Posts Tagged ‘SEC’

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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)

Despite being a Big Ten guy that would personally love to have Jim Delany add Florida State, I’ve repeated the following statement many times on this blog: the ACC is much stronger than what people give it credit for. It’s not that I’m a fan of the ACC at all, but simply a reflection that it has never been as open for poaching as so many conference realignment observers thought or wanted it to be. Despite perceived TV contract problem, it’s a conference with strong brand names and good-to-great academics in arguably the most demographically desirable geographic footprint of any league in the country. So, it wasn’t a surprise to me that the ACC finally solidified its position to the outside world with its members unanimously agreeing to a grant of media rights to the conference through 2026-27. For the uninitiated, the “Grant of Rights” is a key tool in protecting a conference’s membership since each school individually grants its media rights to its league for a set period of time, which applies even if such school ends up defecting. For example, if an ACC school now attempted to leave for the Big Ten, SEC or Big 12, the ACC would still own that school’s media rights until 2026-27. That effectively makes ACC schools worthless from a raiding conference’s standpoint since they either can’t get access to those media rights or would have to pay a large buyout to the ACC to obtain them. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 schools have already agreed to a grant of rights to their respective conferences.

With 4 of the 5 power conferences having a vested legal interest in seeing grant of rights agreements being upheld in court (and the 5th power conference that doesn’t have a grant of rights, the SEC, being so strong financially off-the-field and competitively on-the-field), it’s likely that we have seen an end to power conference realignment for the next decade or so. There’s a chance that the Big 12 may be compelled to expand back up to 12 or more members from its current 10 or that the Pac-12 could eventually find a current Mountain West Conference member attractive, but the shifting between the power conferences themselves is probably over. From the Big Ten’s perspective, it’s probably all well and good. As much as I personally wanted the Big Ten to look at a school like Florida State, it likely only had eyes for the AAU likes of Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, all of whom would have been extremely difficult to poach (particularly UNC). The SEC also was set on looking at UNC and maybe rival Duke as a pair, which also would have been a monumental task to pull off. Much like the Big Ten was better off seeing Texas stay in a weakened Big 12 as opposed to heading off to a stronger Pac-16, if Jim Delany can’t nab his alma mater of UNC for himself, maintaining the status quo is much more preferable than seeing UNC head off to the SEC (as unlikely that would have been). From both the conference financial and fan perspectives, there isn’t any Big Ten expansion scenario that makes any sense without 2 or more schools from one of the ACC or Big 12. I’m sure that Mike Slive and SEC fans would feel the same way about SEC expansion.

The conference realignment game has been particularly cruel to American Athletic Conference* orphans UConn and Cincinnati. Their most realistic paths back to power conference status were all via further raids of the ACC opening up more slots. Neither school fits the profile of what the Big Ten and SEC would be looking for, the Pac-12 is out of geographic reach, and the ACC isn’t likely going up to 16 with either of them and would only be interested in them as backfill candidates in the event they ever do lose other members. The best hope for UConn and Cincinnati at this point (and it’s a bit better for the latter) is that the Big 12 ends up having an urgent need to expand again. Using 20/20 hindsight, the Big 12 might rue the day that they passed over taking Louisville and a 12th school (either BYU or Cincinnati) as the ACC surprised a lot of people in grabbing what has ended up being a fairly valuable football and basketball chip off of the table. A Louisville/BYU combo was likely financially viable to the Big 12 in a way that any BYU/Cincinnati/UConn combo probably can’t be, so the Big 12 seems stalled at 10. That might be perfectly fine for the conference’s university presidents and athletic directors at this time, but having a lack of viable expansion options is a much more acute long-term problem for a 10-school conference than ones at 12 or 14 members. I’ve never been a proponent of any conference expanding simply for the sake of expanding, yet it feels like the Big 12 didn’t take advantage of a momentary position of strength after they signed their new TV deal with ESPN and Fox last year. Now, to be sure, I never bought for one second that the Big 12 had any legitimate chance at Florida State and Clemson (the former was really only interested in shaking the money trees of the Big Ten and SEC). However, adding Louisville and BYU would have been a solid expansion both athletically and geographically for the Big 12 and that’s an opportunity that has slipped away. The ACC’s choice of Louisville over UConn and Cincinnati effectively blocked Big 12 expansion, whether John Swofford intended for that to happen or not (and I tend to agree with Andy Staples that Swofford is a ninja that has been underestimated by a lot of college sports fans).

(* My vote for the new AAC logo is here.)

As for the ACC itself, there’s little point in entertaining expansion for the foreseeable future. Contrary to the belief of a surprisingly large number of sports fans, the fact that the ACC has an odd number of basketball teams as a result of Notre Dame’s non-football membership has absolutely zero bearing on conference realignment. The only time that an odd number of schools matters is for a football alignment, which wouldn’t apply in the case of the ACC. Therefore, the conference certainly wouldn’t add a single all-sports member to create an odd number of football schools, and it’s doubtful that going up to 16 is appealing with the ongoing hope (however misguided that it might be) that Notre Dame might join the league as a football member within the next 40 years.

Speaking of Notre Dame, the Irish have managed to solidify their independence for the foreseeable future with an extension of their contract with NBC through 2025. If one thing has been made clear through conference realignment over the past 3 years (to the extent that it wasn’t already clear), it’s that Notre Dame’s ironclad principle is to maintain independence above making the most TV money (which, to be sure, is still quite good for them), scheduling concerns or any other factor besides being structurally foreclosed from winning a national championship (which will be far from the case in the new 4-team playoff format). The ACC is honestly a perfect setup for Notre Dame – the Irish get access to a power conference for non-football sports and a full slate of bowls with a partial conference scheduling commitment that consists largely of schools that they would generally be willing to play, anyway. They’re not going anywhere for a loooong time.

Now, conference realignment for the world outside of the five power football conferences is far from over. The formation of the “new” Big East is spurring a large scale realignment of non-FBS Division I conferences (starting with the Atlantic 10 adding George Mason and Davidson and the Missouri Valley Conference taking Loyola). Many FCS football programs are finding themselves in financial purgatory where they are looking to move up to FBS homes. There might even be a full scale realignment of the college sports world with a possible breakaway of the top football leagues from the NCAA. Still, it feels like the big conference realignment moves (outside of that possible NCAA break-up) have been completed… except, of course, for Johns Hopkins going to the Big Ten.

