College Football Analysis: Conference Expansion, Big Ten Network and Notre Dame

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The Big 12 and SEC announced a partnership in a new bowl game last week, one that would match the two leagues’ champions (assuming the champ wasn’t in the 4-team playoff). The announcement (in the midst of a rumor-storm about Florida State and Clemson leaving the ACC for the Big 12) has meant for a wild week of conference realignment scenarios (even I chimed in).

However, in the midst of the “Armageddon” hypothesizing, a familiar truth should be noted. Things may change, but things usually change slowly.

People have been claiming death to the Big East for years (my cry from last summer), and yet it lives on. It’s a shadow of its pre-2004 self, but it lives. People even claimed the Big 12 was dead last summer (another premature postulation). Now the Big 12 seems to be fully resurrected.

Currently, when considering expansion targets, the major question is does the expansion candidate not just hold their own weight, but increase everyone else's future gains as well?

Missouri and Texas A&M, by expanding the SEC's markets, did so. FSU and Clemson not only could expand the Big 12’s footprint, but it could get the league a conference championship game again as well.

I can very easily see everyone staying put where they are (after the FSU/Clemson defections). All the major conferences would have 12 except for the SEC (14). The ACC could probably keep the money from ESPN that they just got (a key point of a fellow blogger’s plan to save the ACC); many criticized that the deal was undervalued for 14 teams anyway. The Big 12 would sign its new deal with FSU and Clemson on the rolls. ND could stay independent. The status quo could linger a few more years.

One more shift is coming up fast though. The creation of cable channels by conferences threatens to be the next big explosion to the conference landscape.

Currently, the Big Ten is the only conference with its own channel. It’s very much a supplementary channel for die-hard fans of schools within the conference; it’s far from a must-have channel for casual sports fans. (ABC/ESPN carries the prime events from the Big Ten conference.)

The Pac-12 channel is launching soon. The SEC is in talks about creating a new channel under ESPN’s umbrella. The Big 12 seems to be headed towards individual channels for certain conference schools, following in Texas’ footsteps with the Longhorn Network. Schools are leveraging their own products to tap every possible dollar out of collegiate sports.

The real lynchpin, however, will be when a conference steps up to the plate as a major carrier of premier events. Currently, the conference channels get (or are planning on getting) very few premium events (called Tier 1 and Tier 2 content). Conferences and teams are programming mainly their Tier 3 events on their channels. Most everything else is bought up by ABC/ESPN or—to a lesser extent—CBS, NBC, or FOX.

In a few more years, the Big Ten’s rights will be up for grabs. As pioneers in the whole college conference channel movement, it’s not outlandish to think they might also be the first to withhold all of their Tier 2 content for themselves.

No conference right now would want to remove itself from the “mainstream” of sports programming by leaving ABC/ESPN, CBS, NBC, or FOX. The Big Ten and SEC, regardless of how powerful each is, still are just a part of the larger sport of college football. To break off completely would mean that certain regions and demographics might never see a game from your conference. (This point was made in March by my favorite blogger.)

The Big Ten Network (BTN) withholds some of its own Tier 2 content currently, but the network’s programming is mainly Tier 3. The big games, the ones with powerhouses Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Nebraska, go to the big boys of sports television.

If they wanted to keep all of their Tier 2 product though, in addition to the Tier 3 they already broadcast, the Big Ten would definitely need to add teams. And what might that configuration look like?

They might not necessarily be after elite football programs, or even football product that’s “Saturday-only,” like that which most of the Big Ten’s teams host. Also, if they wanted more Tier 2 product, they’d need more elite basketball teams to fill up the winter programming. And maybe some better baseball and hockey, while they are at it.

Regardless of who the teams are, keep these criteria in mind. To fuel a channel with content, you don’t need all heavyweights in football. You need solid football teams with strong basketball. (Did you know that the ACC supplies ESPN with more of its content than any other entity? Solid football, strong basketball.)

Let’s say the Big Ten expands. What might its new TV arrangement look like?

Imagine the Big Ten splitting its Tier 1 content between NBC and ABC/ESPN (following the model the SEC has with CBS and ABC/ESPN).  This would give NBC the live sports it is craving and would give the Big Ten the national showcase and even exclusiveness. Yet it would still keep the league on ABC/ESPN, which is the alpha male of college football still. NBC might even institute a featured Saturday night game to rival ABC/ESPN’s. The Big Ten’s Tier 1 content is about three games per week, so there’d be plenty of “mainstream,” national exposure for the league.

Now, picture the Tier 2 and 3 games exclusively on the Big Ten network. During conference play, this would give the network four or five games per week (more during non-conference play). While this would certainly create a dynamic TV schedule for the network, the greater impact would be the exclusivity that the league could prompt. In the nine states the Big Ten currently airs as expanded basic cable (as opposed to basic cable, which demands the highest subscription rates), the BTN charges just under $1.00 per subscriber.

Do you think Ohio residents would pay up to the BTN if the only way they could get 2 or 3 Buckeye games during the season would be to pay $1.20 per subscriber? Would fans in Detroit accept missing 5 to 7 games of the Wolverines and Spartans because they wouldn’t pay a quarter more per month?

The BTN might finally have the track record and clout to pull off such a thing in its member states. A paltry group of people of just around 90 million people. I don’t have to do the math for you regarding what a 20% increase in income might mean for the Big Ten’s profits.

Outside the Big Ten’s footprint, we’re still talking about a low rate for subscribers and probably a “sports tier” level on cable. Outside the Big Ten’s footprint though, few fans want to see more than those marquee matchups which would be available on ABC/ESPN and NBC.

