Posts Tagged ‘ESPN’

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It has been a couple of days since the news broke from Sports Business Daily that Fox is poised to enter into a deal with the Big Ten for 50% of the packages that are currently on ABC/ESPN (football and basketball) and CBS (basketball)… for up to $250 million per year for 6 years. Once again, this is just for half of the Big Ten rights that are up for grabs, which would provide for 25 football games and 50 basketball games on over-the-air broadcast Fox (“Big Fox”) and FS1. As observers such as Matt Sarzyniak have noted (who has a great post on the overall dynamics of the Big Ten deal), that amount is approximately the amount that the Pac-12 receives for its entire non-Pac-12 network package. In effect, we’re about to enter into a world where Rutgers and Northwestern are going to earn significantly more TV money than Florida State, Oklahoma, USC and even Alabama and Notre Dame. The Big Ten schools were already ahead before through its creation of the BTN (which everyone should remember how bold and risky that move was a decade ago compared to taking guaranteed money from ESPN), but the gap is going to be blown through the roof if the conference ends up with around $500 million per year for its TV rights without even taking into account the BTN portion. I have had plenty of critiques of Jim Delany and the Big Ten leadership over the years, but their management of TV and media properties has been pitch perfect for the past ten years and far beyond the capabilities (both quantitative and qualitative) of the other power conferences.

Some further thoughts:

  • I have seen a lot of scuttlebutt online that this indicates that the Big Ten might be leaving ESPN entirely, but personally don’t believe that for a second. For several years, I’ve been predicting that Fox and ESPN will ultimately split the Big Ten’s rights going forward and that is still the most likely outcome. ESPN reportedly “lowballed” the Big Ten in its initial offer, yet that is not necessarily outcome determinative since ESPN did the same thing ten years ago (which eventually spurred the creation of the Big Ten Network) and the parties still eventually got a deal done. It would have been difficult for ESPN to unilaterally come in with a massive offer several weeks ago with the continued cost-cutting throughout its organization and the possibility that this might be the time when the sports rights bubble (to the extent that there actually is a bubble) is going to pop. Essentially, ESPN bet that there wouldn’t be anyone willing to pay the Big Ten’s high asking price (just as it bet that the BTN wouldn’t be successful)… and it looks like they’re going to lose that bet badly.That being said, I’ve written many times before that ESPN’s supposed financial woes are being completely misinterpreted by many sports fans. The reason why so many Disney investors are spooked by any cord cutting and ESPN subscriber losses is because ESPN is, by far, the most profitable media and entertainment entity in the entire world. Note that I said “media and entertainment entity” – this is not just about sports networks. Let’s put it this way: ESPN currently delivers monthly subscriber revenue to Disney that is the equivalent to the domestic gross of Star Wars: The Force Awakens every single month guaranteed… and before they sell a single ad. Disney has relied upon ESPN to deliver monopoly drug dealer profits for years to prop up their entire business. Now, ESPN is “only” making oligopoly drug dealer profits.

    All of this is to say that ESPN still makes a ton of money that is far, far, far beyond what Fox, NBC, CBS, Turner or any other entity with sports interests could ever dream of. Even in cost-cutting mode, ESPN still needs to invest in core properties in the same way that the rest of the cost-cutting Disney organization will authorize massive budgets for Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and Disney Princess movies. ESPN leadership can now go back to their overlords at Disney and say, “Look – we tried to get the Big Ten on the cheap and that clearly isn’t going to happen. We have now already let Fox into the door to becoming a top tier sports network competitor and we can’t let someone else, especially NBC/Comcast, to get even more traction on top of them. We need to the funds to pay up here.” Anyone that thinks that ESPN can just plug in more SEC or ACC games into its lineup is fooling themselves. The Big Ten provides a massive lineup of football games in the best time slots on ABC and ESPN and have consistently garnered the best ratings of any of the conferences next to the SEC. The people at ESPN aren’t dumb – they know the difference between a short-term administrative cost cut and a long-term investment in their core product… and the Big Ten has been a huge part of their core product since almost the beginning of the network.

  • By the same token, let’s not pretend that the Big Ten wants to get away from ESPN. I have seen some Big Ten fans profess a desire to leave ESPN entirely, but that would be as short-sighted for the conference as it would be short-sighted for ESPN to let the Big Ten go completely. The fact of the matter is that if you were to show the exact same game on ESPN versus FS1, the viewership on ESPN would be magnitudes higher. We have already seen a track record of Major League Baseball, Big 12 and Pac-12 games where similar games on ESPN crush the ratings on FS1. There has to be great concern that the notion that “fans will just find the channel if they want to watch a particular game” isn’t necessarily completely true. ESPN is, and will be for the foreseeable future because the stranglehold that they have on sports rights overall, the “default channel” for sports fans. Just walk into any sports bar across the country and, outside of NFL Sundays, the vast majority of TVs are going to be tuned into the ESPN mothership. A game that is shown on ESPN literally gets a ratings bump, whereas that same game on FS1 gets a ratings discount.This greatly matters to the Big Ten, which is trying to position its TV deals in the same way that the NFL has over the past few years. Money certainly matters, but long-term money (the proverbial golden goose) is directly correlated with exposure… and no one can provide exposure like ESPN. Indeed, even with the increase in cord cutting and falling numbers of subscribers, every single other media company in the United States would kill to have ESPN. We have already established that they have the top-rated and most profitable TV network, but it goes beyond just that aspect. Who has the #1 sports news website? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports radio network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports mobile app? ESPN. Who has the #1 streaming sports network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports podcast network? ESPN.

    That is what a lot of Big Ten fans that care too much about supposed “SEC bias” on ESPN are missing: there is simply no replication for the multi-platform 27/7 exposure that ESPN provides.* Many other companies have tried to apply the ESPN playbook for years and years (see the CBS and Fox efforts to build their own sports websites and radio networks with only a fraction of the audience of ESPN) and have failed. When a Big Ten game is on ESPN, it gets promoted on (a) Mike and Mike on TV, radio, streaming audio and podcasts simultaneously, (b) SportsCenter on multiple networks several times per day, (c) ads on ESPN’s websites and mobile apps, (d) countless other TV, radio shows and podcasts for an entire week, including the all-important College GameDay for college football fans. Other than Inside the NBA on TNT (which is powered by the on-air brilliance of Charles Barkley, there is not a single cable TV platform in any sport that has anywhere close to the audience that ESPN has for even one of its minor shows, much less SportsCenter, GameDay or Mike and Mike.