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

(Image from ImageEvent)

This blog has been a hub of activity for conference realignment discussion and other issues in the business of sports for the past couple of years, but it has sometimes been difficult to get quantitative data to back up what many of us observe qualitatively (such as the popularity of fan bases and conferences).  So, the following presentation direct from Nielsen (the TV ratings firm) about the 2011 sports year provides a treasure trove of previously unknown (at least to me) and fascinating statistics about pro and college sports TV viewership, social networking buzz and ad spending:
This slide presentation was uploaded by ceobroadband at slideshare.net.  Nielsen analyzed everything from the four major pro sports leagues to the rising viewership of the English Premier League in the US, so there’s something here for every type of sports fan.  It’s key that this analysis is coming directly from Nielsen itself, whereas a lot of other viewership figures that get reported these days come from leagues, conferences and TV networks themselves and are spun to put them in the most favorable light.  As a result, the slide presentation is about as unbiased as you can reasonably get on the subject matters at hand.
One of the more interesting charts is on slide 4, where Nielsen tracked the social media buzz for the major pro sports leagues over the course of 2011 and news events where activity spiked on Twitter and Facebook.  Major League Baseball can’t be happy to see social networking mentions hover around the NHL’s numbers and its 7-game World Series last year didn’t produce a real spike in activity compared to the NBA Finals.  I’m not surprised by the fact that the NBA has more social networking buzz compared to MLB since the basketball league’s fan base skews younger, but I didn’t expect baseball to be on the social media level of hockey.  (Note that there’s no point in comparing any other sport to the NFL in America: pro football blows everything else away on every metric.  The only discussion is about who can take second place.)
For college sports fans, slide 9 presents some extremely pertinent information that few of us have seen before: the average TV viewer numbers per game for each of the 6 power conferences for both football and basketball.  With so many issues in college sports, such as conference realignment and a football playoff, driven by television money, these viewership figures are enlightening (and surprising in some cases).
Here are the average football viewership totals by conference according to Nielsen:1. SEC – 4,447,000
2. Big Ten – 3,267,000
3. ACC – 2,650,000
4. Big 12 – 2,347,000
5. Pac-12 – 2,108,000
6. Big East – 1,884,000
Here are the average basketball viewership totals by conference according to Nielsen:1. Big Ten – 1,496,000
2. ACC – 1,247,000
3. SEC – 1,222,000
4. Big 12 – 1,069,000
5. Big East – 1,049,000
6. Pac-12 – 783,000
Some takeaways from those figures:
A. The Big Ten and SEC deserve every penny that they receive and then some – The readers of this blog probably aren’t surprised by the football viewership numbers, but the proverbial icing on the cake is how strong both of them are in basketball.  ACC alum Scott Van Pelt of ESPN once said, “Watching Big Ten basketball is like watching fat people have sex.”  Well, the Big Ten even tops the vaunted the ACC in basketball viewership and it’s by a fairly healthy margin.
B. The ACC has an undervalued TV contract – The flip side of the Big Ten and SEC analysis above is that while the ACC’s basketball viewership strength isn’t unexpected, the much maligned football side actually has strong TV numbers.  If you take a step back for a moment, it makes sense.  Florida State and Miami continue to be great national TV draws (even when they’re down) and schools such as Virginia Tech bring in large state markets.
C.  Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott can sell ice cubs to Eskimos – The viewership numbers for the Pac-12 in both football and basketball indicate that they shouldn’t be in the vicinity of the ACC and Big 12 TV contracts, much less currently above the Big Ten and SEC.  The football numbers might be a little lower compared to a normal season with USC having the scarlet letter of not being able to go to a bowl this year, but one would think that some of that would have been countered by strong Stanford and Oregon teams.  Meanwhile, the basketball numbers are just awful – the Pac-12 definitely needs UCLA to resuscitate itself to be viable nationally.  The Pac-12 presidents ought to give Larry Scott a lifetime contract with the TV dollars that he’s pulled from ESPN and Fox.
D.  Big East basketball is a weaker draw than expected – No one should be surprised by the weak Big East football numbers.  However, the basketball and large market-centric side of the league actually had fewer hoops viewers than any of the power conferences except for the Pac-12, which doesn’t bode well with the league losing the strong draws of Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia.  The Big East was also widely acknowledged as the top conference in basketball last year, so the league was at its competitive peak in the post-2003 ACC raid era.  This gives credence to the argument that large media markets in and of themselves don’t matter as much as large and rabid fan bases that draw in statewide audiences.
E.  The Big 12 is appropriately valued – For all of the dysfunction of the Big 12, it might be the one conference whose TV contracts are actually in line with their viewership numbers.  The Big 12 is ranked #4 among the power conferences for both football and basketball and the likelihood is that it will end up as the #4 conference in TV dollars after the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC when all is said and done.
There’s lots of other data to chew on here that I may examine in future posts, but for now, the college conference viewership breakdown is something that I haven’t seen before and puts some quantitative backup to what we have speculated was behind conference realignment moves.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Slides from slideshare.net)

When it comes to choosing a conference, the University of Texas has a choice: does it want the nicest house in Compton or an average house in Beverly Hills?

The former is what it would have if it chooses to stick around the Big 12 to keep the Longhorn Network in a Big 12 that definitely won’t have Texas A&M, very likely won’t have Oklahoma and, by extension, Oklahoma State, and possibly won’t have Missouri, either.  UT could continue to be the richest person in the neighborhood by a mile and control the local scene.  Of course, the issue is that everyone in the area that has scrounged up enough of a down-payment is moving out to nicer places.  The latter is what it would own if it becomes an equal TV revenue sharing partner in the Pac-12 (or for that matter, the Big Ten or SEC).  In that case, UT would be another rich guy in a whole town full of rich guys, but it also won’t have to worry about the value of the house going down.

It’s a fundamental question about what UT wants/needs to be.  The Big 12 as saved last summer was really UT’s dream scenario: they essentially were earning independent-type TV money in a conference with their primary regional rivals.  Now that one of their rivals (A&M) might be headed out the door as early as tomorrow and their other main rival (OU) has all but declared it’s heading west to the Pac-12, is the Longhorn Network (which hasn’t even been on the air for a week) more important than UT’s conference?  Larry Scott knows, just like Jim Delany and Mike Slive, that equal revenue sharing is a primary tenet of strong conference unity, so he’s not going to let UT have a separate TV deal when the schools in California like USC have already given up unequal shares in the new monster Pac-12 TV contracts.

Now, I consider Bill Powers (UT president) and Deloss Dodds (UT athletic director) to be smart men.  The Longhorn athletic department didn’t become the wealthiest in the country (even before any LHN cash started coming) by accident.  They likely thought that they controlled all of the cards, where as long as UT stayed in the Big 12, the other big guns of OU and A&M would, too.  I certainly thought that way.  While it wasn’t a surprise to find that the Big 12 wasn’t long for this world, I didn’t believe that it would be killed off only a year after its Summer 2010 stay of execution.

I can’t blame UT for going out and getting the LHN deal.  Any other school that had that type of leverage would’ve done the same thing.  However, I also can’t blame either A&M or OU for looking out for their own interests.  Most people here know me as the guy that wrote about the possibility of Texas going to the Big Ten last year, and as much as I’d still love to see that happen in many ways, there’s really no better conference deal out there for UT than a Pac-16 that includes Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.  Neither the Big Ten nor SEC would ever grant spots to OSU and Tech and even if they’re not outright political requirements for OU and UT, they ensure that the two power schools won’t be complete geographic outliers.

At this point, I can’t see how OU could rationally stay in the Big 12 (particularly after OU president David Boren’s explicit statement of no-confidence in the conference).  (Note that rationality doesn’t always apply in conference decisions.)  The Pac-12 would certainly be willing to take them and OSU without having Texas schools coming along, as the Sooner are a top 10 college football brand.  It’s the LHN that makes what UT will ultimately decide difficult to predict.  There’s just no way that channel could continue to exist within the confines of the Pac-12 (at least as a UT-branded entity).  UT is going to have a really nice house no matter where it lives.  What will be instructive is whether it wants the nicest house on the block or a better neighborhood.  The Longhorns may not be able to have both.