Under the current paradigm, the Big Ten should not be thinking expansion.

If the paradigm shifts to cornering the market on major college teams and thus becoming a major player in TV programming, the Big Ten might be thinking expansion.

I laid out my thoughts last week, particularly as it relates to ACC instability, on Big Ten expansion. What would a four-team expansion of Notre Dame, UNC, Virginia, and Duke mean for the Big Ten’s TV marketability?

Let’s start with basketball. While the sport is small potatoes financially compared with football, the Big Ten would contain five of the thirteen winningest programs in college history (Indiana, Illinois, Notre Dame, UNC, and Duke). That’s not mentioning Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. UNC/Duke alone is the sport’s top rivalry. The extra inventory would boost the league’s viability in the cable marketplace from December to March as all four expansion schools have great followings. There could be doubleheaders a few nights a week for basketball. The Big Ten already has the highest attendance marks and gets better TV ratings than even the ACC and Big East. Imagine the windfall if you add strong hoops schools to the mix.

In football, if the league can add Notre Dame to its roster (a big “if” which I’ll address later), it would have five of the sport’s premier teams. Some would argue that UVA/UNC/Duke wouldn’t add enough football value to merit their additions, but here is a crucial point—with five kings of football (plus princes like Wisconsin, Michigan State, North Carolina, and Iowa)—the overall quality of football is substantial enough that the new markets (North Carolina’s 9 million people and Virginia’s 8 million) would be dominated immediately for the BTN, a 20% increase in the league’s TV market population.

Another factor which makes the ACC triumverate’s football palatable is the prospect of playing Thursday night football on the BTN. Few of the Big Ten’s current teams will play home games on a weeknight; it’s against the culture of the league. Indiana and Northwestern would be prime candidates to host a weeknight game or two each, as would UNC, Virginia, and Duke. A 16-team league has at least 8 games to play each week, and there simply aren’t enough slots on Saturday to allow all games to be seen. And while I don’t see the more elite programs wanting a Thursday game every year, I could see a Wisconsin, Iowa, or Michigan State requesting a special slot twice a decade and even a king (Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, or Notre Dame) accepting a season-opener against a MAC school once a decade.

The Big Ten is far more likely to push for higher subscription fees and for a move to a more basic cable package with the addition of four teams. In their home states, they’ll be able to thrive. In neighboring states, the higher inventory of elite college teams will push up carriage requests. No college entity is going to cement New York City as its home turf, but Notre Dame, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, and the powerhouses of Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan would at least dent that market.

All in all, if the Big Ten can jump in the deep end once again—like they did almost a decade ago with the very creation of the BTN—and wind up swimming, the financial gains might be unprecedented.

Which brings me to my Notre Dame argument.

Everybody has an opinion on Notre Dame, the last and most significant independent in college football. Either Notre Dame will never join a league. Or they’ll never join that other league. Or they’ll only join my favorite league. Everybody has an opinion.

The main and best reasons I can cite about why Notre Dame won’t join a league? 1—They are defined by their independence and their “nationally diverse” schedule. 2—The NBC contract makes them financially stable and gives them a special status among all other schools.

I can’t really debate number one. Any conference they joined would limit them in some ways, but as conferences grow (the Big 12 might stretch from Florida to Iowa, the Big Ten from Nebraska to North Carolina, and the SEC from Texas to Virginia when expansion is over), this argument grows less persuasive.

The special status of the NBC deal has been simultaneously prestigious and ironic for the Irish as they’ve showcased through one short-tenured coach after another these past two dismal decades. Some claim that NBC will not only re-up on the Irish’s deal, but they will pay the going rate, meaning that the deal will likely quadruple or better for UND. Some say the Fighting Irish’s deal might be renewed but will be mostly shuffled off to the NBC Sports cable channel, dimming the allure of the exclusivity. Others claim that NBC will gladly say goodbye to Notre Dame.

Another key point the anti-conference people make is that donors would withhold money if the Irish abandoned their independence. Notre Dame receives over 200 million a year from donations, and some claim that most (or at least some) of this would dry up in protest over football change. I don’t know if this is true or not. But the problem I have as a football fan is turning my allegiance on or off so logically and systematically.

If I were a Notre Dame fan, I think I’d be ticked off at my school, but then I’d put my Rick Mirer jersey on and drive out to South Bend for the big game, rooting like heck for my Irish to win the Big Ten over those crummy Wolverines and Boilermakers. I wouldn't burn the jersey and join a pinochle league for my Saturday entertainment.

Speaking of the in-state rival Purdue Boilermakers, I wonder how Notre Dame feels about making about 10 million less per year from media deals currently. Touchdown Jesus, the Four Horsemen, the Gipper, and Rudy make far less than Purdue and Indiana, two mediocre Big Ten football teams.

UND is certainly headed for a spike in their independent contracts, but if the Big Ten can make the financial splash in 2016 that many are predicting, the gap between Notre Dame’s local foes and itself might become enormous. Is independence worth falling behind in facilities and profit and TV exposure? Would “old guard” football fans abandon their team to prove a point, and more importantly, would their money negate the increase they’d get by joining the Big Ten 16-team juggernaut?

Obviously, I’m betting that Notre Dame’s staring at Jim Delany’s bulging pockets and long-term stability enviously. I think the prospects of a mega-league—with schools spanning from the growing south to the Catholic-rich upper-midwest to the football-strong mid-atlantic—and a lucrative cable channel—which can highlight Notre Dame year-round in all the markets they care about—will be too much to pass on this time around.

The Big Ten is poised and ready to make the next quantum leap in the business of college sports, and all it will take is a bit of ACC instability and Notre Dame faith to change the future of college athletics.

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