    (* Note that it isn’t an accident that ESPN is a master of corporate synergy considering that it is owned by Disney, whose entire existence is based on leveraging its brand across countless platforms. I have never heard of someone that likes Universal Studios, the Jurassic Park movies and NBC call themselves a “Comcast Fan” or a fan of Fox shows and movies call themselves a “Fox Fan” (which is distinct from a Fox News Fan that is an entirely different breed), but you will find millions of Disney fans that travel to Disney parks, watch Disney movies and TV shows and buy Disney merchandise with the Disney branding being a the predominant factor. My sister is a prime example of a Disneyphile. Disney and ESPN simply are masters at synergy via corporate culture that can’t really be replicated even if you followed the exact same playbook elsewhere… and believe me when I say that every one of their competitors have tried.)

    At the end of the day, the Big Ten still needs the exposure that only ESPN can uniquely offer. It’s instructive that out of the 4 major pro sports leagues and 5 power college conferences, the only one that doesn’t have a presence on ESPN is the NHL (which has by far the most limited fan base of that group). Just because the Big Ten could theoretically live without ESPN doesn’t mean that it actually wants to do so at all. That’s why I believe that time will heal wounds due to mutual interests and a deal will get done between the Big Ten and ESPN for the other half of the TV rights that are currently in play. The Big Ten won’t take a lowball amount from ESPN, but I think they know well enough to provide a bit more leeway for ESPN’s bid in acknowledgment of their superior platforms for overall exposure compared to Fox. Both the Big Ten and ESPN need each other here.

  • In looking at the imminent Fox deal with the Big Ten, this seems to be set up to put a weekly football game on both Big Fox and FS1. This will end up being quite a boon for Fox’s college football game inventory quality. From a personal standpoint, I just hope that it improves that actual college football game production quality, which I have found lacking compared to ABC/ESPN and CBS. (I think that NBC’s Notre Dame productions have quality visuals, but the commentary is the college football equivalent of listening to Hawk Harrelson’s calls of White Sox games.) Regardless, if this means that most or all of the games that would have ended up on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNEWS are on Big Fox and FS1, then that’s an upgrade in terms of viewership exposure as long as the Big Ten keeps its presence on ABC and the ESPN mothership.Further to what I’ve stated before, I don’t think Fox is as flush with funds as much as ESPN (because absolutely no one is as flush with funds as ESPN), but Fox certainly has a lot more incentive to make a bold move with it being in the upstart position. In particular, FS1 has had a rocky history in its short life. On paper, FS1 has the best sports rights outside of ESPN on paper with MLB, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, NASCAR, Champions League, FIFA (World Cup), UFC and USGA (U.S. Open) properties, but it doesn’t seem to have a cohesive brand even compared to NBCSN (which seems to have become the yuppie/hipster sports network largely relying upon the NHL, English Premier League and Olympics), much less ESPN. At the very least, the Big Ten may push Fox over-the-top in terms of being a legit college sports destination that it hasn’t quite been up to this point.

    Realistically, Fox can never achieve the synergy that ESPN can provide, but there are strong potential cross-promotional opportunities between Fox’s over-the-air NFL package and the new Big Ten coverage along with the clear connection between BTN (which is 51% owned by Fox) and the rest of the Fox organization. The NFL broadcasts on Fox are by far the strongest on the network (which ought to be the case since they are also by far the largest ratings drivers for Fox), so let’s hope that the Big Ten can receive at least comparable quality in terms of treatment.

  • The reported 6-year timeframe of the Fox deal is unusual compared to the much longer-term deals that the other power conferences have signed. In fact, the Big Ten will end up back at the negotiating table before any of the other power conferences once again. On the one hand, this presents some risk to the Big Ten since they are not locking in today’s high rights fees into the late-2020s or even 2030s. On the other hand, every time that the Big Ten has bet on itself, it has ended up succeeding, whether it was with the formation of the BTN or taking its rights to the open market in a period of uncertainty for sports programming values with decreasing cable subscriptions. By the same token, Fox may be hedging on cable subscriber fee uncertainty itself, as Dennis Dodd had suggested.In any event, the short length of the TV deal means that conference realignment talk might cool down in the immediate term, but will pick up a huge amount of steam in the next 5 years. Whether it’s a coincidence or not (and I tend to think “not”), the end of the 6-year deal term in 2023 is shortly before the expiration of the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement in 2025, which makes any possible damages for a Big 12 defector to be much lower and/or negligible compared to a Big Ten windfall. The same usual suspects of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas as Big Ten candidates. It will also be interesting to see how schools in other conferences (particularly the ACC) are going to adjust to an environment where each Big Ten school could be receiving nearly $60 million per year in media revenue starting in 2017 (as estimated by Awful Announcing), which would lap the SEC’s revenue (much less any of the other power conferences). A few million dollars per year difference in TV revenue may not have been enough to sway the most valuable schools (e.g. Texas, North Carolina, etc.) to switch conferences, but when we’re looking at an eight figure annual gap, it could change the dynamic quite a bit.

The announcement by Jim Delany at the end of 2009 that the Big Ten was exploring expansion was leading to this moment of a new TV contract. Nebraska added a national name brand for football, while Rutgers and Maryland added two massive media markets based on the East Coast. This isn’t the end, though. I still believe that ESPN is going to end up with the other half of the rights. It will be interesting to see what happens with the CBS basketball package (which hasn’t been talked about as much) since that provided great exposure and time slots for the Big Ten (such as the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game leading into the NCAA Tournament Selection Show) even if the contract value itself pales in comparison with football. Digital rights are going to be a much more significant factor in this new contract compared to 10 years ago, while some second tier sports such as hockey, baseball and lacrosse could end up seeing more telecasts beyond the BTN with multiple other networks. The Big Ten’s new Fox deal is a great start and it’s a sign of great things once we get the final overall media rights picture for the conference.

(Image from Detroit Free Press)

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The financial news stories coming out of ESPN over the past several months have been quite negative. The Disney-owned cable network has endured several rounds of layoffs and reported  last week that it has lost 7 million subscribers over the past two years. This is of particular interest to the Big Ten, which will be negotiating new television contracts over the next year and has been banking on massive increases in rights fees. All of the Big Ten’s off-the-field moves during this decade, from conference expansion to adding a conference championship, has been leading up to providing the league with maximum leverage in this negotiation. The Big Ten Network has certainly been a boon, but the first tier national TV contract is still the Big Ten’s top priority both financially and in terms of brand exposure by a wide margin.

Many of the Big Ten’s financial projections during the conference realignment process were based upon the assumption that ESPN would offer a massive rights fees increase (which in turn would garner similar bids from other media companies, particularly Fox). However, should the Big Ten be worried with the recent turbulence at ESPN? Do the cost-cutting measures at ESPN mean that the network will pull back on what it could offer to the Big Ten?

John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal recently examined the race for the Big Ten rights and noted that the market may not be as “frothy” as it was when the Pac-12 secured a huge rights fee increase in 2011. However, he still expected “ESPN and Fox Sports to at least double the conference’s annual average payout and share the rights” despite the overall market factors (and he would have as great of an insight of what’s likely for sports media rights as anyone in the business).