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

(Image from musicnotes.com)

As we come ever so closer to something official somewhere about Texas A&M moving to the SEC, the college football world has naturally turned to speculating on who is going to be SEC school number 14.  I can buy that the SEC might spend a year or two at 13 schools, but with divisional play having long been in place, an odd number of members is not going to work long-term in the same manner that it did for the Big Tweleven.

Mr. SEC had a nice breakdown of the SEC’s realistic expansion options last week and I agree with his overarching point that there are not nearly as many choices for Mike Slive as the average college football fan believes.  (Note that Mr. SEC is as close to that conference as anyone, so he’s not some biased and blasphemous Big Ten blogger like yours truly.)  I’ll reiterate my belief once again that the ACC is much, much, much stronger than so many people that just see the recent results on the field, current TV contract cycle, and preponderance of hookers and blow in Miami seem to give it credit for.  The ACC has extremely strong academics (which, whether sports fans like it or not, actually matter to academic institutions) along with a core of UNC, Duke and UVA that’s never going to realistically leave.  Mr. SEC’s contention (and I once again agree with him) is that when you’re not including ACC schools (although I’ll evaluate a few of them as cursory measure in a moment) and it should be assumed that the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren’t poachable, then the list of schools that can (1) add value to the SEC and (2) aren’t tied down by home state politics (i.e. the Oklahoma – Oklahoma State situation) is cut down to Missouri, West Virginia and Pitt.  That’s it.  As a result, Mike Slive just can’t start blowing up other conferences like Emperor Palpatine (not that it’s in his best interest to do so, anyway).  Let’s take a look at those 3 schools along with a handful of specific ACC members that often get mentioned as potential SEC candidates:

VIRGINIA TECH

Virginia Tech is probably the most oft-rumored addition to the SEC these days and it certainly makes sense from a financial perspective.  The Hokies have a large fan base that also opens up a brand new fast-growing Southern state for the SEC while providing access to the Washington, DC market.  Here’s the problem (and I know many readers believe I harp on this too much): Virginia state politics.

Let’s take a look at the historical timeline of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s ACC members:

1819 – The dude that wrote the Declaration of Independence founds Big Brother University.

1872 – Little Brother University is founded.

1953 – Big Brother becomes a founding member of the ACC.  Little Brother kicks around in the Southern Conference and then as an independent later on.

1991 – Little Brother joins the Big East.

2003 – Big Brother’s league raids Little Brother’s league.  Little Brother then gets Virginia politicians to pressure Big Brother to scuttle the league’s expansion plans entirely in order to have Little Brother join instead.  It works!

Does that timeline really look like a situation where Little Brother can go and completely screw Big Brother only 8 years when Big Brother directly called in favors to get Little Brother into the ACC?  Make no mistake about it – UVA would be screwed in this situation.  The notion that UV A would be unscathed if Virginia Tech left is a fallacy.  If we believe that the ACC would lose TV money with Virginia Tech leaving (very possible) and/or even worse, the long-term stability of the ACC that UVA founded (another strong possibility), then Virginia legislators are going to put the smackdown on that move.  It’s not just about the ACC or UVA simply surviving here.  At least in the case of Texas A&M, leaving for the SEC wasn’t ever going to damage Texas financially at all and in a strict political sense, the Aggies is closer to UT’s equal in terms of power.  The Commonwealth of Virginia, however, is heavily ACC country and it wouldn’t go over well to see a Virginia-based university that begged politicians to force it in then turn around and completely destabilize it less than a decade later. As a result, I don’t believe that Virginia Tech going to the SEC is realistic.  It’s the best combo of new markets and solid football for the SEC, but that doesn’t mean that they’re attainable.  There’s NFW that a public flagship university that was founded by Thomas Jefferson is going to get screwed by a fellow in-state institution here.

(It’s certainly ironic that a school that the ACC didn’t originally want in 2003 may end up being the key to the conference’s long-term stability.  Just as UVA had circumstantial veto power when the ACC last expanded due to the UNC/Duke bloc against any type of addition, Virginia Tech has ended up in the position where it may singlehandedly determine whether the ACC stays intact.  That’s the type of position that legislators love to pounce upon.)

NORTH CAROLINA STATE

Here’s a link to the website of the  University of North Carolina system.  If you look at the list of institutions controlled by the UNC Board of Governors, you’ll find North Carolina State University listed there.  This means the UNC system has to ultimately approve any conference move by NC State.  If you haven’t figured out by now why UNC and NC State will never, ever be separated, I can’t help you.  Considering UNC isn’t going to ever head to SEC for academic and control reasons, NC State isn’t going anywhere, either.

FLORIDA STATE

Florida State is really the only ACC school that I could realistically see heading to the SEC.  Its Big Brother is the one that’s already in the SEC, so this isn’t a situation where Little Brother would somehow be abandoning Big Brother like Virginia Tech or NC State.  It’s probably up to the University of Florida as to whether FSU would get an invite.  The rumored “Gentlemen’s Agreement” among SEC schools to not add any expansion candidates in current SEC states seems more rooted in giving deference to fellow in-state institutions as opposed to some type of outright ban.  FSU doesn’t bring a new market, but the Seminoles clearly have the top national football brand in the ACC and that may trump any territorial overlap concerns with the Gators.

CLEMSON

Clemson is one of the other ACC schools that may accept an SEC invite despite the difference in academics, but the issue is whether Clemson actually brings much to the SEC.  I find Clemson to be more of a fan-based wish as opposed to a financially-sound addition.  To be clear, Clemson has a great fan base and solid athletic programs across-the-board.  However, I think that the SEC looks at them in the same manner that the Big Ten looks at Pitt: a great fit in everything but straight cash homey.  The SEC already has the flagship in Clemson’s home state of South Carolina with a relatively low population while the Tigers don’t have the national name of FSU to compensate.  If you could move the Clemson campus to virtually any state outside of the current SEC footprint, then it would be a top target.  Unfortunately, the one thing that a school can’t change is location unless it’s an online diploma mill.  Speaking of Pitt, by the way…

PITTSBURGH

Even as a guy that is largely known as the blogger that wrote about the possibility of Big Ten adding Texas, the thought of Pitt going to the SEC feels geographically out of whack even though the actual distance may not actually be as far as you think.  It’s a strange thought on the surface and not a cultural or institutional fit, although with the footprint and mishmash of different types of schools in the Big East now, we’re probably at the point where it doesn’t matter.  Pitt has everything checked off that you’d want in a school with great academics, a long football history, and a top tier basketball program.  This would be purely a money play for the SEC to get into Pennsylvania, though, and while money is certainly factor #1 in any conference decision, those types of moves generally don’t work out without some intangible cultural and institutional ties, too.  Pitt might end up being the beneficiary of the domino effect in the event that the SEC takes Florida State and then the ACC needs a replacement (where the Panthers would be a much better match).

WEST VIRGINIA

A year ago, I couldn’t see any reasonable way for West Virginia to end up in the SEC.  Now, though, the Mountaineers might be the most realistic frontrunner with the way everything has played out.  WVU is pretty similar to Iowa – a rabid statewide fan base in a small immediate market but whose grads disperse to major markets nearby and have an incredible traveling reputation.  (Differences: WVU has a functioning basketball team along with top tier rifle and couch burning programs.)  The Mountaineers would be a great cultural fit with the SEC while getting the conference some exposure in the Mid-Atlantic region.  Whether the SEC can get over the school’s small market the way that the Big Ten got over Nebraska’s low population base is another story.

