In fact, it is probably the most directly anticompetitive behavior that professional sports league participate in that they’re only able to get away with due to antitrust exemptions. American high school graduates aren’t free to negotiate directly with any team that they want to play for. Instead, a draft provides a finite number of spots in a predetermined order, which is the antithesis of a free market.

This means a “college or pro” choice isn’t exactly that simple. What Delany is suggesting is that a top high school prospect should be put into an “all or nothing” decision when he’s 17 or 18-years old: either he strikes it big in the pros or he completely loses out on a college scholarship, with very little in between. There are very few professions where this is the case. A software programming prodigy can try going to a startup firm out of high school, but if that startup fails, he or she can still go get a computer science degree or work at another company. That’s not how it works in football and basketball where you have one shot if you’re lucky. How many of you here would have had the emotional and fiscal maturity to make that type of decision at that age? Furthermore, how many of you would be able to make a mature decision if you were born into an impoverished environment with no access to a college education otherwise (like a disproportionate number of top football and basketball players)? What if you had family members that were leaning on you for financial support? What if you hired an agent that invariably overinflates your draft value (which played into your decision to enter to the draft)? When I see comments from fans to the effect, “These are decisions that these guys need to live with and they can do something other than sports if they don’t get drafted,” I believe they’re failing to see the context in which such decisions are made along with, in most cases, making that judgment from comparatively more comfortable catbird seats (whether it’s being older or living in a middle or upper class environment where the fallout from making a mistake in life is relatively mild by comparison).

The upshot (and once again, we saw this with the period of high school players going directly to the NBA) is that there are a whole lot more people that submit themselves to the draft prematurely (with devastating consequences) than there are guys that are truly ready. It would be one thing if only the Lebron-type talents would enter into the draft (in which case, allowing high school players into the draft would work), but we’ve seen firsthand that this simply doesn’t happen in the real world*. There are too many high school prospects that get bad information about their draft stock or are pressured into making money immediately to their detriment. That leads to the next issue…

(* Similarly, if NBA and NFL general managers would only draft LeBron-type talents, then having high school players going directly to the pros would work efficiently. As noted earlier, though, the problem is that those GMs then have to rely their draft analysis almost solely on raw athleticism, which leads to a much higher bust rate and a poorer quality product to watch on the field or court for fans.)

(3) The NCAA Needs to Provide a Safety Net for Players – If the NCAA sincerely believes that high school players need to be able to go directly to the draft, then the organization can’t turn around and punish such players (AKA taking away their college eligibility) for utilizing all of the tools and resources at their disposal to make a fully informed decision that will impact them for the rest of their lives. Jim Delany mentions players hiring agents and training firms like IMG, which is all well and good, but then the NCAA will take away their eligibility once they receive any agent benefits. A solid and reputable agent (not a guy off the street or, even worse, an emotionally invested family member) can probably give a player the most realistic analysis of anyone about draft position and long-term earning potential, yet the NCAA (via its rules regarding agents) is forcing athletes to make an all-or-nothing decision on eligibility before he can even receive that analysis. That’s not exactly equitable, particularly when the athletes are the ones in a much more vulnerable position compared to the NCAA and its members.

As a result, colleges ought to reevaluate its eligibility rules completely if it’s being sincere. Players ought to be able to hire agents freely, submit to drafts and play again in college if they fail to get drafted (or even choose to go to college if they get drafted in a lower position than what they wanted). Colleges turning their backs on these players would be wrong even if there weren’t billions of dollars at stake, which ties to the next point…

(4) Delany’s Money Flow is Backwards – Let’s look at the budgets of two sports teams:

BUDGET A: $124,419,412

BUDGET B: $500,000

If you were to plop down those figures in front of anyone that has the basic skill of knowing which number is higher, one would logically assume that the team with Budget A has a lot more money to pay players than the Budget B team. Well, Budget A represents the expenses of the Ohio State athletic department in 2012. Meanwhile, Budget B represents what used to be the annual operating cost of each individual team in the defunct NFL Europe, which was the minor league system that the NFL had run until 2007. A major difference on top of this disparity is that Ohio State brought in $142,043,057 in revenue (a profit of over $17.6 million). Meanwhile, NFL Europe was shut down since it was still losing money at the bare bones cost of $500,000 per team (which translated into a grand total of $3 million in costs for the entire 6-team league in 2007). To put this into context, the NFL minimum salary under the current collective bargaining agreement is $405,000. The last 8 bench players on the Bears’ depth chart make more than what was spent on the entire NFL Europe operation… and the NFL still lost money on it!

Call me crazy, but when Jim Delany states that the players should be going to minor leagues to get paid, he seems to have the money flow backwards. When the NFL itself isn’t willing to spend to fund an entire minor league system that costs less than the salaries of 8 bench players making the league minimum, you can see pretty clearly that the money isn’t there. The NBA D-League is run on a similarly shoestring budget. In contrast, the colleges are the ones seeing a massive revenue flow off of these young players, so it’s disingenuous of university leaders and conference commissioners to attempt to make the claim that the minors are where they ought to receive salaries. Texas A&M itself stated that it garnered $37 million worth of media exposure in connection with Johnny Manziel’s Heisman campaign last year, so one can imagine the financial impact of a national championship (or even better, the Heisman Trophy/National Championship combo that Cam Newton delivered to Auburn in 2010 – see Charles Barkley’s comments about how $200,000 that may or may not have been paid to Cam by boosters was a bargain) for a school.

So, sure, if colleges are willing to take reduced or no revenue for football and basketball in the same way that they are for baseball (where even the most elite programs make a fraction of their football and basketball counterparts), then I could see this argument from Delany sticking. However, let’s not be naive to think that there is a vastly different playing field for football and basketball in reality.