I completely agree with Ourand on the likelihood of ESPN and Fox splitting the Big Ten rights (as I also predicted in my last post). This would have the effect of ESPN and Fox not having to each completely break their individual banks yet provide the Big Ten with much larger overall rights fees compared to one single contract holder. At the same time, I believe that the Big Ten greatly values the exposure the ESPN provides via its multiple platforms that can’t be matched by any other media company (even with pressures on the basic cable model). I don’t buy the notion that the Big Ten would walk away from ESPN completely – Jim Delany has set up this league to be like the NFL with multiple high profile media partners viewing it as an essential product. (See this article from Ed Sherman from this past March pointing out the presence of ESPN, Fox-affiliated BTN and CBS all at the Big Ten Tournament.)

At the same time, Big Ten fans shouldn’t pay attention to the arm chair observers (i.e. partisans from other leagues that would love to see the Big Ten fail to meet its expectations) that simply assume that ESPN cutting costs in its operations will mean that it will cut its spending on rights fees (and thereby the Big Ten). Ultimately, content is king, and ESPN in particular needs live sports content whether we live in a basic cable world or cord-cutting a la carte/over-the-top streaming world. If anything, retaining premium live sports programming becomes even more critical to ESPN as more people drop basic cable. It’s not going to sell over-the-top subscriptions like HBO Now with more Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith shows. The only way ESPN is going to get people to shell out $20 (or $30 or $40 or $50 or more per month) if it has to move to that environment is to have the broadest suite of exclusive live sporting events that large audiences want to watch as possible. That includes the Big Ten.

The adjustments that ESPN’s corporate siblings at Disney in Hollywood have already made years ago provide a template for sports programming expenditures in the future. Movie studios have already had their revenue and profits eroded by the Internet much more quickly than the television industry. Box office revenue is only being buoyed by ticket price increases (masking a general decline in attendance) while increases in digital streaming and downloads have not been enough to offset the decline in sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs . It’s harder than ever to make money in the movie industry today.

However, that doesn’t mean that Disney has slashed all of its movie budgets. Quite to the contrary, Disney will greenlight massive production and marketing budgets for its tentpole franchises and brands, such as Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar, that dwarf the figures that have been used in the past even on an inflation-adjusted basis. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is estimated to have a production budget of $200 million and films of that size typically have marketing costs that come close to matching that number dollar-for-dollar on top of that. The Avengers: Age of Ultron had a combined production and marketing budget of over $340 million. When it comes to premium content, Disney isn’t skimping because those tentpole movies have downstream impact on the company’s business, such as merchandising and theme park tie-ins. (This classic Spaceballs clip is now literally the business strategy for all of Hollywood.)

Disney will also greenlight lower budget movies, such as documentaries out of its Disneynature unit. Other Hollywood studios have figured out that really cheap horror films provide the best returns on investment in the business, which is why consumers now get a steady diet of new horror movie releases throughout the entire year.

What Disney did completely cut, though, was its middle budget film division. Disney sold off Miramax in 2010 (less than a year after Disney purchased Marvel), which was the Oscar nominee producing machine of films such as Pulp Fiction. The prestige film business might provide nice publicity during awards season, but it doesn’t generate the top-to-bottom movie/merchandising bonanza of tentpole films like Star Wars or the pure ROI of low-budget movies. As a result, Disney has gotten out of the mid-budget film market entirely.

This “high/low” budget strategy while cutting out the middle is almost certainly what ESPN has in mind. Indeed, one the highest profile casualties of ESPN’s recent cost-cutting was the elimination of Grantland. In my opinion, Grantland had produced the best content on any ESPN platform over the past few years (particularly Zach Lowe on the NBA and Bill Barnwell on the NFL) with its mix of sports and pop culture analysis targeted to educated readers. The issue from ESPN’s perspective was that employing the talent to produce such high-level analysis was relatively expensive, yet its mothership website has been getting its most hits for fantasy football lineup recommendations. What is ESPN going to spend its resources on in the future: more top flight reporting on Outside the Lines that is getting marginal ratings, or more lowest common denominator hot take shows where the same broadcast can take up a couple of hours on ESPN2, get syndicated on ESPN radio affiliates across the country and be uploaded to the ESPN website as a podcast? It doesn’t take long to figure that one out.

Believe me – I don’t personally like these trends. Even though I’m a massive Star Wars fan and I’ve got my tickets with the exact seats reserved for opening weekend (along with buying the spectacular Chewbacca Illini T-shirt shown above that might as well have been custom-made for me), I’m also a large watcher of prestige films (and I have zero interest in cheap horror flicks). Grantland was one of my favorite websites and I can’t stand vapid talking head shows (whether news-based or sports-based). We need more resources dedicated to hard news and smart analysis. Unfortunately, the Internet’s business model doesn’t really reward that type of content compared to slideshow click-bait. As a result, prestige content producers may need to go toward an NPR-type funding model.

Putting my personal feelings aside, the high/low budget strategy still works very well for the Big Ten. As far as sports properties go, it’s definitely the equivalent of a tentpole movie franchise and, timing-wise, it’s the only tentpole of any kind available on the TV rights market until the next decade. That’s not hyperbole. Outside of the NFL (which is the undisputed king of TV sports), college football has consistently delivered the best week-in and week-out ratings out of any sport for U.S. viewers and the Big Ten has been at the top of those ratings next to the SEC for many years. This is not a property that ESPN can afford to lose (whether on the mothership cable channel or ABC, whose Saturday programming is heavily reliant on the Big Ten), and this is also not a property that Fox can afford to miss out on. Top tier sports brands like the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, SEC and Big Ten aren’t going to be the ones that are worried about cord cutting because they are all proven drivers of viewership on multiple platforms. Inexpensive sports rights with lower production costs and high ROI (think West Coast Conference basketball with Gonzaga games) will also be in high demand. The sports brands that should be worried are the ones that have relatively high production costs but lower viewership, such as Group of Five conference college football and non-major tennis and golf events.

At the end of the day, ESPN (and likely Fox with them) will end up paying top dollar for the Big Ten just as its Disney corporate siblings continue to pay top dollar for Star Wars films. Going forward, ESPN is in a position where it needs to keep its premium sports rights because that is the only way that it can maximize its value regardless of whether the world stays with basic cable (where such rights are needed to keep the basic cable subscriber fees high) or moves to an over-the-top environment (where such rights are needed to draw in direct paying subscribers). ESPN still paid a premium for more European soccer rights in the past month (as Ourand pointed out) and was still willing to sign up for massive deals with NBA and Major League Baseball when they were fully aware of the erosion of their basic cable subscriber numbers. The Big Ten has tentpole sports content and that will always be in demand.

The new college football season is finally upon us! Let’s get to some quick hits on college sports business news from the past few weeks:

(1) Sports TV Rights: Bubble or Not? – Even before the broader stock market swoon over the past two weeks, cable companies have been getting hammered by investors due to continued decline of the basic cable model due to cord cutting.