MISSOURI

Ah, Mizzou.  I know that there are a lot of Missouri fans that are convinced that I have it in for them as an Illinois alum, but to be honest, it would’ve been great strictly from an Illini perspective to have had the Tigers as a conference rival in the Big Ten.  The issue was that Mizzou is the kind of school that makes a lot of sense in a multi-school expansion (good TV markets, academics, football and basketball), yet they aren’t necessarily stellar enough in any category to make them the lone addition.  The SEC is probably going to look at Mizzou in a similar fashion, where they likely weren’t going to make the Tigers the primary target but could be very attractive in a pairing with Texas A&M.

My somewhat educated opinion is that the ACC is going to stay intact, so it’s going to come down to a choice between West Virginia and Missouri for the SEC.  Mizzou has the advantage in TV markets and recruiting areas, while West Virginia has the edge in cultural fit and fan base intensity.  If I were in Mike Slive’s shoes, I’d choose Missouri, but I’m getting the impression that Mizzou may stick around the Big 12 minus 2 minus 1.  That’s what happens when your university president heads up the Big 12 expansion search.  As a result, West Virginia is who I’d wager on becoming SEC school #14.

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

(Image from The Movie Mind)

Well, I strive on this blog to be 100% right approximately 1% of the time.  I’ll have to co-sign this column by Stewart Mandel: it’s looking more and more like I was wrong about the Texas A&M to the SEC rumors (as he also admitted), but it still doesn’t quite make sense to either of us from a rational perspective.  Up until literally a few hours ago, it has all looked like completely fan-based chatter.  I’m honestly taken aback that it now appears that the SEC university presidents are going to meet on Sunday to discuss an A&M invite and the school’s Board of Regents will follow up with a meeting on Monday.  (We’ll address various rumors regarding schools like Florida State, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma and Missouri if necessary if something actually happens next week.)  I’ve always understood why Texas A&M fans wanted to go to the SEC and frankly, never disputed that it would be a good move for them.  The SEC is absolutely a superior conference to the Big 12 (both competitively and financially) and any Longhorns that think A&M wouldn’t benefit from moving are being disingenuous.  That’s the whole reason why that I argued in my last post that it would be UT people more than those from Baylor or Texas Tech that would work to block such a move.  I certainly understand the resentment/anger factor, as well.  As an Illinois alum, I’m still envious of Michigan’s central connection to the The Big Chill, which is a landmark achievement in the history of white people dancing.  Despite some interesting comments from various A&M factions about my loyalties or biases, I personally have nothing against the Aggies at all.

That being said, I share Mandel’s befuddlement about what’s in it for the SEC (although for slightly different reasons).  Let me be clear: my opinion has nothing to do about the value of Texas A&M itself.  As I’ve stated many times before, Texas A&M is extremely valuable and I could see why the SEC would want them in a vacuum where there is no domino effect on the rest of the college football landscape or there’s a clean slate in terms of TV contracts.  However, there’s a fairly good chance that we’ll see significant domino effects if this move occurs and, more importantly, it continues to be unclear to me how the SEC can monetize expansion with the length of its current TV contracts with ESPN and CBS.  Dennis Dodd yesterday stated that all conferences have a “look-in” provision that Mike Slive had described, so it’s not as if though that the SEC has some unique terms here where they get to expand at will in a manner that other conferences aren’t able to do.  At the very least, it’s not as easy as “expansion = look-in trigger = more $$$”, or else we’d see conferences expand every single time that their own TV contracts fell behind by a little bit.  To paraphrase a wise little green dude, that leads to fear, and fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.  To the extent that the SEC can open up its current TV contracts by expanding, every other conference can do it, too.  If it’s that “easy”, then the conference with the most incentive to expand is the ACC considering that the deal that they signed last year is looking quite outdated and could get outpaced by the Big East next year if the status quo holds.  It’s for those reasons why conferences only have a “look-in” when they expand, but networks have an explicit termination right in the event of conference contraction.

From a long-term perspective, Texas A&M certainly adds a ton of value to the SEC.  The Aggies have a rabid fan base and truly bring in the entire state of Texas as a market.  The recruiting benefits are also unquestioned.  Still, I still haven’t hard anyone explain how the SEC is going to cajole ESPN and CBS to throw more money around when their TV contracts last until the mid-2020s.  It’s one thing for those networks to maintain a good working relationship with the SEC, but entirely another to have to throw hundreds of millions of more at contracts that are locked-in for over a decade. Maybe ESPN and CBS could ensure that the SEC schools still get the same per-school share (so the current SEC members end up being revenue neutral), but those two networks, who have dealt with much larger entities like the NFL, aren’t simply going to be pushovers and provide some type of massive financial incentive that would encourage expansion.

I also know that a lot of readers believe that I overemphasize state politics, but I’ll continue to disagree on front.  Texas A&M might procedurally be able to get around Texas politicians by approving the move to the SEC on Monday in a year when the legislature is not in session.  (And I thought Illinois legislators were lazy! We’ll still take down anyone in blatant corruption, though.)  However, as a practical matter, the A&M Board of Regents are going to have to work with these legislators in the long-term, so it’s not as if though they can just ignore them.  Besides, if I’m a state legislator, do you think I want to put out more sound bites about crushing budget deficits, ignoring entitlement/pension reform and and failing to cure stagnant job growth?  Fuck that shit.  I’d be all over talking about college football like white on rice under any possible tangential hook.  (The federal guys in Washington certainly do it regularly when they complain about the BCS.)  Maybe it’s a moot point and the Aggies know that they have the requisite political support, but that’s to be determined in the maybe-too-late Texas House Higher Education Committee meeting that’s supposed to take place on Tuesday.

Last year, the entire world was convinced that the Pac-16 was a “done deal” on a Friday without any doubt in anyone’s mind, but after a weekend of rampant discussions, it ended up collapsing within a few days.  In conference realignment discussions, absolutely nothing is a done deal until you see an announcement with both the inviter and the invitee at a press conference with signed paperwork.  This goes double in the case of public universities located in the state of Texas.  Also note that Tony Barnhart (about as plugged-in with Mike Slive as anyone) and Mr. SEC seem to intimate that it’s not necessarily full speed ahead from the SEC side with a lot more smoke coming from College Station as opposed to Birmingham.

So, while it looks there’s a good chance that I’m going to be eating some crow with a Texas A&M move to the SEC, let’s just wait to see if we get some Stevie Wonder signed/sealed/delivered action on Monday.  After that, we can get back to doing what we do best here: engaging in rampant completely unsubstantiated speculation!

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

(Image from Mr SEC)

The Pac-12 is ready to announce a massive new television deal with Fox and ESPN worth $250 million annually.  (No one has been covering this story better than Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.)  I certainly have to give props to Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott here.  Up to this point, I’ve thought that he was smart and aggressive but more full of bluster with big ideas without necessarily the ability to implement them.  The amount of the Pac-12 deal, shows that the conference made a smart move in hiring from outside of the college administrator ranks.

