Staples: The realignment battle for No. 1 — and for No. 3 — comes down to TV eyeballs

When schools begin jumping from one conference to another, the same argument always breaks out. Fans of a school wishing to move to a more prestigious league will tout the audience their school brings. Fans hoping their league can stay together will point to the audience their league has.

These arguments tend to take place with no factual basis. Meanwhile, schools and conferences hire television consultants who keep granular, to-the-minute data about who is watching and for how long. Because while there are a few reasons to add a school to a league — adding population to the conference footprint to make more money off cable subscribers or adding academically renowned universities that burnish a league’s reputation — the most important factor remains eyeballs. Do people want to watch Team X enough to make adding Team X worthwhile?

As the Pac-12 tries to deal with the fallout of losing UCLA and USC to the Big Ten and the Big 12 explores a raid on the Pac-12, audience data can be quite instructive. It also helps explain the angst in the ACC, where several programs at the top of the league’s Q score ratings should be making huge money but are tethered to a deal that pays them less than they’re worth and lasts until 2036. Plus, TV ratings make abundantly clear why Notre Dame holds all the cards in this round of realignment and why the Fighting Irish can go as fast or slow as they wish evaluating the landscape to decide whether they need to join a conference in football.

Last year we examined the Four Million Club. Those are the games that truly move the needle for television programmers. Much of the action of realignment has been to consolidate the schools that create those games. At this point, the Big Ten and SEC have scooped up most of them.

So how do we evaluate the rest? Some, like Oregon, Washington, Clemson and Florida State, believe they deserve inclusion in one of the two mega-conferences. Others either are trying to figure out what to do next or might be expansion targets for the leagues operating a notch below the mega-conferences. The Big Ten and SEC have only so much room, so the race to be conference No. 3 in terms of revenue will get downright Darwinian. The remaining Pac-12 schools and the Big 12 schools — with new media rights deals about to be negotiated — all are trying to determine how the most profitable arrangement might look, and ACC leaders hope their conference’s grant of rights agreement keeps the most desirable members from leaving.

It would be easy to calculate a median or average TV audience number for the schools in question, but it might not be as instructive. Part of the problem with measuring television audience for games is not knowing how many people tuned in to watch which team. With Oklahoma and Texas still in the Big 12 and USC and UCLA still in the Pac-12, how do we use the data from those games? It’s probably best to throw them out and measure the schools based on who wants to see them when they aren’t playing a team either in or headed to the Big Ten or SEC. So that’s what I did. I took the ratings spreadsheet I made last year* — which includes data from 2015-19 — and added 2021 data. I left out 2020 because the unevenness of the pandemic year skewed the numbers.

*This data comes courtesy of the excellent Sports Media Watch, where Jon Lewis faithfully compiles ratings every week of the season.

I then examined the games between teams that aren’t in or headed to the Big Ten or SEC (and aren’t Notre Dame) when they played other teams that aren’t in or headed to the Big Ten or SEC (and aren’ t Notre Dame). Instead of four million, I set the cutline at one million. We still have the same issue of trying to decipher which school people tuned in to watch, but if a team that cracked a million at least 20 times in six seasons did it against a team that cracked a million twice in six seasons, it’s pretty easy to answer that question. It’s also pretty easy to imagine that if the team that cracked a million at least 20 times played in a league with a bunch of schools that regularly crack three or four million viewers, even more people would watch.

From 2015-19 and in 2021 there were 914 rated regular-season (no conference title games) televised games not involving Notre Dame or anyone who will be in the Big Ten or SEC.

• 284 of those games drew more than a million viewers. (By contrast, 732 of 951 games involving the Big Ten, SEC and/or Notre Dame drew more than one million viewers.)

• 117 games drew more than two million viewers.

• 47 games drew more than three million viewers.

• 27 games drew more than four million viewers.

• 14 games drew more than five million viewers.

• Of those, six were the Army-Navy game.

There is probably another conversation to be had about the service academies, but that particular game is unique in that it has a rich history and usually is the only college football game on its weekend. For realignment purposes, the games that take place on standard in-season dates are the ones that draw the most attention.

So which teams cracked a million the most? Two ACC teams, followed by two Pac-12 schools.

Games teams

34

Clemson

31

Florida State

28

Washington

26

Oregon

22

Miami

21

Washington State

19

Oklahoma State, Utah

18

Louisville, Stanford

16

North Carolina

15

Baylor, Colo., Virginia Tech

14

TCU, West Virginia

13

Arizona State, Boise State

12

BYU, Cal, Pittsburgh

11

Cincinnati, NC State

10

Syracuse

9

Texas Tech, UCF, Virginia

8th

Houston, USF, Wake Forest

7

Army, Boston College, Iowa State, Navy

6

Arizona, Georgia Tech, Memphis

5

Duke

4

Kansas State, SMU, Temple

3

Oregon State

2

Air Force, Colorado State, Kansas, Marshall, Tulsa, UConn, Utah State

1

1: Alcorn State, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, FAU, Kent State, NC Central, Rice, San Diego State, Nevada, Tulane

Why do Clemson and Florida State fans complain that they belong in the SEC? Because they rate like SEC teams. It should be noted that Florida State hasn’t been good for most of the period included, and the Seminoles still keep drawing viewers. Clemson had the most-watched single game in this group when Deshaun Watson and the Tigers dued with Lamar Jackson and Louisville in 2016 (9.3 million viewers), and the Tigers were the most consistent at drawing viewers. Games on the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC networks aren’t rated, so Clemson’s ACC Network games aren’t included, but if we bring back all the Tigers’ opponents — which include Notre Dame and several SEC programs — the Tigers had a median audience of 2.6 million viewers.