This potentially has a large impact on sports fans, particularly college sports fans, since so many off-the-field issues are directly related to cable rights fees for sporting events that have largely grown unfettered for the past decade. Conference realignment doesn’t happen if the Big Ten Network isn’t formed and becomes enormously successful. Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL franchises are buoyed from attendance peaks and valleys by massive regional sports network deals. The NFL receives more rights fees from ESPN for Monday Night Football and DirecTV for Sunday Ticket exclusivity than from its over-the-air network partners that are showing higher profile games than the former and are actually producing the games for the latter.

This begs the question that has been circulating quite a bit these days: is there a sports TV rights bubble that is about to pop?

It’s a lot more complex question than many observers give it credit for. On the one hand, cord cutting is accelerating with a major complaint being that non-sports fans are having to pay higher cable and satellite bills for sports networks that they do not watch. As a result, cable subscriptions rates are going down, which drags down the subscriber fees that networks such as ESPN depend upon. On the other hand, sports programming is one of the few (if not only) exclusive draws to cable and satellite television in the first place, so the relatively inelastic demand from sports fans is arguably even more important to cable networks than ever. In essence, when push comes to show, cable networks may rather lose the more price sensitive cord cutters than lose the higher paying sports fans.

Even with the impact of cord cutting becoming clearer in recent months, cable networks are still charging ahead with large sports rights deals. In early August, NBC and Comcast ponied up a 100% increase in rights for English Premier League games compared to the last deal that was signed only two years ago. The St. Louis Cardinals similarly just scored a doubling of its rights fees from Fox Sports Midwest on the regional sports network front.

It’s an interesting paradox: sports rights fees are arguably both the largest cause of cord cutting and the largest hedge against cord cutting. A non-sports fan is rightly going to question the wisdom of paying for cable when he or she can get the same lineup through a less expensive combination of Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or Hulu (plus maybe even HBO Now). By the same token, sports fans are more dependent upon cable than ever. Cable is no longer just a repository for surplus niche events, but now is the home (whether in whole or part) of the NCAA Tournament (including the Final Four), the College Football Playoff and nearly all bowls (including the bluest blue blood brand of the Rose Bowl), and MLB, NBA and NHL playoff games. More importantly, sporting events are exclusive and unique – a viewer can get news coverage as easily from an over-the-air network or Internet as he or she can from cable, but an over-the-air Ohio State game is not a replacement for a Michigan game for a Wolverines fan.

As a result, I don’t see complete doom and gloom for ESPN and sports networks in the future. For all of the alarmist articles about ESPN’s supposed impending demise over the past few weeks due to employee shuffling and Disney’s earnings reports, ESPN is still the single most valuable media and entertainment property on Earth. The reason why investors are scared isn’t because ESPN’s revenue and profit levels are bad, but rather that they have set such an insanely high bar financially that anything that deviates from that bar is worrisome. To put it into perspective, ESPN is still averaging about $6.61 per subscriber per month with over 92 million subscribers, which translates into $7.372 billion per year before they sell a single advertisement. That is over $614 million per month in just subscriber revenue (once again, we’re not even talking about the commercials that ESPN sells), which is more than the domestic gross of any movie released by Disney in history (and in fact, more than the domestic gross of any movie in history except for Avatar and Titanic). Just think about that: ESPN is generating revenue from just subscriptions that is more than what Disney grosses domestically from any Marvel, Star Wars or Frozen movie every single month… and once again, before they sell a single advertisement.

To be sure, the incredible amount of money that ESPN is generating that is propping up the entire Walt Disney Company (and national and regional sports networks are similarly propping up companies such as 21st Century Fox and Comcast) is exactly why investors are so spooked by any deterioration of the basic cable model. When Disney has been able to set ESPN on auto-pilot and generate more revenue than a new Star Wars movie without lifting a finger every month, both companies and investors start taking that seemingly endless cash flow for granted.* Still, there’s so much money at stake that cable networks are unlikely to stop investing in sports since they are what will keep such cable networks relevant regardless of whether the industry moves from a basic cable to a la carte or over the top environment. Hence, the Big Ten will still likely rake in massive record-setting cash for college sports deals when it signs its new TV contract(s) over the coming year.**

(* Speaking of Star Wars, Disney just announced that it is building a new Star Wars Land built at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. I’ll admit that I’ve had schematics created in my head for a Star Wars Land ever since I was 3 years old with a Millennium Falcon ride and fully operational Death Star. So, this is as exciting to me as it is to my uber-Disneyphile sister.)

(** Just my semi-educated guess: look for the Big Ten to split its first tier rights between ESPN and Fox, where the ABC/ESPN package will effectively be the same as today, but the games that are currently on ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPNEWS getting sent over to Fox/FS1 with some provisions for better game picks if they are carried nationwide over-the-air. The BTN contract is locked-in going until the 2031-32 season, so that won’t be changing. I don’t believe that the Big Ten is truly interested in selling all of its rights to solely Fox, as exposure is still extremely important the conference in the same manner as the NFL. In fact, the NFL TV rights model is a good template for what the Big Ten wants to do, which is to ensure that it’s getting exposure and revenue from several of the top media players instead of just one.)

(2) House of the Rising Sun Belt Expansion (and Contraction?) – As much as the college football world is most interested in whether the Big 12 and/or its individual schools (i.e. Oklahoma) will decide to get back into hot conference realignment action, the Sun Belt has made the latest expansion move by adding Coastal Carolina as a new all-sports member. On paper, Coastal Carolina seems like a fairy good addition for a Group of Five non-power conference since it’s a school with a rising enrollment and solid TV market and recruiting location in the Myrtle Beach area. The Sun Belt may also be turning its focus back on being an all-sports conference as Commissioner Karl Benson has hinted at the league dropping football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State. Those two football programs might soon be joining the homeless UMass as independents against their will (unlike Notre Dame, BYU and Army). If that occurs, it’s going to be tough since there isn’t any natural home for those schools and independence is effectively a death sentence for those schools for more than a couple of years. UMass will be hoping for the AAC to lose a school or two to the Big 12, which would then open up a spot for them. In turn, that could open up other spots down the line for Idaho and New Mexico State. As much as the powers that be in college sports probably like the general slowdown in conference realignment, there are several schools out there that want and/or need chaos.

(3) Illini Coaching Dumpster Fire – As many of you know, I’m an Illinois alumnus and fan. I’ve seen enough dysfunction with Illini football over the years that I barely batted an eye when they fired their head coach only a week before the season opener. At a core level, Tim Beckman was a terrible football coach, awful in press conferences, disjointed with the media and, according to the evidence, abusive to his players. The question in my mind isn’t whether Tim Beckman should have been fired, as that was obvious to me after his first season in Champaign. Instead, the question is what the heck did Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas ever see in Beckman in the first place? If Beckman had an interview that was anything like his conversations with the media, what possessed Thomas to see anything in him? Let there be no doubt: this was a CYA firing by Mike Thomas, but the seat under his own “A” is going to be burning hot coal for awhile. To be fair, many of the non-revenue programs have seen quite a bit of success under Thomas, particularly volleyball, tennis, golf and baseball. However, football and men’s basketball are where power conference athletic directors are ultimately judged and Thomas has, at the very least, underachieved with both of them.