Ultimately, the reasoning for a TV rights fee is akin to examining the price of a stock.  A portion of the price is going to be related to the market overall, another portion is connected to the industry sector, and there’s a final part that is based on the fundamentals of the individual company itself.  It wasn’t a surprise that the Pac-12 was able to raise its TV rights fees significantly, as the demand for sports programming in general has been skyrocketing over the past few months.  That’s a market-based factor that all sports entities negotiating new TV deals are benefiting from right now, which I examined in-depth in my last post.  What I didn’t expect was that the Pac-12 would vault itself to a position alongside the Big Ten and SEC in terms of TV revenue so quickly.  The Big Ten has the benefit of having the Big Ten Network that can take advantage of the market trends until its ABC/ESPN ends in 2016, but the SEC is locked into its CBS and ESPN deals until well into the next decade.  That doesn’t mean that the Pac-12 is inherently as valuable as either the Big Ten or SEC.  Indeed, the Big Ten and Pac-12 negotiated for the rights to their respective new conference championship games with Fox at virtually the same time.  Head-to-head, the Big Ten game garnered over $23 million per year, while the Pac-12 game received $14.5 million per year, so that gives you an idea of what the conferences are worth relative to each other when you take timing out of it.  My impression that the SEC championship game would be worth even more.  Still, it’s significant that the Pac-12 seems to have been able to pull away from the ACC and non-Texas/Oklahoma portion of the Big 12.

So, what are the fundamentals specific to the Pac-12 that led to this deal (as opposed to just the overall rising tide of sports fees)?  One important point that I’ve mentioned before but probably underestimated in the scheme of things is that the Pac-12 is the only conference with a BCS monopoly in its own footprint.  In fact, with the additions of Colorado and Utah, it’s the only BCS conference located in the entire Pacific and Rocky Mountain Time Zones.  That’s a pretty massive swath of area to effectively have all to yourself.  In contrast, all of the other BCS conferences compete with at least 2 other BCS conferences in their footprints.  For the the Big East in particular, it has to compete with all of the other BCS conferences in its footprint except for the Pac-12.

Another item to note is that Fox needed to retain the Pac-12 very badly for its owned-and-operated West Coast regional sports networks, especially FS West in the Los Angeles market.  FS West is suffering from the blow of losing its most valuable property of the Lakers next year, who are pouring salt in the wound by creating two competing networks (one English and the other Spanish) with Time Warner Cable.  Losing Pac-12 sports on top of that would have left FSN West to rely on the Clippers… and I don’t care how badass Blake Griffin might be (and he’s about as badass as one can be badass), but if I’m Rupert Murdoch, I’ll be damned if I run any organization that has to rely on the Clippers.  With ownership of FS Arizona and a minority interest Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, Fox had some heavy incentives to protect or expand its Pac-12 programming.

(Note that Fox’s owned-and-operated regional sports networks are heavily concentrated in California, Arizona, Texas, the Great Plains Midwest and the Southeast.  Looking at that lineup, it should come as no surprise why Fox paid up heavily for the Pac-12 and Big 12 TV rights and sent in a large bid for the ACC.  The Northeast markets, on the other hand, are largely the domain of Comcast RSNs with Fox largely being shut out.  This is instructive as to who might be (and not be) looking at the Big East’s TV rights down the road.)

ESPN expanding its relationship with the Pac-12 is a little more difficult to read.  Variety has indicated that the Pac-12 has agreed to provide 4 Thursday night and 4 Friday night football games per year to ESPN, so there seems to be a push from the Worldwide Leader to get more higher quality weeknight college football contests.  The Pac-12 also allows for late night games on Saturdays to compensate for the moves of Hawaii and Fresno State from the WAC to the MWC (which doesn’t show any games on ESPN).  Finally, there could be a return of a 11 pm Central Time Big Monday basketball time slot allocated to the Pac-12, which ESPN used to have for Big West or West Coast Conference games.  Overall, ESPN’s modus operandi may very well have been to ensure that neither Comcast nor Turner Sports would end up with the Pac-12, who could have been used as a cornerstone to really have beefed themselves up as legitimate college sports broadcast competitors.

It’s also a bit of a surprise that a Pac-12 network would be wholly-owned.  This is a good thing if the network can receive basic carriage, but could be a roadblock if there are any carriage disputes.  The Big Ten Network, which is 49% owned by Fox, was able to leverage its basic carriage with DirecTV (which was owned by Fox at the time of the launch of the BTN) to apply pressure on cable operators, while the MLB Network garnered one of the largest basic cable launches of any channel in history by offering minority stakes to several cable companies in exchange for carriage.  Those cable companies also provided capital start-up costs.  On the other end of the spectrum, the NFL Network (wholly-owned by the NFL) is still battling cable operators 8 years after it went on the air.  There seems to be a presumption that the Pac-12 wanted to have 100% ownership of a network, but I’m not so sure that’s the case with the amount of ramp-up costs involved and how critical basic cable carriage is for success.

Regardless, even if a conference network never even gets off the ground, I’m pretty sure the Pac-12 schools are acting like this right now.

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

(Image from Lehigh Valley Live)

The Big 12 lost one of the best national TV draws in college football (Nebraska), the most popular college team in its largest and fastest-growing market outside of the state of Texas (Colorado) and its conference championship… and then signs a contract for a 350% increase for its second tier cable football rights with Fox.  Did Rupert Murdoch suddenly feel the need to go on a shopping free now that he doesn’t have to pay Glenn Beck anymore?  Is Dan Beebe getting a G5 and a pile of money so that Fox can cash in an insurance policy on Iowa State?  What gives?  Well, let’s take a look at some demographic shifts of the overall TV audience, how it has affected Fox’s most important property, American Idol, and how all of this explains why sports TV rights fees are generally going through the roof right now.

There are three massive changes to television over the past 5 years (and such changes are accelerating):

(1) More Old People Watch TV Than Young People – If you know anything about TV advertising, the overall Nielsen rating that a lot of networks like to trump in press releases is completely irrelevant.  The fact that CBS is the #1 watched TV network overall with top overall-rated shows in several categories has little bearing on what they are able to charge in terms of advertising rates.  Instead, the Nielsen number that really matters is what a show draws in the Age 18-49 demographic and, increasingly, the Age 18-34 demographic.  Historically, this emphasis on younger viewers has been justified with notions that older people are less likely to switch brands or purchase high-end products.  However, that really isn’t true anymore, as people over 50 generally have higher incomes and have shown to have more discretionary spending than their younger counterparts.

Now, the reasoning is a bit different: younger viewers are simply scarcer, therefore advertisers pay a premium to reach them.  Even though older viewers actually have more spending power than younger viewers, those older viewers watch more TV overall and can be reached throughout the day by placing ads on less expensive shows.

The difference between what advertisers will pay for a younger audience versus an older audience is massive – more massive than you probably could have ever guessed.  TVbythenumbers recently compared the ad rates for NCIS (which draws the largest overall audience of any scripted show on TV) and Glee.  It found that even though NCIS had 82% more overall viewers, the fact that Glee had 15% more viewers in the Age 18-49 demo and 92% more viewers in the Age 18-34 demo meant that Glee was able to charge 80% more than NCIS for every 30-second commercial spot.  It basically shows that viewers over 50 are effectively worthless from an advertising standpoint (and even viewers over 35 aren’t worth that much).  You can find a lot of shows that draw in the typical viewer of NCIS (even if that particular show brings in the most of them outright), while there are very few shows that bring in the demo that Glee delivers.  (For what it’s worth, I’m the type of person that enjoys dramas with deep and complex themes with subtle acting that doesn’t beat you over the head with blatant messages.  I can’t think of any show that provides less of what I’m looking for than Glee.)