This was far and away the best of the group. In fact, Clemson comes close to Notre Dame, which had a median audience of 2.9 million during the six-season stretch. To understand why everyone wants the Fighting Irish, consider this. In 68 rated games during those six seasons, Notre Dame drew at least one million viewers 67 times. Only the 2017 game against Miami (Ohio) on NBC Sports Network came up short (798,000 viewers). Meanwhile, Notre Dame broke two million viewers 54 times, broke three million 32 times and broke five million 15 times.

Clemson doesn’t have the alumni spread or the brand awareness of Notre Dame, but it’s clear people want to watch the Tigers play. Atlantic Division (RIP) rival Florida State drew a median audience of 1.9 million in 49 rated games over the same period. The only other schools in that neighborhood were Oregon (1.9 million), Washington (1.6 million) and Louisville (1.6 million).

Do the Cardinals surprise you there? They surprised me as well. I wondered if they’d gotten a serious lift because of the two seasons with 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Jackson as the primary starting QB (2016 and 2017), but the median audience in those years was only 200,000 viewers above the median for the entire sample .

Conversations with people in the SEC suggest that in addition to the obvious reasons for wanting Clemson and Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia are highly coveted. The Tar Heels (1.2 million in 24 rated games) and Cavaliers (1.4 million in 24 rated games) don’t bring the same raw audience, but a different kind of math could be drawing the eye of SEC leaders. Clemson, Florida State, Louisville and Miami (1.4 million in 47 rated games) are all in states that already are in the SEC footprint. Within the footprint, the SEC Network commands a subscriber fee of about $1.40 a month. Outside the footprint, the fee is much lower. North Carolina and Virginia are the two largest states that include neither a Big Ten nor an SEC school. Assuming the fee rises by about $1 a month for territory added to the footprint, it makes sense for the SEC — or the Big Ten, for that matter — to want to plant a flag in those two states. That’s a lot of new money from millions of cable, satellite and streaming bundle subscribers.

The other obvious question is “Why doesn’t one league take North Carolina and Virginia and one take NC State and Virginia Tech?” In this sample, the two flagships drew larger audiences. In 26 rated games, NC State drew a median of 1.1 million viewers. In 41 rated games, Virginia Tech drew a median audience of 968,000.

That cable subscriber math also helps explain why the Pac-12 and ACC would discuss an arrangement that would put Pac-12 games on the ACC’s channel. That would fuel better distribution on the West Coast and turn out-of-footprint subscribers into in-footprint subscribers. The only question is how the leagues would split the new money. It hardly seems worth it for ACC members to give up the exclusivity of their own network if they don’t get most of the spoils. Meanwhile, Pac-12 members might be just as disappointed as they were with the money they currently receive (or don’t) from the Pac-12 Network if they don’t see much revenue from the deal.

The ratings offer a fascinating window into the dynamics at play in the Big 12 and Pac-12. According to the audience numbers, Oregon and Washington are the two most bankable brands among those two leagues. Our list of one-million-viewer games shows a surprising affinity for Washington State (21 games — one behind Miami), but otherwise, there really isn’t much difference between the group of schools remaining in the Pac-12 and the group of Schools that will make up the Big 12 after Oklahoma and Texas leave.

So if the Big Ten decided it wanted to go west again and snag Oregon and Washington, the Big 12 would be in prime position to scoop up the best that remains of the Pac-12. But even if the Big Ten decides to hold at 16 for now, the Big 12 still could use this information to its advantage. It could show Oregon and Washington that schools such as Baylor, BYU, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State and TCU produce comparable or better numbers than the Oregon and Washington group would have to prop up in the Pac-12. Or it could make that same pitch to Colorado and Utah, attacking the middle of the Pac-12 — from a brand standpoint — with the hope that losing it would force the Ducks and Huskies to make a move. And while few of the projections have suggested Washington State as a target, perhaps the Cougars should be. They seem to play games viewers find interesting. Their median audience in 39 rated games was 1.5 million viewers. Take away six rated games against USC and UCLA, and the Cougars’ median audience remains 1.5 million viewers.

These numbers will be crunched and chewed upon throughout the next few months as schools and leagues try to decide their next steps. If their previous moves are any indication, the Big Ten and SEC ultimately will try to take what’s left at the top of the other leagues in order to further cement their dominance. But the race to be No. 3 — and possibly to stay alive — likely will come down to eyeballs earned.

(Photo: Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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