Now, I realize that there are Title IX, employment and other issues that come into play in the event that colleges start paying athletes. It’s not as easy to institute as most supporters of the concept would like it to be. However, that doesn’t mean that we should allow colleges (even if we love them as our alma maters) to get away with such blatant hypocrisy toward money. It’s time to ditch the faux amateurism and either go all in on college sports being a massive money-making enterprise or take a Division III approach.  If that means paying every athlete (from members of the football team down to the women’s water polo team) in order to comply with Title IX, then that’s a heck of a lot better than not paying anyone. Once again, I have no issue with the money flowing through college sports at all. The only thing that I want to see is that it flows down to the people that we’re actually cheering for as fans.

(Image from USA Today)

As promised, we continue to empty out the mailbag (click here for Part I):

Frank,
One of your theories is that if the Big 12 dies, Texas would try for a partial member deal like Notre Dame in the ACC instead of becoming an equal member of another conference. I had agreed with that theory up until Texas A&M exploded onto the national scene at the end of last year and has remained there ever since. Texas is going to make its money anywhere but playing 2nd fiddle to its state rival has to be a blow to the powers that be at UT. I don’t think playing a half ACC schedule mixed with a couple of 2nd tier Texas schools is going to offer enough pub to compete with A&M and the SEC especially with the coming difficultly of scheduling with conferences going to 9 games. Does Texas A&M success, and more importantly attention, change your thoughts on the future of UT? – PSUhockey

Very interesting question. I think that A&M’s success can definitely impact the long-term prospects of Texas, but that it’s a separate issue from the particular conference that UT is in (or if it’s an independent, not in). A lot of sports fans may be looking at the Big 12 through the prism of its relatively good on-the-field football success over the past few years, while the ACC has had arguably its weakest stretch over the exact same period. However, I’d argue that Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson at the very least are more valuable football opponents than any Big 12 school outside of Oklahoma. Personally, I’d put UNC, NC State and Georgia Tech ahead of anyone non-OU Big 12 school purely for football, as well. So, if Texas keeps the Red River Rivalry as an independent, plays 1 or 2 of its fellow in-state Texas schools not named Texas A&M, has a similar 5-game partial ACC schedule like ND and then fills out the rest of its schedule in a manner that’s similar to now, I think that’s very attractive compared to the normal Big 12 schedule for the long-term. We’re not even getting to basketball and baseball, where the ACC is extremely powerful.

So, A&M could certainly put a serious dent in UT’s power (and if it’s not A&M specifically, it could be simply the increased presence of the SEC in the state of Texas), but that doesn’t necessarily correlate in Texas preferring the Big 12 over partial membership in the ACC. If anything, Texas might end up with acting in a way similar to how BYU responded to Utah’s invite to the Pac-12, where independence became mechanism to show how it was “special” compared to its in-state rival.

To me, Big East expansion to 12 schools is inevitable and ought to have happened already. The fact that Xavier AD Greg Christopher mentioned St. Louis, Dayton, Richmond and VCU as the prime candidates isn’t any surprise. SLU seems to be a lock – it’s a perfect institutional fit in a large market (by college sports standards) with a competent on-the-court basketball team. As I’ve stated previously, it’s really a matter of who comes along with SLU. I don’t see the Big East being interested in creating a nationwide conference with schools like Gonzaga and BYU – that’s an interesting fantasy for those purely focused on the basketball product, but it’s a non-starter for all of the other sports. So, Dayton, Richmond and VCU are really the well-worn “other” candidates, with the Big East’s consternation on each of them being that they have major flaws from the conference’s perspective (Dayton is in a smaller Midwestern market, Richmond has a small alumni base, and VCU would be the lone public school in a league of private institutions). It’s also difficult to see many other schools outside of that group that could have both a Butler-like ascent and the institutional and market profiles that the Big East is looking for. The only ones that come to mind are Davidson (which has a small size like Richmond but has had more recent on-the-court success and is located in a college hoops hotbed) and Duquesne (great institutional and market fit, yet they have zero on-the-court credentials).

If I were running the Big East, I certainly wouldn’t see Davidson or Duquesne as panaceas that are worth holding off expansion for. University presidents have proven to be a strange bunch in conference realignment decisions, though. To me, SLU is a lock to get into the Big East when it expands (and I say when because I just don’t see Fox being satisfied with the level of inventory and market coverage that the 10-team setup offers in the long-term), with Dayton as a slight front-runner for the 12th spot. Now, VCU might end up being too much to ignore if they have another Final Four run and, maybe more importantly, keep having fans showing up in droves in Brooklyn for the Atlantic 10 Tournament (as the Big East needs to maintain ticket buyers for its own tournament at Madison Square Garden). The public school profile is definitely a major problem for VCU’s candidacy, though. That factor can’t be underestimated with the Big East presidents.

For the long-term (the next 10 to 20 years), it probably won’t look too much different than now when it comes to U.S. spectator sports: (1) football, (2) basketball, (3) baseball and then a big dropoff to get to hockey and soccer. (This is different than levels of actual participation in sports, where soccer and basketball will likely dominate.) When looking at the metrics, basketball is clearly ascendant compared to baseball: the NBA Finals have been consistently drawing better ratings than the World Series, NBA players are more recognizable to the general public, neutral sports fans are more likely to watch an NBA game that doesn’t involve their favorite team than an MLB game without their favorite team, and, most importantly, the NBA viewing audience is younger and more diverse across economic and racial lines.

I wrote a piece on soccer’s issues with viewership back when David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy a few years ago and the main thrust of that post still holds true: viewership of soccer in the U.S. will be capped as long as Major League Soccer fails to import the best players in their primes like they do in Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL. Americans want to watch the best of the best, which is why they’re willing to watch the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams play in the World Cup and other international competitions, but aren’t interested in what they perceive to be minor league pro soccer compared to the English Premier League and other top European leagues.