With that type of advertising rate disparity, TV networks (both broadcast and cable) are continuously on the search for programming that attracts those younger viewers.

(2) More Women Watch TV Than Men – Here’s a fairly shocking statistic: out of the 63 prime time shows that were on the 5 major broadcast networks (for the purposes of this discussion, The CW gets counted as a “major network”) during the 2009-10 season, only 6 drew more male viewers than female viewers6 out of 63.  Three of those shows (The Simpsons, Family Guy and The Cleveland Show) are part of the Sunday night Fox comedy bloc that gets a lead-in from NFL games for half of the season.  Another one of those shows (24) is no longer on the air, a different one (Fringe) has been moved to a low-rated Friday night time slot and the last one (Chuck) has been on the cancellation watch list for a couple of years.  If you’ve ever wondered why ABC keeps churning out shrill high-budget prime time soap operas from Shonda Rhimes, there’s your answer.

Simply put, the TV networks are badly in need of a sausage fest and can’t seem to create any.

(3) More People Are Using DVRs – Nielsen recently reported that DVRs are in 38% of all U.S. households as of September 2010, exhibiting extremely rapid growth as that number stood at less than 5% in 2006.  Those users of DVRs are also younger and more affluent than the average television viewer.  While Nielsen argues that DVR users still watch commercials in decent numbers, the reality of it is that the attraction of the DVR is to be able to skip those ads (cutting down an hour-long show with commercials into around a 40-minute show without them).  As DVR penetration continues to grow (and frankly, I thought that current 38% number seemed fairly low), more and more people are going to be avoiding commercials like the plague.

These changes in who watches TV and how they watch it has had some fairly interesting implications in pop culture.  For instance, a couple of weeks ago, the American Idol audience shockingly voted off (or more accurately, did not vote enough for) widely-perceived front-runner Pia Toscano, meaning that she placed ninth and had a shorter run on Fox than The Heights.  It was enough to make J-Lo start crying uncontrollably while Steven Tyler rose from his crypt and started bashing America’s passion.  Now, seeing that Pia was clearly the top pure singer while also being the best-looking of the competitors, that typically indicates a Charlie Sheen bi-winning combination.  However, when looking at the demographics for American Idol, it reflects general TV viewing trends: its audience is getting older and skewing much more to the female side.  My impression is that these older women prefer the John Mayer soulful acoustic guitar-types as opposed to the hot young divas, which is the main reason why (1) soulful acoustic guitar-types have won American Idol for the past two seasons, (2)  5 out of the last 6 American Idol winners were male and (3) only 2 American Idol contestants left on this year’s show out of 8 are female (rose jacket Rod Stewart copy Paul McDonald became the first male eliminated since the initial public vote cutdown to the top 13).

What American Idol has going for it, though, is that people still generally watch it live.  In the latest week where figures are available, only 9% of American Idol Wednesday viewers watched it on DVR compared to 29% of the viewers of Modern Family and 28% of the viewers of Grey’s Anatomy.  Add in that it still draws a fairly good percentage of the younger demographics compared to most shows on television and it is a complete ratings cash cow for Fox.  Last year, American Idol was able to charge over three times as much per 30-second ad spot compared to Dancing with the Stars, the latter of which actually draws a higher number of total viewers but a lower number in the Age 18-49 demo.

So, when looking at how the TV audience has shifted, it has become clear what type of program obtains a premium greater than any other: the program that draws the age 18-34 male that watches it live.

Let’s take me as an example of the target demo.  I’m a professional 33-year old male that’s about a loyal to TV shows as Antonio Cromartie, can count on one hand the number of scripted TV shows that I watch regularly, and will purposely watch all of such shows on my DVR in order to avoid a single moment of watching any commercials.  I don’t know about you, but I put my DVR right next to food and water on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The catch, though, is that I watch a lot of sports.  Even better, I actually watch them live with commercials.  There is no better vehicle to draw me, a member of the most valuable demographic of all (the male under 35), than sports… and there are tons of people like me in that respect.

Dennis Dodds, who has his own excellent write-up on theories on why sports TV rights are rising, stated the following:

Sports have become one of the safest and highest-grossing buys for media companies. There are no coked-up, petulant stars to deal with. Well, at least not a lot of them. The only “winning” is done on the field. Sports are somewhat cheap to produce.  Sports are true reality television, almost immune to being DVRed. Advertisers love that. There is a built-in following whose interest doesn’t wane with time. Even the strongest TV series are canceled. Try taking Alabama-Auburn off the air.

The success rate of new scripted TV shows has become abysmal – ABC may end up not renewing any of its new shows from this season.  In contrast, sports programs are considered to have “high floors” – ratings may not necessarily go through the roof for every single game, but there’s always a good base of viewers , that base includes a lot of members of the most valuable demo, and those viewers watch it live.  The Nielsen DVR report linked above stated that sports and news programs are watched on DVRs the least of any TV categories.

Sports programming also skews toward the younger demographic than the average show on TV.  During the week that ended April 10th, the only shows in the top 10 of the overall ratings that had more than 30% of their audiences under the age of 50 were the two editions of American Idol (approximately 40%) and the NCAA Tournament National Championship Game (47%).  This is consistent with the demographics for other major postseason sporting events, where the World Series, NBA Finals, BCS bowls and NFL postseason last year all had more than 40% of their respective audiences in the Age 18-49 demo.  (Note that if you were able to buy stock in a league, you ought to bet on the NBA.  It’s the only major sports property that draws over 50% of its audience from the 18-49 demo as well as being the most popular in the growing minority populations just using last year’s figures.  With the NBA now having legit contending teams in New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles along with the Miami superteam, the viewership numbers have been record-setting this season across all of its platforms of ABC, ESPN and TNT.)

Does this necessarily mean that all sports rights fees will necessarily rise at such dramatic rates?  The Pac-12 is looking for even a better deal than the Big 12 (you can count me in as someone that’s more skeptical that they’ll hit those numbers) and the Big East is looking at a possible tripling of its current rights fees.  One ongoing negotiation that may be a better indicator of where rights fees might go for those two conferences is for the NHL, which is a league whose current deal was signed when it was at rock bottom in terms of popularity, has had a resurgence in a couple of key markets (Chicago and Boston), but still largely has a regional as opposed to a national fan base.  The NHL is looking for a substantial increase of around 2.5 times the current deal with Comcast/NBC most likely being retained as the broadcasting partner.

A rising tide lifts all ships in an outright manner, but where the conferences sit relatively each other will likely remain the same: the SEC and Big Ten at the top, the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 in the next tier, the Big East at the next level, and then everyone else.  Similarly at the pro level, the NFL stands alone at the top, NBA and Major League Baseball are in the next tier, and the NHL will be behind them.  Still, the circumstances are good for all sports entities.  While the rise of Internet streaming and mobile devices are going to complicate matters for sports leagues to continue cashing in on cable dollars over the next decade, they’re all getting the benefit of a revenue boom today.

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

(Image from Huffington Post)

As America is engrossed with the start of the NCAA Tournament and determining which former Illini coach that this year’s Illinois team will lose to this weekend, let’s turn our attention to the business of college basketball for a few moments.  I’m actually a hoops guy at heart, but as this blog delved into college conference realignment, the focus here turned to football because of that’s really the driving force between the major moves.