Here are my basic expectations for the Illinois football program: considering its location with access to the Chicago and St. Louis recruiting areas along with Big Ten membership, this team should at least be winning 6 to 8 games per year to consistently make it to bowl games while challenging for the weaker Big Ten West every 4 years or so when senior-laden teams cycle through. This shouldn’t be much to ask for. I’m not delusional in believing that Illinois should be having Ohio State-level success in football or becoming the dominant team in the Big Ten West. However, I also don’t buy some of the national narratives that Illinois football has to be inherently bad. Illinois is not like Indiana or Kansas where football will always be a placeholder until basketball season starts, so I’ll never accept the “Illinois is a basketball school” excuse for football ineptitude. (Besides, a top tier athletic department should have the ability to perform well in both football and basketball. See Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin just in the Big Ten.) Instead, Illinois is simply a fairweather football school in the same manner as 90% of other college programs: they sell tickets when they win but fans won’t come out when they lose. The Illini football fan base is similar to the fan base of my Chicago White Sox – there are large numbers of us out there, yet we aren’t paying to watch a poor product like, say, Cubs fans have historically done. Illinois has made several terrible bad football decisions in the past, but there isn’t any structural reason why the school can’t have at least a competent football program. The immediate issue is that I don’t trust that Illinois will make a competent football decision until Mike Thomas is gone.

Of course, even with the turmoil surrounding Illinois football, I’m still pathological enough of a football fan to get excited for a Friday night game against Kent State. I’m fairly certain that my hopes and dreams for the Illini and Bears this year will be quickly crushed within the next 4 weeks, but until then, que sera, sera. Enjoy the games and holiday weekend!

(Image from News-Gazette)

After a long Chicagoland winter that included coaching my twins (and future hopes and saviors for the Illini men’s and women’s basketball programs) in the Naperville YMCA Kindergarten Basketball League, it’s time to get back to blogging. Fortunately, not much has occurred on the conference realignment scene since December when the Big 12 was coming right off of the sting of being left out of the College Football Playoff. After some expansion rumors that included Cincinnati and Memphis, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and his conference brethren have a long string of denials about any desire or need to expand. Personally, I don’t believe them – I think the Big 12 is fully aware that they need to expand for the long-term. Whether the Big 12 has any consensus on who they should expand with is an entirely different matter, particularly when those additions will need to come from the pool of non-power schools.

Interestingly enough, the latest expansion scuttlebutt is coming from the Big Ten. Granted, it’s only for hockey, but it’s still an intriguing indicator for the Big Ten’s overall plans (as you’ll see further down in this post). The Minneapolis Star Tribune had an in-depth article last week about how Penn State’s successful start to its hockey program is spurring schools across the Big Ten and the rest of the country to consider adding the sport. Arizona State recently announced that it will be starting a Division I hockey program… and according to the Star Tribune, the Sun Devils have been speaking to the Big Ten about its conference home on the ice:

Arizona State and the Big Ten both confirmed they’ve discussed a hockey future together. An outside school competing in one Big Ten sport already occurs in men’s lacrosse with Johns Hopkins.

Two other conferences with a major presence in the Midwest, the WCHA and the NCHC, are also engaged in conversations with the Sun Devils.

“I think being in a conference with like institutions is important,” [Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer] Heppel said. “[Arizona State] is going to have to think about that from an institutional and sport perspective. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have a historic relationship.”

Heppel oversees men’s hockey for the Big Ten, so her on-the-record quotes directly about Arizona State indicate that this isn’t a fly-by-night rumor.

My knee-jerk reaction: Sounds good to me. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said before that the Phoenix market is actually home to more Big Ten alums than Pac-12 alums. If you’ve ever visited the Phoenix/Scottsdale area (particularly in the winter and spring), you could certainly believe it with the overwhelming number of Midwestern transplants and retirees (even compared to other Sun Belt locations like Florida). Phoenix/Scottsdale is to Chicago snowbirds as Miami/Ft. Lauderdale is to New York City snowbirds. Arizona State isn’t an AAU institution as of now, but it’s one of the largest universities in the country with respected graduate programs (even with the party school and Girls Gone Wild reputations of its undergrad population). Plus, the fact that Arizona State is in the Big Ten’s brother of the Pac-12 makes a bit easier to envision the Sun Devils as a hockey member compared to, say, Notre Dame.

At the same time, the Big Ten has the opportunity to make this into a broader relationship beyond hockey. For example, imagine if Arizona State commits to playing 1 or 2 Big Ten football teams per year, 2 to 3 non-conference basketball games, and several non-conference baseball games (where the Big Ten legitimately needs help from a powerhouse in that sport like ASU). That’s not a huge commitment from either Arizona State (and they may have wanted to schedule those types of non-conference games on their own, anyway) or the Big Ten, yet it starts building a more in-depth presence in the Phoenix area, which is a key market for Big Ten alums.

A related consideration is if other Big Ten schools will start adding hockey to further grow the league organically. If I had $100 million to spare, I’d start up an Illinois hockey program tomorrow. Alas, I don’t have that type of coin laying around and it doesn’t appear to be coming from other possible benefactors (such as the rumored interest of Jimmy John Liautaud, who is the founder of Jimmy John’s). This is unfortunate since the Illini hockey club has performed well for decades along with having a passionate fan base and that could be supercharged if it turned into the only Division I hockey program in the state of Illinois. Alas, Illinois has everything that it needs from a competition and fan base standpoint to support hockey, but none of the financial support right now.

Instead, from what I’ve heard for at least the past year, Nebraska is by far the closest to jumping up to Division I hockey. The Cornhuskers’ new Pinnacle Bank Arena has icemaking capabilities and the school is also opening a new separate ice arena that can easily be used as a practice facility. Since Nebraska has the expensive physical facilities in place already, they’ve already fought the vast majority of the battle in starting a program. Nebraska has a top tier fundraising operation, as well, so they can get the money into place once they’re given the green light. There have been rumblings about Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa looking at hockey, but if you’re a betting person, you should wager heavily on Nebraska as the next existing Big Ten school to add the sport.