Think of it this way: most sports fans can recognize the difference in the quality of play between an MLB game with a 1-0 score and a minor league baseball game with the same 1-0 score. Likewise, even relative soccer watching novices in America can see that the level of play in a World Cup or EPL match is vastly different than MLS. That’s why I’ve long said that the drag on soccer’s popularity in the U.S. has nothing to do with the supposed lack of scoring*. Instead, it’s that soccer is the main sport where we’re exporting the best players as opposed to importing them, which means we’re getting a worse product than other countries (unlike in basketball, baseball and soccer) and we know it. So, soccer can grow, but it will be limited as long as we don’t get to watch the best players here.

(* Scoring is an artificial construct, anyway. A 21-14 football score sounds a lot different than a 3-2 score (as in 3 touchdowns to 2 touchdowns) even if it reflects the same amount of on-the-field action. The “lack of scoring” argument for why Americans don’t watch soccer en masse is one of my sports pet peeves because it’s so simplistic and misses the larger picture.)

What will it mean for NCAA 14 that the conferences aren’t represented? – @Devon2012 

Ah, yes. Yet another toothless action by the NCAA and conferences in attempting to deflect criticism that they’re taking in billions of dollars on par with the largest pro sports entities in the world. I guess the NCAA has a bit more skin in the game since its brand is in the title of the game itself, but it’s pointless for the conferences to remove their names from video games, but then allow their members to continue to be included under their own separate agreements with EA Sports (and all but one of them have such agreements). We’re not talking about going to some Blades of Steel era logoless and nicknameless labeling of teams here: the Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes and all of their other conference-mates will be playing in a video game league that’s not named the Big Ten but everyone will recognize is the Big Ten. (I’m sure that EA Sports will simply use the mathematically correct “Big 14″.) Why the Big Ten, SEC and other power conferences give up their branding control when their member schools are still participating in the game is beyond me.

I don’t think ESPN and Fox are battling over conference realignment per se in the sense that the only conference where it really matters at this point for them is the Big Ten. In fact, the Big Ten’s next TV contract (which would start in 2016) is in an environment where it’s the only power conference that’s going out to the open market for the next decade, so ESPN and Fox (along with NBC and maybe even Turner) could fight for the conference with realignment being a tangential factor. At the end of the day, I believe that the Big Ten will end up with a Pac-12-style deal where the Tier 1/Top Tier 2 rights are split between ESPN and Fox and then the Lower Tier 2/Tier 3 rights go to the Fox-affiliated BTN, so neither ESPN nor Fox will push the Big Ten or the other conferences to do one thing or the other simply for the sake of TV rights. If anything, the last thing that ESPN and Fox would want is further realignment, as it has resulted in significantly higher rights fees that they’re footing the bill for. The Pac-12, Big 12, SEC and ACC rights are all locked up for a long time, so the networks are just going to end up paying more if any other schools end up defecting to the Big Ten.

Which is more likely for the NHL – expansion or contraction? Which NFL franchise(s) are most likely to land in LA? If none do in next 5-10 years, would NFL expand again? – John O

A couple of key overarching points about about pro sports realignment:

(1) Having an “acceptable” stadium is non-negotiable –  It doesn’t matter how attractive a market might be – if it doesn’t have the right stadium (which means having the requisite amount of luxury suites and sweetheart revenue streams), then it won’t be considered. (See the lack of an NFL team in LA for the past 2 decades.)

(2) The top 4 U.S. pro sports leagues will NEVER contract – Believe me – if I could wave a magic wand, there would be 8 to 10 NHL franchises eradicated tomorrow. However, when franchise values for even the worst pro teams in the worst markets are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, owners would rather (a) collect entry fees from new buyers of those dog franchises, (b) move those dog franchises to new markets with “acceptable” stadiums and (c) simultaneously scare current markets into building new “acceptable” stadiums in the process.

So, the first question is fairly straightforward at a high level – the greater likelihood for the NHL is expansion simply because contraction isn’t a viable option. That being said, when you dig down deeper, how much is it worth for any league to expand at this point? Most NBA and NHL franchises are better off using Seattle as a threat to current markets within their footprints to ram through new stadium deals than putting a team in Seattle itself. Leading into your next question, the NFL has used this type of threat better than anyone with the lack of a franchise in Los Angeles. Think about it if you’re Jacksonville, St. Louis or San Diego – if the NFL won’t put a team in LA for not having an “acceptable” stadium, then they sure as hell won’t care about you if you don’t have the right building.

The team that should move to LA is the Jaguars (nothing against Jacksonville, but it truly doesn’t make sense how that market has an NFL franchise), but it appears that their stadium lease is extremely difficult to break. That leaves LA’s two prodigal sons of the Rams and Raiders as frontrunners (franchises with aging stadiums and relatively low contractual barriers to deal with) along with the Chargers (a fairly short geographical move).

Of course, remember point #1: LA must have an “acceptable” stadium. That has always been the dilemma. The proposed Farmers Field in downtown LA near the Staples Center and LA Live had always made the most sense to me from afar since it presents the best opportunity to be a catalyst to further economic development in that area. Downtown LA still isn’t anywhere near as walkable as New York City, Chicago or San Francisco, but a football stadium is a logical addition to what the LA Live complex has already brought there. Unfortunately, that proposal seems to be dead right now.

The problem is that the massive size of the LA market almost works against it in an environment where getting the right stadium deal matters more than anything else in attracting an NFL (or any other pro sports) franchise. The LA market is so lucrative that tons of potential high profile investors want to get into the action, which means that the region as a hole continuously fails to coalesce around a single stadium proposal. The City of Industry and Orange County, for example, see Downtown LA as a competitive threat as opposed to a partner, so we’ve been seeing lots of stadium proposals from various municipalities and factions over the past two decades without any of them getting broad support. In contrast, smaller markets have a better ability to get behind a single proposal with little infighting.