Kristi Dosh and Patrick Rishe have been writing a number of posts at the Forbes SportsMoney blog about athletic department and basketball revenue and profits among the major conferences. (h/t to Slant reader Brian.)  What’s interesting to note is that the largest revenue basketball conference on a per school basis isn’t the 11-bid Big East or Dook-UNC-led ACC, but none other than the Big Ten, which an unbiased ESPN SportsCenter anchor lovingly noted this past week was like “watching fat people have sex“.  (The Big East has a larger total basketball revenue number, although that’s skewed because it has 16 members.)  Concrete factors for this are that for all of the bashing of Big Ten basketball and the reputation that it’s made up of football schools, the conference has a rabid hoops fan base where it has led the nation in attendance for the past 34 consecutive years along with revenue from the Big Ten Network.  My personal observation is that most Big Ten football fans follow their basketball teams at a consistently high level, whereas SEC football fans (outside of Kentucky and maybe Arkansas) basically need a Final Four contender to pay attention.

That difference in basketball revenue  between the Big Ten and SEC appears to be a major reason why the Big Ten has more profitable athletic departments overall even though SEC profit in the top revenue sport of football is greater.  (More detailed charts with estimated allocations taking into account the Big Ten Network are here on Dolich’s website.)  Regardless, college conference revenue has essentially created a tier for the Big Ten and SEC with everyone else way behind.  As for the importance of football relative to basketball, the Big Ten (22.2%), SEC (16.3%), Pac-10 (22.9%) and Big 12 (19.1%) are actually all fairly close to each other in terms of basketball revenue as a percentage of total athletic department revenue.  Not surprisingly, the Big East (36.7%) and ACC (31.8%) are the outliers where those conferences receive a lot higher proportion of their revenue from basketball (and therefore seem to emphasize basketball more than football compared to the other BCS leagues).

That high basketball percentage for the Big East has some implications for conference realignment/expansion insofar that the “this is all about football” mantra that applied to the Big Ten and Pac-12 expansions as well the Big 12 situation (where one of the top marquee basketball brands in the nation, Kansas, was almost left for dead) may not completely apply to the Big East.  To be sure, the Big East would love nothing more than to become a football power along the lines of the SEC, but the types of schools that would catapult the Eastern-based league to that status (i.e. Notre Dame and Penn State) aren’t reasonably attainable and no one is going to find them in C-USA.  At the same time, the Big East basketball TV deal (average of $2 million per school per year) is worth more than its football contract (average of $1.67 million per school per year), which means that basketball has to be taken in account.  (Recall my Big East Expansion FAQ back in November.)  With the New York Daily News reporting that a Big East TV network is unlikely (largely because getting basic carriage in the New York City market that’s already overloaded with expensive regional sports networks will be impossible), the “expanding for new markets” argument isn’t very compelling.

That’s why the Big East seems more interested in having Villanova move up to Division I-A than adding any expansion candidates from C-USA.  (Please add re-naming the first round of the NCAA Tournament to now be the “second round” after the First Four to the long list of perplexing, nonsensical, confusing and annoying NCAA changes to names that were easily understood by the average bear before.)   The argument is that none of those schools would add much to the national TV contracts on the football side, so it’s more important to avoid diluting the already more lucrative basketball side.  I wasn’t a big fan of the Big East having Villanova move up when it looked like it was a possibility that the Wildcats would be the only football addition without TCU included.  However, what I now understand is that for the Big East football schools to get the Big East Catholic members to vote for any further all-sports expansion in the first place was predicated on Villanova moving up, so the addition of the Philly-area school has to be looked at in the scheme of the entire Big East expansion in conjunction with TCU as opposed to on its own.  At the same time, much to the chagrin of the various schools that are looking for a Big East invite (i.e. UCF, Houston, East Carolina, Memphis, etc.), the most important fact is that Villanova is already a full member of the Big East.  This isn’t an expansion for the conference – it’s a current member moving up for a sport, which is an incredibly important distinction.

Villanova insiders indicate that it’s increasingly likely that the school’s Board of Trustees will approve the football upgrade.  Frankly, the school has to make the move.  This isn’t a matter of moving up for football to join a non-AQ conference – if the program is guaranteed AQ status, then this shouldn’t be a difficult decision.  The Big East is what it is – an extremely strong basketball conference with revenue in line with that status.  Football may drive the bus in college sports overall, but if a conference is unable to add a major power program (the “kings” and “barons” that Stewart Mandel once wrote about), then it makes no sense to weaken or dilute the nation’s best basketball league for little or no revenue upside for the football league.  Football in and of itself doesn’t make money for conferences; it’s having marquee football programs that matters.  To the extent Villanova provides an extra conference football game on the schedule without having to split the basketball TV contract into an 18th slice, it may very well be most lucrative (or at least revenue neutral) football addition that the Big East can realistically have for now.

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

(Image from CBS Chicago)

There were a couple of separate articles today regarding Pac-12 television rights that point to some implications for other conferences.  First, Jon Wilner from the San Jose Mercury-News had a fairly in-depth article today regarding the status Pac-12 television contract negotiations.  Second, Percy Allen from the Seattle Times had an interview with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott that focused on the conference’s basketball TV rights.  Here are the main points from those articles:

(1) Fox is the most likely long-term TV partner for the Pac-12 with a possibility of some over-the-air football games on the mothership network, while Comcast/NBC is the second option;

(2) ESPN is not willing to pay as much for the Pac-12 as it did for the ACC for a variety of reasons (including lack of time slots and the value of the ACC’s syndicated basketball package);

(3) Larry Scott wants the Pac-12 Network to happen, but Time Warner Cable will be a large obstacle in the Los Angeles market; and

(4) Going forward, all media rights for all Pac-12 members will be controlled by the conference (as opposed to a portion being controlled by the individual schools as it is today).

Let’s examine each of these points from the perspective of the Pac-12 and how they apply to the college sports world at large.

Point #1 about Fox’s involvement isn’t a surprise considering the current relationship that it has with the Pac-12 and the media giant’s increasing focus on obtaining college sports rights over the past several months (including paying $140 million over the next six years solely for the Big Ten Championship Game).  The overarching questions going forward are (a) how serious is Fox about expanding its overall college sports presence and (b) are they willing to use Fox over-the-air for games?  Fox bid on the ACC package last year with an offer that was heavily reliant on FX as the main national platform.  Indeed, David Hill, Chairman of Fox Sports Group, sees an increase in sports programming on FX as a key in making that network competitive with the likes of TNT.  While Fox didn’t win that deal, they did procure a smaller agreement with C-USA plus rights to the Big Ten and Pac-12 championship games.  A hungry Fox can certainly bid up the price of rights for other conferences… as long as ESPN is willing to play, too.  (More on that in a moment.)

As for Comcast/NBC, call me skeptical of them ever becoming a truly major player in college sports.  Comcast-owned Versus certainly is looking for more sports programming, but that’s a fairly unattractive national cable partner compared to ESPN or FX on its face and you’re more likely to see sports move away from NBC as opposed to any events being added.  Sports programs in general are loss leaders for over-the-air networks and the last thing that NBC needs is more losses.  In fact, NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke told Wall Street analysts covering Comcast specifically yesterday that NBC’s current “sports properties lose hundreds of millions of dollars per year.”  NBC lost $220 million on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and even its gold-plated NFL Sunday Night Football package loses around $100 million per year.  So, it doesn’t exactly sound like the new Comcast ownership is going to be spending very much money on more sports on NBC.  If anything, those quotes from the head of NBCU indicate that they’re preparing to cut back heavily.  Therefore, any conference hoping for Comcast/NBC to come through with some great offer is going to be severely disappointed.