What does this mean for Big Ten fans that don’t care about college hockey? Well, one open question is whether the possibility of Arizona State joining the Big Ten hockey league means that it will blow open the door for more affiliate Big Ten members in hockey or other sports. From my vantage point, not necessarily. Just as Johns Hopkins was a special case as a Big Ten affiliate in being an academic and men’s lacrosse powerhouse, Arizona State hits a lot of metrics for the Big Ten in terms of being in the Phoenix market and a friendly Pac-12 for other sports that don’t exist for other members. Big Ten hockey fans might dream of adding the likes of Boston University, Boston College and Notre Dame if the league were to let in Arizona State, but that doesn’t seem likely (not the least of which is the fact that the Hockey East is a tough nut to crack even with dangling the prestige of the Big Ten). Instead, look at some of the more unique outliers that wouldn’t have the same poaching hurdles. For instance, MIT has Division I men’s and women’s rowing (where just as Johns Hopkins is Division III for all sports except lacrosse, MIT is Division III for all sports except rowing). Could that be leveraged into a relationship between MIT (which would be academic dynamite for the Big Ten presidents) and the Big Ten? What about academically prestigious schools in the Sun Belt that could add firepower to Big Ten baseball, such as Rice or University of California system members? The possibilities are endless, but the Big Ten is also likely to be very conservative in its affiliate member picks.

Separately, the Big Ten is on the precipice of negotiating new TV deals that will start after the 2016-17 season. As Ed Sherman pointed out in the Chicago Tribune last week, the Big Ten is in a great position as the only major pro or college sports property to come onto the market for the rest of this decade. It can expect Fox to bid aggressively for tier 1 rights as well as current rights holder ESPN. In my opinion, the Big Ten will likely end up with a setup similar to the Pac-12, where tier 1 rights are split between ABC/ESPN and Fox while the rest go to its conference network of the BTN. I don’t think there’s much chance of the Big Ten taking all of its rights to Fox even if Rupert Murdoch makes a blood money Godfather offer. The ratings for Big East basketball on FS1 have been depressing beyond belief and, contrary to the rantings of some Big East haters out there, it has nothing to do with the Big East conference itself. Any random game on ESPN and, for that matter, ESPN2, is going to have a massive amount of more exposure compared to the exact same game on FS1. That speaks to a problem with the channel itself – it depresses ratings simply by channel location whereas ESPN boosts ratings.

Believe me – exposure matters greatly to the Big Ten. The money obviously matters, but that money is only there because the Big Ten has had the best TV exposure of any conference for decades. As Sherman noted in his column, the Big Ten had ESPN, CBS and BTN (a partial Fox property) all covering portions of the Big Ten Tournament. That’s akin to the setup that the NFL has – they’re essentially getting paid a lot of money by everybody in the media business. I don’t think the Big Ten is going to step away from that approach – they want as many high profile outlets covering their games as possible. So, I don’t see the Big Ten being willing to move games from ABC and ESPN to FS1 and FS2. Regardless of how Big Ten fans might personally feel about ESPN commentators (and IMHO, Big Ten fans complain too much about them as a whole), it’s horrific for conference exposure to move off of the Worldwide Leader. However, I could certainly see the Big Ten being happy with games that are currently on ESPNU and ESPNEWS being moved to over-the-air Fox and FS1. That points to maximum exposure with a ton of checks being cashed from Disney and Fox with some side basketball money from CBS.

With that, it’s time to fill out my bracket and prepare for watching basketball in the middle of the day. (My Final Four picks: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova and Iowa State, with Kentucky over Villanova in the national championship game.) Enjoy the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament!

(Image from SI.com)

I know that it’s been a loooooong time since my last post. Let’s get right to some random thoughts:

(1) College Football Playoffs – We have seen two iterations of the College Football Playoff rankings and my mind comes back to the same question that I had when the powers that be first announced that the system would use a committee: Why is this any better than just using the AP Poll (or old Harris Poll)? (To be sure, the Coaches’ Poll is a worthless self-serving steaming pile of garbage.) The former BCS rankings were much maligned, but they were at least a little progressive in attempting to incorporate some objective computer rankings. All that I see with the new CFP rankings is a 12-person poll, which isn’t necessarily any better than other polls with much larger sample sizes. The NCAA Tournament Committee serves an important purpose for basketball since they are vetting at-large teams that much of the general public hasn’t seen before. However, a 4-team college football playoff is much more suited to a “Wisdom of Crowds” determination: the public has a fairly good sense of who it believes to be the very top teams in any given season, so a decision from a small committee isn’t necessarily going to be any better.

Having said that, I do enjoy seeing the broader array of games that matter at a national level this season. The expansion from a 2-team championship race to a 4-team playoff has a pushdown effect where there are more impact games involving many more potential postseason participants. Unfortunately, very few of those impact games have involved the Big Ten over the past couple of months. I don’t believe that this is some type of long-term permanent situation, but it’s an early indicator of issues down the road for the playoff system overall. A 4-team playoff structurally means that at least one power conference champion is going to be left out every year, and when a league like the SEC looks as if though it can garner multiple playoff sports, that means that 2 or more power conference champs can be left on the outside. A consolation Rose Bowl or BCS bowl berth was seen as a worthy prize back in the 2-team BCS championship world, but this season has already shown that 100% of the oxygen in the sport is being taken up by the 4-team playoff race.

So, I’ve spent quite a bit of time once again contemplating the next (and probably final) phase of playoff expansion: the 8-team playoff with all 5 power conference champs receiving auto-bids. If it were up to me, we would just use the traditional bowl arrangements to slot the teams:

Rose Bowl: Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ
Sugar Bowl: SEC champ vs. at-large
Fiesta Bowl: Big 12 champ vs. at-large
Orange Bowl: ACC champ vs. at-large

I expanded quite a bit more on this proposal last year as a mind meld between the progressive (expanded playoff) and the traditional (old school bowl tie-ins). Believe me – if there’s one proposal that I’ve had on this blog that I’d want to see implemented, it would be that one by far.

(2) Big 12 Expansion – Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was asked last week about Big 12 expansion and he had some comments that we can over-analyze here (as not much has been happening on the conference realignment front lately). Here was his response to a question about whether further conference realignment was coming (via The Oklahoman):

There are several of us that are numerically challenged. I don’t know that anybody could’ve anticipated that the Big 12 would have 10 and the Big Ten would have 14. … In our case, I don’t know that there are a lot of obvious candidates out there. We’re distributing about $25 million per school through our distributable revenue, so anybody that would be considered for expansion in our league would have to bring at least pro-rata value. … But the opportunity to move from one high-visibility conference to another is pretty slim right now. I don’t see much movement in the near- to mid-term. As we get near the end of some of these TV contracts, which would be 10 or 12 years down the road, there may be some renewed conversations. The only movement that is possible right now is from some of the secondary-level conferences that might move people into one of the five high profiles.

The super-conferences concept … has largely been a media fabrication. I have heard no serious conversation among people who do this for a living that the super-conference concept has got any traction. It’s always dangerous when the media starts to interview the rest of the media, and I think that’s where the super-conference thing came from.