I’ve been thinking that LA would have an NFL team within the next 5 years for the past 15 years, so while it makes sense to virtually everyone with half a brain, it’s pretty obvious that the NFL won’t budge whatsoever on the stadium issue even with a gaping hole in the #2 TV market in the country. Roger Goodell would rather work with markets that have top tier stadiums in place… like London*.

(* Look – I love London. It’s one of the few places that I’d ever consider moving to by choice from Chicago. However, Goodell’s continuous rhetoric about possibly putting a Super Bowl and/or team in London is wearying. The NFL needs to separate the interest of the American expat population in England that’s interested in the league with the fact that native Brits are unbelievably resistant to the overtures of U.S. sports leagues much more compared to other European countries. The most successful franchises in terms of attendance in the old NFL Europe developmental league were actually located in Germany, while Spain, France and many Eastern European countries are solid followers of the NBA. London simply isn’t a good growth spot for the NFL at all.)

Enjoy the upcoming games, everyone!

(Image from HitFix)

A message from a reader:

Well, I deserve that. I know it’s been a long hiatus here with the new college football and NFL seasons starting, over half of the Breaking Bad final season passing by and lots of twerking since my last post, so let’s get to answering some questions in part 1 of an overflowing mailbag Q&A:

There were a ton of “Division 4″ questions, so here’s a sample:

My overarching thought on the impact of the proposed Division 4* is (going along with the Breaking Bad theme) that there won’t be any “half-measures”. On the conservative end, this could be a straight-forward exercise for the football schools to get more leverage in rule-making (which is what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has intimated). Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of FBS schools (from the SEC down to the Sun Belt) have been in favor of instituting full cost of attendance payments to athletes, whereas the main opposition has come from non-FBS Division I schools. If the impetus behind creating a Division 4 is to simply get more control over the NCAA governance process, then that suggests that all FBS conferences will end up in that top division. Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com has reported that that this is what NCAA faculty representatives are essentially recommending.

(* Is it just me, or does everyone associated with the NCAA have the naming ineptitude of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West? They changed the perfectly logical Division I-A and Division I-AA to FBS and FCS. They messed with the even more logical NCAA Tournament regional names of East, South, Midwest and West for several years before reverting back. Now, we’re talking about a “Division 4″ that’s supposed to be referring to the top level of college sports even though one would think that this would be below Divisions II and III. Nothing about the name “Division 4″ makes sense, which means that the NCAA will probably end up choosing it in the end.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Division 4 could truly be the formal separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame (no matter what you think of the Irish, you have to always include Notre Dame) so that there could be more radical changes down the road. Maybe there could be payments to players beyond the full cost of attendance. Maybe athletes will be allowed to auction off their autographs on ebay. Probably most intriguing (and what I think is the long-range goal) is that this is all about setting up an 8-team playoff with the 5 power conference champs with auto-bids and 3 at-large bids without having to deal with the “riff raff” of the Group of Five leagues (and protecting the power leagues from any legal challenges to that playoff system on top of that). Imagine a playoff with a traditional Rose Bowl (Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ) plus the Sugar Bowl (SEC champ vs. at-large), Orange Bowl (ACC champ vs. at-large) and Cotton or Fiesta Bowl (Big 12 champ vs. at-large) as quarterfinals. The ratings and money would be through the roof along with supercharging the interest in the regular seasons of all of those power conferences (meaning even more ratings and money) and they get to control all of it without having to share with the revenue takers. That can be done with a totally separate Division 4 in a way that probably can’t occur in the current NCAA structure.

What I don’t see is something in between, where a Division 4 is formed with the 5 power conferences plus, say, the American Athletic Conference and Mountain West Conference. There is very little point in the power conferences going through the exercise of creating a Division 4 when the end result is only relegating the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt. The power players aren’t going to deal with a litany of acrimonious lawsuits unless the end game is complete and 100% control with only the conferences that they deem worthy (and judging by the fact that the 5 power conference commissioners keep speaking with each other as a group without the involvement of anyone else, it should be pretty clear who they want to deal with). Either it’s going to be a massive change to the system (separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame into a new division) or little change outside of NCAA procedural matters (giving all FBS schools more latitude in setting their own rules). The “half-measure” of the AAC and MWC coming along for the ride with the power conferences doesn’t seem very likely to me, which is why individual Group of Five schools need to hope for more conference realignment for guaranteed protection. Speaking of which…

I don’t believe that further conference realignment is necessary for a Division 4 split. As we’ve gone over before on this blog, for all of the moves in conference realignment over the past few years, where we stand today really isn’t that much different than where we stood in 1998 when the BCS system first started (only we’ve consolidated from 6 power conferences into 5). Every school that was in one of the 6 BCS conferences in 1998 is still in one of the 5 current power conferences today with the exception of Temple (who was a football-only member of the Big East that was relegated for reasons completely outside of conference realignment), while a grand total of 3 schools (TCU, Utah and Louisville) have been elevated. This indicates that the power conferences are pretty firm in who they want to associate with and changing perceptions is a glacial process. Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope for some schools…

I can now answer this question nicely since we had a successful “Hate Cincinnati” weekend in the Frank the Tank household (Illini over Bearcats on Saturday, which frankly shocked the hell out of me, and Bears over Bengals on Sunday). Cincinnati and its AAC/old Big East zombie counterpart UConn are definitely power conference material on paper. The issue is more about whether any of the power conferences will see a need to expand proactively while everyone other than the SEC is at the start of long-term grant of rights agreements that make it difficult (if not impossible) for power schools to move amongst themselves. Overall, the Big 12 is more likely to want to expand at some point because of their small size, poor demographics outside of the state of Texas and the fact that IF a grant of rights agreement were to be broken (a massively large IF), it would be in the context of the Big Ten raiding the Big 12 again (more on that in a moment), which would bode well for Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a solid football program in a good TV market with access to a great recruiting area for athletes of all types (whether football or basketball) while also providing a geographic bridge to West Virginia for the Big 12. As a result, Cincinnati is likely next in line for the Big 12 (alongside BYU) if that league wants to expand. The problem for Cincy fans, of course, is no one knows if or when that expansion would happen in the near future.