From the Big Ten’s perspective, I see Fox only as a viable option in the conference’s next TV deal if there is essentially a replication of the SEC’s agreement with CBS: the top game of the week gets coast-to-coast over-the-air coverage.  I can’t realistically see the Big Ten considering a deal with Comcast at all.  While much has been made of the Big Ten’s partnership with Fox regarding the Big Ten Network, it must be emphasized that the conference still receives substantially more money from ESPN compared to the BTN.  There are also more Big Ten events on ESPN today than there were prior to the BTN being formed.  From the very beginning, the BTN has always been intended to be a supplement to ESPN coverage as opposed to a replacement.  The Big Ten is smart enough to know that the time slots that it has secured with ABC and ESPN provide incredible exposure and the conference doesn’t want to kill the proverbial long-term golden goose for short-term financial gains.  Any new deal going forward has to provide even more exposure than today’s deal.  Thus, I could see the Big Ten pushing to a movement of the games that are regionalized on ABC right now to national over-the-air Fox coverage.  However, I highly doubt that the Big Ten would ever seriously consider moving ESPN games to FX (and definitely not to the patchwork quilt of Fox Sports Net affiliates).  It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the two conferences that make the most money outside of ESPN (Big Ten with the BTN and SEC with CBS) also make the most money from ESPN. Money certainly talks, but the Big Ten seems to be a property that ESPN will pay up to get them to stay (and the desire to stay on ESPN will be reciprocated by the conference).

That leads to Point #2, where apparently the Pac-12 is a conference that ESPN is not willing to pay up for.  More specifically, ESPN appears to believe that the Pac-12 TV package is worth less than comparable ACC rights.  This doesn’t surprise me at all.  I’ve been fairly consistent on this blog that the ACC is in much better shape than what a lot of sports fans (that have concentrated on the conference’s relative weakness on the football field over the past few years) believe. 

National marquee brand names are extremely important for determining college sports rights and the ACC has 2 big ones for football (Miami and Florida State) and arguably the 2 very biggest ones for basketball (Duke and North Carolina).  The ACC basketball package is also unique in that it draws football-level ratings in several of its markets, which is something that none of the other BCS conferences can claim (even those that might be better on the court in a given year, such as the Big East).  If and when Miami and Florida State get back on track, you’ll see a dramatic turnaround in the football perception (and TV ratings) of the ACC.  In contrast, the Pac-12 is largely reliant on the strength of USC for football and UCLA for basketball in terms of drawing national interest.  Beyond the LA schools and Oregon’s wacky uniforms, the Pac-12 continues to struggle with getting much notoriety in the Eastern 2/3rds of the country.

The Pac-12’s inability to get much of a large bid out of ESPN should be a small warning sign to the Big 12 and a large red flag to the Big East, who are both hoping to receive large TV rights increases from the Worldwide Leader.  Several conferences last summer were under the impression that ESPN paying such a large amount to the ACC meant that the network’s greenback gushers were wide open and they could switch the style up, but if they hate let ’em hate and watch the money pile up.  Instead, it looks like ESPN is going to keep all its money in a big brown bag inside a zoo.  Dan Beebe and the Big 12 members may sweat it out a bit as there were some financial assurances from ABC/ESPN this past summer that aided in keeping the conference from splitting apart.  Personally, I’m a believer that ESPN understands the big picture and seeing that they presently want to avoid the formation of superconferences, they’ll pay enough to the Big 12 so that the conference makes good on its promises to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.  With ESPN’s investment in the UT network, the Big 12 needs to stay alive and a few extra bucks on the conference contract would be money well-spent.

The Big East is a different matter.  That conference has already bore the brunt of having football games moved by ESPN to Thursday nights initially, and then when the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 saw that Thursday was a great night for exposure, the Big East has been kicked around to several Friday nights and even some Wednesday evenings.  Much of the hope of a Big East TV contract increase rested on leveraging its valuable and massive basketball package into better football exposure.  However, if ESPN isn’t willing to pay the Pac-12 TV rights in line with the ACC, then it stands to reason that they’re going to value the Big East even less.  Unless Fox or Comcast swoop in with competing bids for the Big East, the conference’s schools are going to have a difficult time coaxing the increases that they’re hoping for from ESPN.  I’m sure that you’ll see the Big East get what amounts to an inflationary increase (maybe 150% of what they receive now), but not enough to get on the same tier as the other BCS conferences.

Under Point #3, Larry Scott seems extremely determined to start a Pac-12 network.  However, Jon Wilner pointed out a large potential obstacle: Time Warner Cable.  He noted that TWC is the largest cable provided in the Los Angeles market and they’ve had a habit of getting into carriage fights regarding regional sports networks.  What Wilner neglected to mention (and I find to be even more important) is that TWC just sent a Valentine’s Day present to Jerry Buss of what’s rumored to be around $150 million per year to create two new regional sports networks in the LA market (one English language and the other Spanish language) built around the Lakers.  With 3 Fox Sports networks in that market already, that means that the LA market will be supporting 5 RSNs and making it even more crowded than the New York City market.  This crowded environment in the Pac-12’s most important market has huge implications on whether a conference network can realistically be formed.  The Big Ten Network only had to compete with 1 RSN in each of the markets within its footprint (even in its largest market of Chicago, which only has Comcast SportsNet Chicago).  Thus, it was a more palatable for the cable providers to give in when the BTN was RSN #2 on their systems… and even then, it took over a year of carriage fights for them to get to that point.  It’s a much different value proposition for the Pac-12 attempting to enter into market that already has 5 other RSNs – TWC has a whole lot more leverage to demand lower subscriber rates or refuse basic carriage entirely.  Note that a potential Big East Network would face the same issues in the NYC market with so many RSNs already clogging up cable bills.  This was a factor in the Big Ten ultimately deciding to not go after schools like Rutgers or Syracuse in this last round of expansion, as the BTN absolutely had to get basic carriage in the NYC market in order to financially justify those additions, and they didn’t see that happening anytime soon.

Finally, with respect to Point #4, Larry Scott confirmed that all media rights for all Pac-12 members would be controlled by the conference.  This is important for one massive reason: the University of Texas.  With the Pac-12 taking that position, it has effectively wiped out any reasonable possibility of Texas joining the conference in the future, as the new Longhorn Network would be unable to exist under those conditions (and I don’t see UT giving up in excess of $10 million per year for any reason).  For the fear mongerers (who are all wrong, by the way) that continue to believe that UT’s ultimate goal is to end up independent or in the Pac-12, at the very least, that Pac-12 option is gone.  (I’ve listed a multitude of reasons of why UT wants to stay in the Big 12 in perpetuity and, in fact, needs that league to live, but many people seem to believe what they want to believe on that front.)

Fans of all conferences should keep a close eye on the West Coast since how the Pac-12 proceeds will be a significant indicator of how TV networks will pay for college sports in this next round of contracts.

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