Nothing too new here, although Bowlsby does seem to give some hope to non-power conference schools looking to move up to the power ranks (such as BYU, Cincinnati and UConn) in stating that the only possible movement is from the “secondary-level conferences” to one of the power leagues. Seeing that the Big 12 is the most likely conference to expand in the near future (meaning the next 3 to 5 years), anything that Bowlsby says that suggests some possible movement is something to watch. Nothing has changed from my viewpoint a year ago that the Big 12 is demographically challenged long-term (other than the state of Texas) and would benefit from a 2-team expansion (specifically with Cincinnati and BYU under my Big 12 Expansion Index). I’ve never bought the notion that the Big 12 is truly happy being at 10 schools – their leaders will always publicly state that they’re happy with their TV revenue and round-robin scheduling, but deep down, they’re dying for two obvious non-power schools to rise up (similar to TCU and Utah in the past) that they can add on.

(3) TV Contracts – Bowlsby also had some interesting comments about the impact of the Longhorn Network on the Big 12 (once again via The Oklahoman):

The Longhorn Network is a boulder in the road. It really is. They did something that almost no other institution in the country could do because of the population in the state, and we’re looking at some way to try and morph that around a little bit. … It really begs the question about, how are we going to get our sports in the years ahead? If technology changes in the next five years as much as it’s changed in the last five years, we’re not going to be getting our sports by cable TV. I don’t know what it’ll be. But increasingly, we’re using mobile devices … Google Network and Apple TV and things like that are coming into play. … I’m not sure the world needs another exclusive college cable network. Rather than trying to do what everybody else has done, I would much rather try to figure out what tomorrow’s technology is and get on the front side of that and be a part of what happens going forward and monetize that.

I think Bowlsby is trying to spin a nice tale that the Big 12 can somehow take advantage of new technologies in the way that’s different than the Big Ten Network or SEC Network. However, the Big 12 can’t sell rights to games that it doesn’t have the rights to. If anything, the best properties to leverage for digital platforms in the future are conference networks themselves – see the BTN2Go streaming capabilities and the SEC Network’s integration into WatchESPN. The most powerful conferences in the cable world are going to continue to be the most powerful conferences in the digital world.

Separately, the NBA’s record-breaking new TV deal portends some incredible cash on the horizon for the Big Ten, which is the last major sports property (college or pro) that will be on the open TV rights market for the rest of this decade once its current ESPN deal expires in 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Big Ten ends up extending with its current first tier rights TV partner ESPN sooner rather than later in the same way that the NBA extended its deals with ESPN and Turner. While there is some fan sentiment out there that the Big Ten ought to separate itself from ESPN, that’s (1) unbelievably short-sighted from an exposure perspective and (2) very likely to be a poor decision financially. (Mark Hasty of Midwest Sports Fans had a great critique of Big Ten fans complaining about supposed ESPN bias against the conference. I wholeheartedly agree with his analysis – our media coverage off-the-field is honestly miles ahead of our performance on-the-field.) It is also a common fan misnomer that the Big Ten is somehow more aligned with Fox. While the BTN is a Big Ten/Fox partnership, remember that the Big Ten actually provides the top picks of college football games for ABC and ESPN every week, which is of immense importance to both the B1G and Disney. (If you live in a cave, SEC sends its top game of the week to CBS.) Ultimately, ESPN has the most cash by far and they have shown to be willing to pay up to ensure that competitors like Fox and Comcast/NBC don’t get their hands on prime sports properties. Meanwhile, there is the risk that cable TV money might not last forever with the increase of chord cutting, so waiting a few years for the open market isn’t necessarily the guarantee of greater riches that it appears a couple of years ago. The NBA made the calculation that it was better to take the cash now rather than later and I’d trust the media savvy of Adam Silver over any other commissioner in sports. I would expect the Big Ten to do the same thing.

(Image from God and Sports)

As we recover from an ‘80s/’90s-style Super Bowl blowout, here are some random thoughts:

“It’s Not Business. It’s Personal.” – Considering how much time that this blog has analyzed objective measures for conference realignment (including the Big 12 Expansion Index late last year), it’s always fun to see how expansion decisions aren’t necessarily always performed using financial analysts and lawyers poring over reams of data and documents. Dennis Dodd told the tale this week of how TCU ended up in the Big 12 during the chaotic realignment days of Fall 2011:

[TCU AD Chris] Del Conte admitted, “the pressure of the entire institution was on my shoulders” to join the Big 12. He worked the phones, calling every Big 12 contact he knew. Support within the Big 12 was growing, including at Oklahoma where good friend Joe Castiglione had been encouraging. But Del Conte knew if he didn’t have Texas, he didn’t have a chance.

“I’ve got one shot,” he recounted, “to go see DeLoss.”

It was a quite a visit. Del Conte grabbed a car, a driver and a bunch of reference material, binders, extolling the advantages of TCU and Fort Worth.

“I get up at 8 o’clock in the morning and drive to Darrell K. Royal Stadium. I get to [Dodds’] office. Nine comes around, 10 comes around. I’ve got a GA [graduate assistant] outside waiting for me, by the way. I tell him, ‘Just wait 10 minutes I’ll be back.’ Pretty soon it’s 3:30.

“[DeLoss] comes out and says, ‘Who are you?’ Chris Del Conte, Texas Christian U. He doesn’t hear ‘Chris.’ he hears ‘Del’. ‘Del, let’s go get ourselves a drink and discuss it.’

“We went to a restaurant and had a little libation at 3:30. By the time 8:30 rolls around, we were [into it] pretty good but we got ourselves in a situation. I kept trying to give him my [binders]. He said, ‘I’ve heard enough, Del’ and just walked away.”

The Big 12 ADs had a conference call the next day.

“The next morning I got up. Joe [Castiglione] goes, ‘I don’t know what you did but it worked.’ We got the vote. The Frogs are in,’ Del Conte said.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like for a Cincinnati or UConn fan whose programs are twisting in the wind when it appears that all it took to get Deloss Dodds to throw the support of the almighty University of Texas behind you was getting him liquored up on tequila shots. Granted, TCU’s addition to the Big 12 wasn’t that simplistic (at least I think so… right?) as it was coming off multiple BCS bowl appearances and a Rose Bowl victory. I had been a champion of TCU long before that when they were still dreaming of just an invite to a then-BCS-level Big East (much less the Big 12). Regardless, it goes to show you that personal relationships still matter beyond the quantitative analysis behind conference realignment. Oliver Luck of West Virginia and Tom Jurich of Louisville were tireless advocates for their respective schools and built up incredible networks of connections that they tapped into when the old Big East was collapsing. Former Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti was critical in getting the school into the Big Ten when the conference was looking for a partner with Maryland. When Creighton got the call to go to the new basketball-focused Big East as opposed to more geographically-friendly and larger market schools like St. Louis and Dayton, it could point to the fact that Creighton’s president happened to be on the Marquette Board of Trustees.