The ACC would probably favor UConn over Cincinnati if it had to choose, although that conference did deviate from its traditional criteria in choosing Louisville last year. The main issue for any school with hopes of joining the ACC is that it doesn’t seem plausible that it would expand outside of either (a) backfilling in the event of a raid by the Big Ten and/or SEC or (b) pairing a school with Notre Dame joining as a full member, neither of which seems to be on the horizon in the short-term. There’s at least some argument that the Big 12 would proactively expand regardless of what the other conferences do, so that at least gives Cincinnati some hope.

Some Big Ten conference realignment questions:

Let’s start with my previous post, where I point out how difficult and unlikely it is to break a grant of rights arrangement over the next decade or so. As a result, the likelihood of Big Ten expansion in the near future is extremely low, as I don’t believe that the conference is interested in anyone that isn’t already in one of the 5 power conferences (meaning no one in the AAC or any other Group of 5 conference is compelling enough).

Now, whenever the Big Ten expansion does kick up again, Kansas is certainly high up there on the list. The Jayhawks are to future Big Ten expansion in the way that Pharrell Williams ended up singing on the two largest Billboard hits of the summer (“Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky”) despite not headlining either of them: it’s hard to see KU not involved as a contiguous AAU school with an elite basketball program, but they also can’t be the biggest athletic name in that expansion, either. One thing that I’ve loved about writing this blog is that I hope that I’ve helped to elevate the discussion of conference realignment to take into account factors that many fans didn’t consider previously (i.e. academics, TV markets, branding, etc.), yet we sometimes do need to take a step back and realize that the product on the field (or court) is still what makes all of the off-the-field money possible, so expansion has to serve those needs. Thus, a hypothetical Kansas/Virginia or Kansas/Missouri (not that I think the Big Ten is ever going to poach the SEC and vice versa) expansion combo for the Big Ten might serve some TV market and AAU status purposes, but that doesn’t have the requisite athletic (and more specifically, football) impact that is required for what could conceivably be the last two spots in the Big Ten. (For all of those that would counter, “Rutgers and Maryland weren’t added for sports!”, I would say that (a) there was a football goal achieved since New Jersey and Maryland were the two top non-Sun Belt states for football recruits that weren’t already in the Big Ten footprint and (b) pure TV market additions were acceptable when looking that them in conjunction with the elite football addition of Nebraska.)

Putting aside the obvious no-brainer additions like Texas, I’m firmly in camp of supporting the addition Oklahoma to the Big Ten and I don’t believe that it’s a purely fan-focused football move. The main detraction for Oklahoma that I often see is that it isn’t an AAU member, but its academic metrics aren’t really far off at all from now-non-AAU member Nebraska and its neighboring old Big 8 AAU schools (Missouri, Kansas and Iowa State). There isn’t the wide academic gap between OU and Nebraska that there was in the case of Louisville compared to the rest of the ACC. Some Big Ten observers believe that the non-AAU status of Oklahoma is a non-starter, but I doubt that the conference would have engaged performing due diligence on the Sooners unless there was some legit interest involved. More importantly, the lack of AAU status for other expansion candidates was simply another reason on top of a number of other factors that made the target school undesirable (i.e. geography, lack of a fan base, lack of a football brand name, not a new TV market, etc.). It’s easy for the Big Ten to ignore a merely “good” football program based on academics (i.e. West Virginia or Louisville), but Oklahoma is a top level king school that would bring a ton of national TV dollars. Even Oklahoma’s smaller home state population on paper is mitigated by the fact that its fan base crosses over into North Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area (and Kansas, by the same token, can’t just be looked at by its home state population alone since it’s the top college team in the Kansas City market that takes a large chunk of Missouri).

The upshot is that if the Big Ten goes to 16 schools, then the last 2 additions actually need to make markets irrelevant. What are the 2 additions that can truly transform the BTN from a regional network to a legit national network? Sure, if the Big Ten has the choice, they’d want Texas and Notre Dame (or some other unattainable major market prize like North Carolina or Florida). However, if we’re talking about the top brand names that are willing to reciprocate the Big Ten’s overtures, Oklahoma and Kansas are sitting right there to supercharge the conferences’ football and basketball lineups, respectively. Penetrating a diverse market like New York City has as much to do with the national interest in various teams as it does with local interest, which aids the cases of OU and KU.

Frankly, the biggest factor working the Big Ten going after either OU and KU (much more than academic concerns) is the political pressure of those schools’ respective in-state brothers (Oklahoma State and Kansas State). I believe the Big Ten would expand with an OU/KU combo, but the conference won’t be willing to take either Oklahoma State and Kansas State in the process. Those “little brother” schools might be non-negotiable from a political perspective even if Jayhawk and Sooner fans don’t want to believe that to be the case, so that could stop Big Ten expansion regardless of any Big 12 grant of rights concerns. So, that brings me back to my initial point that Big Ten expansion isn’t likely, albeit it’s still fun to talk about after all of this time.

I’ll be back with Part II of the mailbag going over issues such as EA Sports NCAA ’14, Big East expansion and pro sports realignment shortly. Talk to you again soon!

(Image from Zap2It)

I’ve been trying to write about topics other than conference realignment lately, but our favorite blogging crack habit has been buzzing in my ear like a hit summer song that you can’t avoid (see “Blurred Lines” now and “Call Me Maybe” last year)*.

