Colleges are supposed to be inclusive places, right? They take all kinds of students with different backgrounds who expose each other to all sorts of ideals and they learn from each other. That’s the way it’s supposed to be and the way it is on many campuses until you get to athletics. That’s when things change, when colleges either claim exclusivity or beg for entry into the most prestigious of private clubs.
Right now, presidents of Big 12 conference universities are deciding whether to stay put at 10 members or expand by two or four schools. After a series of realignments over the past decade, the top level of football is actually divided in half — five power conferences that include the Big 12 and five leftover so-called “Group of 5” leagues.
Schools in the P5 conferences generally make 25 to 30 times the amount of annual television revenue than their G5 counterparts, even though they compete with each other on the field in games and, over the course of a season, for championships and positions in postseason bowl slots. Again, this is college football’s top division, a single entity that is informally cut into two parts by money.
Because of that massive disparity, 20 G5 schools are putting forth their best feet in hopes of Big 12 salvation.
The two schools primarily featured in A COACH AT HEART straddle the divide — Stanford is a member of the prestigious Pac-12 and San Diego State is part of the Mountain West. SDSU, of course, is one of the schools hoping for a Big 12 invite. The Aztecs program has one of the better resumes of the candidates thanks to television market size and current competitiveness, but faces a big hurdle with its location in a far corner of the country, well away from most members of a league based in the Midwest.
SDSU isn’t the only major candidate with a strike against it. While Houston is considered the top G5 football school thanks to last year’s one-loss campaign and has an old Southwest Conference pedigree, some observers believe Baylor and Texas don’t want to bring another school from the state into their league — more local competition, you know. BYU is being strongly opposed by LGBT advocates as a school run by the Mormon church. It goes on, but the Cougars also offer a built-in fan base and fill a large stadium. How do you leave out UConn, located within 100 miles of a large percentage of the nation’s televisions? The other 16 schools have some disadvantages but also have strong points in their favor. There isn’t much to differentiate between them, so how pick.
So the Big 12 might stand pat, for now. But that may not last forever.
Which brings up a huge problem for the powers-that-be in major college football. The current structure is unsustainable. Half the programs in the top division are relying on massive income thrown around by the television networks at the same time Americans are cutting the cable cord at growing rates. Last week, it was reported that pay TV companies lost 665,000 subscribers in the second quarter of 2016, up from 545,000 in the same period last year. That means fewer viewers for college football games and less advertising revenue for the TV networks on the hook for exorbitant P5 contracts.
At the same time, you have all these other programs trying to claw their way in to the uppermost tier of collegiate athletics. More mouths to feed with a shrinking pot of food. That tells me change is coming. While most conference TV contracts are in effect into the early part of the next decade, the change is going to come faster than anyone realizes.
So we may as well get on with it.
The solution? Get back to the most basic of college ideals. Inclusion. Counter-intuitive to be sure since the financial pressure on the P5 will be to contract, not expand.
But what will happen when contraction starts? Squeals, and lots of them, from people who you won’t want squealing. Not just fans, but politicians and lawyers. You there, Wake Forest. Yeah, you! Get out of here! Deacons fans will be like, Say What? See that courthouse over there? We’ll see you before a judge. Iowa State, you know you really haven’t done much of anything over the past six or seven decades. Oh, really now? Meet our friend Joni Ernst, alumna and U.S. senator. You don’t need to be a frequent national championship contender to have friends in high places.
Good luck with contraction.
The clamor from both ends can only be answered by expansion, and not by two teams or four, but by eight, 10 or 12. Think it won’t happen? What is going to save football revenue is inventory, meaning as many games as you can possibly get on TV — whether it’s carried over the air, via cable or fiber, or the Internet with the fledgling Sling service. And you’re going to need more teams and more games to grow the inventory.
The first indication of whether this will be the direction taken by the football powers will come this fall when the Big 12 decides whether or not to expand. Under their football contracts, payouts to individual schools won’t change if the league adds teams, but the overall pie will be larger. What the Big 12 will be doing is adding inventory to strengthen their position in the marketplace.
That decision, over time, will prompt the other major conferences to add members. And geography, competitiveness, academic standing and the like won’t mean a hill of beans. TV market size and fan following will be it. So SDSU, Central Florida and Houston — if they miss out on the first round of Big 12 expansion will be in. So will BYU because of its national following and maybe Boise State if the Broncos can maintain the curiosity of fans in general. Memphis with its FedEx cash and Colorado State and its craft beers will be out.
The number of power conference schools will rise by 10 and maybe one or two more at most. The law of diminishing returns will kick in at that point. As it is, the current power conference schools will see their individual TV revenue hauls dip some in the future, but inventory will keep the bottom from falling out of the bottom line and buy them another decade or so of relative stability.
And college football will be more befitting of the college ideal of inclusiveness.