So, it looks like the lesson for any school still trying to get out of the Group of Five ranks is to send booze over to its power conference counterparts early and often on top of all the binders and PowerPoint presentations.

Conference Championship Games the Way We Want ThemJohn Swofford and the ACC sent the NCAA over a proposal to give leagues more flexibility in determining who can participate in conference championship games. The ACC wants the ability to remove the requirement to have divisions in order to hold a conference championship and let conferences determine how the participants are chosen by any criteria that they’d like, such as simply taking the top two teams with the best conference records and having them face off. Personally, I am all for it and hope that Jim Delany and the Big Ten hop aboard in support of the measure. As much as conference realignment fascinates me and believe that power leagues such as the Big Ten need to constantly be on the lookout for expansion opportunities, the obvious drawback as a fan is witnessing the games and rivalries that I actually care about get reduced. No amount of exposure in New York City or Washington, DC for Illinois is going to replace the excitement of playing Michigan or Ohio State. At the same time, if a school is only playing teams in the other division once out of every 6 years (as the SEC is set up now outside of cross-division rivals), that’s more akin to a non-conference scheduling arrangement as opposed to an actual unified conference. Therefore, if there’s a way to continue to hold conference championship games while eliminating divisions (or at least modifying the rules where teams don’t have to play round-robin schedules within their divisions), that provides a lot more ability for expanded conferences to adopt scheduling policies to play everyone within a league more frequently.

If I was running the Big Ten, I’d use the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) strategy of assigning every school 3 permanent rivals that it will play annually based on geography. That would then leave 6 other games to fill on the 9-game schedule every year. This setup allows each school to play everyone else in the conference 6 times every 10 years (a cycle of 2 years on, 2 years off, 4 years on, 2 years off), which keeps conference unity strong while still integrating the benefits of geographic expansion. Here’s how I’d assign the Big Ten rivalries:

SCHOOL RIVAL #1 RIVAL #2 RIVAL #3
Illinois Northwestern Indiana Purdue
Indiana Purdue Illinois Northwestern
Iowa Nebraska Wisconsin Minnesota
Maryland Michigan State Rutgers Penn State
Michigan Ohio State Michigan State Rutgers
Michigan State Maryland Michigan Ohio State
Minnesota Wisconsin Nebraska Iowa
Nebraska Iowa Minnesota Wisconsin
Northwestern Illinois Purdue Indiana
Ohio State Michigan Penn State Michigan State
Penn State Rutgers Ohio State Maryland
Purdue Indiana Northwestern Illinois
Rutgers Penn State Maryland Michigan
Wisconsin Minnesota Iowa Nebraska

The top two schools would then advance to the Big Ten Championship Game. Let’s get this done ASAP.

NFL Thursday Night Games – The NFL agreeing to simulcast a portion of its NFL Network Thursday night package on over-the-air CBS has some major implications both in terms of the entertainment industry in general and college football. First, the fact that CBS ended up winning the package despite already having the top-rated Thursday night lineup led by The Big Bang Theory just goes to show you the power of the NFL compared to everything else on television. Initially, I thought that CBS was going to be the least likely to end up with the NFL package as a result of its monster lineup, but it makes a bit more sense as a defensive move. Note that Disney pushed back on the NFL’s request to move Sunday Night Football games from ESPN to ABC back in 2004 because of an extremely strong prime time lineup featuring Desperate Housewives. That SNF package ended up on NBC, which now has such high ratings that it has turned Sunday night from the place where networks would always put their very best shows (as it has historically been the night when the most people will watch TV) to a scheduling triage unit for half of the year until football season is over. CBS likely noted the history of ABC and moved to protect its Thursday night lineup. Now, CBS can show NFL games on Thursday nights for the first 8 weeks of the season (thereby weakening the strong ratings competition of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal on ABC in the process) and then debut The Big Bang Theory just in time for November sweeps month. This move could have a radical change to how networks schedule on Thursday night (which had turned into the new evening where networks all placed their best shows after SNF ravaged its Sunday night competition).

College football will certainly be affected further as this will draw further exposure away from ESPN’s Thursday night games. Over the past 6 or 7 years, Thursday night had developed into an acceptable time slot for power conference schools to move games to away from Saturday, but that enticement might be eradicated with much stronger over-the-air NFL competition (and it was already getting that way with the NFL Network’s full season Thursday night schedule over the past 2 years). As a result, Thursday night might end up being the purview of non-power conferences again. Also, Friday nights aren’t as attractive to top schools because of conflicts with high school football in many states and lower TV ratings on that evening in general.

At the same time, the NFL’s willingness to move games off of its own network (which has the highest subscriber fees of any national cable network outside of ESPN) shows the tension between maximizing revenue (which would point to maximizing the value of their cable network) and maximizing exposure (going to over-the-air channels or ESPN). The Big Ten should take note as it heads into a period where it may end up renegotiating its TV deals sooner rather than later (as John Ourand of Sports Business Journal has predicted will happen this year). I often get asked about how many more games that the Big Ten will retain for the BTN in its next TV deal and my response is, “Not as many as you think.” As much as the BTN is filling up the Big Ten’s coffers, Jim Delany is smart enough to know that there still needs to be a balance of exposure on entities such as ESPN and over-the-air networks to keep the product viable in the long-term. The BTN is still intended to be a supplement to the widespread coverage as opposed to a replacement – we’re not going to be seeing Michigan-Ohio State on BTN anytime soon. If anything, look for broader distribution for Big Ten games on ABC, ESPN and possibly Fox whenever the conference signs its new TV deals.

Semi-off-topic: City Branding in Columbus – One of my random interests is studying urban development plans and how metro areas can attract investment and transplants, so Urbanophile is one of my favorite blogs to follow these days. Much of the blog’s focus is on Midwestern and Rust Belt cities, so there’s’ a lot of quantitative and qualitative analysis about the economic growth prospects (or in some cases, the lack thereof) of the Big Ten footprint. A recent post dealt with whether Columbus needs better branding in order to attract attention on par with other media-hyped college town/state capital combos such as Austin and Madison or if better job and population growth in and of itself is enough. You’ll see a fairly vigorous discussion in that post, including several comments from me. Anyway, I thought that would be of particular interest to the Ohio State fans reading here and it’s a great place to discuss how many of the other Big Ten markets are doing (which, in turn, impacts the strength of the Big Ten itself will be in the future).

Finally… if there’s a silver lining to the authoritarian, anti-free speech, homophobic and dog killing regime of Vladamir Putin, it’s that it’s going to be really easy to root against Russia in the Olympics again. No one else has really stepped in to fill the U.S. rival role since the Soviet Union fell. (Granted, I’m half-Chinese, so it’s a bit more difficult for me to demonize China as the enemy.) This is as much of a throwback to the 1980s as terrible Super Bowl matchups, so that will certainly add some flavor to the Olympics.

Enjoy the weekend!

(Image from Third City)

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)