(* For your perusing pleasure, Billboard put together a list of the top 10 songs for each summer since 1985. I can’t help but smile at some of the memories of these songs, particularly from my junior high years of 1991 and 1992. Sir-Mix-A-Lot!)

First, Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com casually drops the following in a column last week about the latest power conference meetings:

Big Ten expansion: It isn’t done. That’s about all I can say. Hint: The conference will begin negotiating on a new TV deal next year. The current contract expires in 2016. Definitely stay tuned.

This of course got the blog and message board world humming again with apocalyptic tales of the Big 12 and/or ACC imploding along with the Big Ten adding anywhere from 2 to 10 schools. To be sure, the chatter actually did produce something of value in the form of a West Virginia(!) an Ohio State fan procuring a copy of the Big 12 Grant of Rights agreement, which we’ll take a look at in a moment.

Joe Schad of ESPN then Tweeted this quote from Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione yesterday:

This is plausibly relevant since OU is one of those schools that could be in the mix if all of this starts swirling again. Of course, the quote ignores the context of the conversation, as it appears that Castiglione also said that such realignment would be over the next “10 to 15 years” as opposed to immediately.

What does this all mean? Like Castiglione, I’m still thinking nothing at least in the short-term. Further consolidation among the power conferences is possible, but it continues to seem more likely to occur in the 2020s at the earliest. If the Big 12 Grant of Rights agreement is substantially similar to what the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC have in place (and there isn’t much reason to believe that there would be much deviation), it makes little sense to believe that more realignment is imminent.

The Big 12 Grant of Rights agreement (the “GOR”) states that each school will grant to the conference its applicable media rights (in this case, first and second tier tights for football and men’s basketball) for the duration of the term of the agreement, regardless of whether such school is a member of the conference or not. As we’ve noted here previously, this means that even if, say, Texas were to leave for the Big Ten or Pac-12, the GOR mandates that the Texas first and second tier rights would still be owned by the Big 12 until the GOR period ends in 2025.

What’s most instructive about the GOR contract is what it doesn’t say. There isn’t a termination provision. There isn’t a liquidated damages clause. There isn’t any mechanism to calculate potential damages for a member leaving early. In fact, there isn’t any procedure at all about what would occur in the event that a member leaves the conference other than a couple of flat statements that the GOR is in effect for such member until 2025 no matter what. The Grant of Rights agreement is intentionally ambiguous.

As someone that served some hard time in the slammer of a large corporate law firm, fighting over ambiguous contracts can rack up mountains of billable hours more than virtually any other type of litigation. When you have a 200-page contract that covers every single scenario possible, that document might have been complex to draft but it’s usually a fairly straight-forward process in terms of applying it. However, when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, as there are in the GOR agreement, and it’s covered by a 4-page contract that is a simple grant without any termination or dispute resolution procedures, that in and of itself is a massive deterrent to anyone challenging the agreement. It’s almost impossible to determine the legal and financial exposure that a school that is contemplating leaving a GOR arrangement would have. There could be no exposure at all or it could be a large enough amount to literally bankrupt a school, and there’s very low confidence in assessing what’s more likely. In contrast, a school dealing with an exit fee understands its exposure immediately and can balance whether the worst case scenario (i.e. Maryland having to pay the full amount of its $50 million exit fee to the ACC) is still worth risking a defection over.

To be sure, there are plenty of theoretical arguments to challenge the GOR. As Jason Hutzler argued at Outkick the Coverage earlier this year, if a TV network decides to keep paying a conference with one or more defections as much or more than what it was paying prior to such defections (as was the case with the Big 12 over the past 3 years), then a school trying to break the GOR could argue that the conference didn’t suffer any damages at all and, as a result, shouldn’t have to pay a dime upon leaving. I don’t quite buy this argument as fully working, as virtually every school that has challenged any exit fee in this latest round of conference realignment has attempted to argue this in some form and has had little-to-no success, but it’s certainly a starting point when there isn’t any type of liquidated damages clause. A school could also attempt to argue that the GOR taken together with the Big 12 Bylaws that states that a withdrawing school will not receive any revenue arising out of the GOR (see Section 3.1 of the Bylaws) constitutes an unconscionable agreement (as the member would not be receiving any media revenue despite it still being subject to the GOR). That’s a tough argument, though, as that defense is typically used by parties that don’t have much bargaining power or were victims of fraud (which wouldn’t be applicable here).

Regardless, most lawyers could probably think of numerous ways to break a GOR arrangement on paper, but the practical problem is that none of them are high confidence lines of attack. As a result, a school that attempts to break a GOR would be heading into a situation where there is unknown and unlimited legal and financial exposure, which is a horrible position to be in. For every argument out there that there aren’t any damages to conference that suffers a defection, there’s a counterargument that such conference is entitled to the fair market value of all of the TV rights for the school that’s leaving. That FMV for a marquee program like Texas could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars (remember that ESPN is paying Texas an average of $15 million per year for its leftover third tier rights for the Longhorn Network, much less its top football and basketball games), which eliminates any financial incentive to leave no matter how much a new conference might be promising in terms of more revenue. You don’t want to jump into a lawsuit in those types of circumstances, especially with the amount of dollars that are involved in connection with power conference media deals. The proof is in the pudding with the amount of weight that the conference commissioners have assigned to these GOR agreements and the fact that similar arrangements are enforced in entertainment industry all of the time. Believe me – when Disney bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009, the Mickey Mouse conglomerate (which also happens to be the primary beneficiary of these GOR contracts via ESPN) employed armies of lawyers to try to figure out how to get out of all the long-term or even perpetual licenses that the comic book company granted to other competing movie studios when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1980s and 1990s and they came up empty. Thus, Sony (via Columbia Pictures) continues to have the movie rights to Spider-Man* and Fox has the full suite of X-Men characters at its disposal despite Disney having paid $4 billion for Marvel.

(* Prior to the string of hit movies over the past decade, the Spider-Man movie rights had been passed around Hollywood like a doobie. James Cameron was actually in line to write and produce a Spider-Man movie in the early-1990s. Later, in the midst of litigation between Columbia Pictures and MGM over who actually could produce Spider-Man movies, the film companies ended up with a novel settlement: Columbia would drop all of its own claims that it could produce James Bond movies (which MGM had lorded over since the 1960s). Essentially, Spider-Man was traded in Hollywood for James Bond, which has ended up working out incredibly well for both of the studios involved. Sports fans have distinct memories of lopsided trades, such as Brock-for-Broglio, but I can’t think of a trade involving two legit superstars (the equivalent of Spider-Man and James Bond) that worked out for all parties.)

So, the GOR’s strength isn’t that it’s an ironclad complex agreement that doesn’t include any loopholes. Instead, it’s an arrangement that is a triple-dog-dare to schools that want to attempt to challenge it since there isn’t any reliable precedent about how to calculate damages. This is proverbial Russian roulette in a practical legal context – the damages could be more than you could imagine… or they could be less than what a normal exit fee would have been. That makes it a great moot court exercise for people like me and other writers in the peanut gallery, but a dangerous contract to challenge in real life. Lawsuits that are brought on principles other than money, such as constitutional challenges filed by the liberal ACLU or conservative American Center for Law and Justice, can afford to tackle these types of ambiguous arrangements. However, conference realignment is almost entirely about money, which means that the great risk of trying to challenge the GOR (even if there are viable legal arguments against it in theory) is likely going to be enough to dissuade any school from leaving a conference that has that type of contract in place. As much as I’d love to sit here and say that the Big Ten ought to add, say, Kansas and Oklahoma to its western division, without a prescribed course to challenge GOR agreements or a university president with the cajones to risk everything (who I’ll grant might be out there), power conference realignment is stopped dead in its tracks.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from NewsOK)

(Note: In case you’ve missed it, I had Q&A with Burnt Orange Nation on conference realignment with a Big 12 and Texas focus last week. Here are parts 1, 2 and 3.)

One of the major topics that has been on my list to address this summer is whether there is a sports TV rights bubble, which has turned out to be prescient with a recent blog post from Patrick Hruby at Sports on Earth and a front page article in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) addressing the subject. Both pieces are well-written and informative and generally come to the conclusion that sports TV rights are heading upward in a bubble-like manner. Hruby provides a lot of background on the cable subscription model that is funneling massive amounts of revenue towards sports while pointing out the risk of that collapsing with more people “cutting the chord” to reduce costs and the rise of Internet streaming options, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal looks at the sports rights fees situation from the perspective of the cable operators themselves that are dealing with the rapidly rising costs of sports networks (particularly new regional sports networks). These stories play into the broader increasing calls for a la carte pricing for cable (meaning that a subscriber would purchase only the channels that he or she wants as opposed to paying for large packages). I’ve written previously about why sports have been increasingly and disproportionately valuable compared to other types of programming since they are watched live and, as a result, viewers will watch commercials in a way that they no longer do with other types of shows that they watch on their DVRs or online streaming sites. That’s generally common knowledge at this point. However, here are a few thoughts on some items that I believe a lot of “sports rights skeptics” are glossing over:

(1) The values of sports TV rights overall have never, EVER dropped – While past returns are not a guarantee of future success, as any financial adviser in CYA mode will tell you, we’ve seen the “We’re in the middle of a sports TV rights bubble!” story on a consistent basis ever since the 1980s, yet they have never dropped overall. Deadspin had a great comparison of quotes from “bubble” articles from 1989 and 2013 and you could hardly tell when either one was written. Now, certain properties might not have enjoyed the same increase in rights as others (see the Oympics, where NBC actually is paying about the same or even less on an inflation-adjusted basis for the 2016, 2018 and 2020 games as it did for the other Games that it has broadcast during this century), but the marquee sports properties (NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and power conference college football) have been rising in an unfettered manner for nearly four decades straight. Once again, that doesn’t mean that this will continue on in perpetuity, but on the flip side, it’s simple-minded of observers to argue that the rapidly rising sports rights fees being paid out today must indicate a bubble.

(2) Bundling is the real culprit of rising cable prices – I appreciate Hruby spending a quite a bit of time on the bundling aspect of the cable subscription model, which I believe is a larger cause of increased cable prices more than anything. A lot of sports TV rights critics love to point out that ESPN is receiving $5.00 per subscriber per month from every cable household in America, whether they watch it or not, but that isn’t necessarily an unfair deal considering how much high value sports programming that it provides. There’s a fairly substantial segment of the population that wouldn’t bother subscribing to cable at all without access to ESPN, so it behooves any cable operator to pay whatever price it takes to keep the Worldwide Leader on the air. However, when ESPN’s parent Disney uses that leverage to force cable operators to buy 10 or 20 other commonly-owned channels to have any access to ESPN at all, that’s where you truly see large scale increases on your cable bill. Turner, Fox, Viacom, Comcast (which is both a cable network owner and a cable operator) and other cable network companies take the same tact, where they will only allow operators to carry their most popular channels, such as TBS, TNT, FX, MTV and USA, if they pay for larger bundles of channels that might not otherwise survive in the marketplace on their own. To me, bundling is the real market inefficiency right now when it comes to cable pricing: cable operators are being forced to give money and channel space to a whole host of channels simply to have access to the most popular ones that have common parents. This is distinct from the individual consumer-based complaint of not being able to pick and choose individual channels on an a la carte basis, which is something that I don’t believe would ever legitimately fly. Americans definitely like the idea of a la carte pricing (after all, it’s “un-American” to have to pay for channels that you’re not watching), but their actions show that they would still rather have all-you-can-eat buffet pricing.

(3) Netflix and other streaming websites are all-you-can-eat buffets just like cable (as opposed to being a la carte) – Further to the last point, we’re seeing a rapid rise in the popularity of Netflix-style on-demand streaming. While a lot of cable detractors point to the popularity of streaming as an indicator that support for a la carte is gaining traction, it’s really the opposite. Think of what Netflix (or Amazon or Hulu) actually does for the consumer: it aggregates content from a whole slew of providers and provides an all-you-can-eat (as opposed to pay-per-view or a la carte) price to access such content. I can’t only ask and pay for the Disney shows being streamed on Netflix any more than I can try to get only the Disney-owned cable channels from DirecTV. The entire value proposition of these streaming sites is you can get an entire universe of shows from a whole variety of sources (including Netflix itself with its in-house productions like House of Cards and the resurrection of Arrested Development), which is much different than a la carte pricing (where you receive a limited set of programs from a single source). In fact, the main reason why Hulu was formed in the first place was that the major TV networks were failing to gain traction with streaming their shows on their own respective websites. Consumers ultimately wanted to go to one place online to watch all of their favorite TV shows, which is an Internet mirror of the experience of turning on the TV and flipping through the channels with a remote.

By the same token, the business model of The Asylum, which is the B-movie studio that produced last week’s Twitter-fueled SyFy sensation Sharknado!, is actually based upon producing as much inexpensive filler content as Netflix desires. Seriously – Netflix explicitly asks the studio to produce cheap and terrible movies in order to create the perception that the website has a vast library of content. From the linked Pacific Standard article (which I highly recommend reading in its entirety):

At surviving brick-and-mortar stores like H. Perry Horton’s, renters gravitate toward the big-studio releases shelved at eye level. But on Netflix, “You click through and see all the titles—new Hollywood releases mixed in with direct-to-video,” Davis says, all crammed into a grid of thumbnail posters. Filtering in low-budget films with the high-budget versions “fuels this perception that there’s a wealth of new content.” And in the endlessly filterable world of Netflix, where your preferences are sorted into hyper-specific genres, a full page of results for horror films with nightmare-vacation plotlines makes you feel like Netflix is tailoring its product just for you. “The bottom line is that it’s there, and you saw it,” [DePaul University assistant professor Blair] Davis says—even if you didn’t actually watch it.

Much like the vast number of cable channels that people are paying for but never watch, Netflix is providing a ton of movie titles that subscribers are also paying for and never watching. Sounds like basic cable, no? Netflix is simply a horse of a different color when compared to cable – the underlying buffet approach of providing lots of content that you’ll never end up watching is the same with only the delivery system (Internet instead of cable or satellite) being different. Of course, $9.99 per month for Netflix streaming is a helluva less daunting than paying $100 or more per month for cable service, so it’s easy to see why it has gotten so much traction so quickly.*

(* If you have young children like I do, Netflix streaming is right next to food, water and shelter on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at this point. There are still a lot of limitations on the movie and TV show offerings on Netflix streaming right now, but the suite of children’s programming makes it indispensable to parents.)

So, Netflix and the like might very well encroach upon the territory of cable operators, but the point is that no one should mistake the rise of streaming with a desire for a la carte pricing. The likelihood of most Americans having the desire or tolerance to try to choose a customized lineup of channels on an a la carte basis is fairly small. Besides, the economic underpinnings of the cable industry mean that a la carte pricing would likely kill all but a handful of the most popular cable channels (i.e. only the basic cable lineup from circa 1990 would survive), which destroys the overall desirability of a la carte in the long-term. Instead, what people really want is the same type of buffet access to content at a lower price point, whether it’s via cable or the Internet.

(4) Sports streaming is inherently different than movie and TV show streaming – The rise of streaming websites is undeniable and flattening the content distribution universe. However, what I think a lot of observers miss is that the desire to stream movies and TV shows is inherently different than streaming sports. Specifically, the single biggest attraction for streaming movies and TV shows is that it’s on-demand: a viewer can watch the content whenever and wherever he or she wants.

Now, the “wherever” component still applies to streaming sports, as you can use the Internet to watch games on your tablet or smartphone. That’s huge for convenience for any sports fan that’s away from home. Yet, a key distinction is that the “whenever” advantage of streaming doesn’t apply to sports. While many people have made the connection that fans generally watch sports live, which in turn makes them attractive to TV networks since that means that such fans are much more likely to watch advertising (thereby increasing revenue all around), they seem to have a blind spot that this is a large deterrent to a mass movement to watching sports online. The typical sports fan doesn’t have a preternatural need to watch a replay of an NFL game on Tuesday where the outcome has already been determined – the entire value of sports is that there are a lot of people that want to watch the exact same event at the exact same time. That happens to be exactly what television has done (and probably will always do) better than the Internet.

In essence, the convenience of streaming sports is primarily based on mobility, whereas the value from streaming movies and TV shows is based on both mobility and time-shifting ability. While a broad sports streaming platform like ESPN3 could turn into a “Netflix of Sports” (if it hasn’t already), it isn’t clear that it could ever really be a more desirable option for the standard run-of-the-mill sitting-at-home-on-the-couch viewer compared to live television in the way that Netflix/Amazon/Hulu can very much be the preferred vehicle for such viewer simply because on-demand viewing is such a game changer for movies and TV shows compared to sports.

Of course, that’s not to say that sports entities are going to be in the clear and enjoy massive media rights profits forever. In my next piece, I’ll take a look at some factors that are dangerous to sports leagues and teams that not even the “sports rights skeptics” are paying much attention to right now and could kill the proverbial golden goose.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Apple Insider)