With further realignment speculation concerning the Power 5 conferences tamped down in the wake of the ACC/Big Ten/Pac-12 Alliance, the countdown now can begin until the next shifting of college football’s tectonic plates.
When the Big 12 starts poaching Group of 5 schools? No.
Instead, the next potential wave — and there are no signs it’s coming anytime soon — is when the biggest brand names in college football get tired of carrying the water for rank-and-file Power 5 schools that are having a hard enough time keeping up already.
This summer’s realignment frenzy highlighted that the gulf between the bluest of blue-blood schools and the others in Power 5 conferences is only growing wider. This is an industry increasingly driven by multibillion-dollar TV contracts, one with continued evolution ahead as direct-to-consumer streaming services secure even more of a foothold.
What is clear is that there is an almost insatiable appetite to watch the biggest brands match up. To that point, one prominent college athletics official who has been involved in numerous media rights deals told On3, “The networks right now will pay you whatever you need them to pay you for the top inventory. What they don’t want to do anymore is pay $9 million a game for Michigan-Ohio State and also pay $9 million a game for Rutgers-Maryland. Every conference is top-heavy.”
In fact, the top three or four brands in every conference account for more than 50 percent of the TV viewers, with some slight variation among leagues. For the Big Ten, it’s Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. In the SEC, it’s Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida. The Pac-12 has USC, Oregon and Washington. It’s Clemson, Miami and Florida State in the ACC. And the Big 12 (for now) has Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Notre Dame is the lone independent that moves the needle.
If your school isn’t on that list above and isn’t among a handful of other names (like Wisconsin, Auburn, North Carolina, Texas A&M, maybe Iowa), what does the future hold for you? Not the short-term outlook, where all teams in Power 5 leagues will continue to benefit mightily from generous league revenue distributions. But the long-term outlook.
“I worry about that for our game and for those universities,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum recently. “ … I think we will see some schools that just can’t have enough money, enough facilities, enough commitment selling those tickets, be attractive enough for the TV contracts that they will lose who they are and drop down to another level.”
The ‘food chain’ difference
Certainly nothing is imminent. But nothing laid bare just how much schools from any conference rely on the top brands to carry the league as much as what Texas and Oklahoma choosing to join the SEC exposed in the Big 12. In last month’s Texas state senate select committee hearing on the “Future of College Sports in Texas,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby bluntly articulated the difference between this realignment move and others, saying, “The difference between this one and any of the others is they have come off the top of the food chain. The others that have moved have typically been the Rutgers and Marylands that were down in the ranks.”
Some $28 million of the $34.5 million (revenue dipped slightly because of the pandemic) distributed to each Big 12 school annually comes from TV revenue. Industry sources anticipate that TV revenue figure to be cut in half when the league secures a new rights deal in 2025.
Without Oklahoma and Texas to provide the juice, maintaining the same pace, funding the same number of sports and providing the same athletic resources will be an uphill climb. In the hearing, TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati referenced the possibility of “massive cuts” without the usual Big 12 revenue. And Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades questioned whether the school will be able to fund a new basketball arena and football facility, as had been planned.
“Will we still have that same ability to build those facilities given the flux of our future in a Power 5 conference, given our flux in terms of potential revenue?” Rhoades said. “Even if the Big 12 remains vibrant and stays Power 5, I think it’s really difficult to envision a scenario where we remain whole no matter what.”
In his blog “Run it Back with Zach,” Zach Miller ranked the top teams by average number of viewers per week from 2015-19. Ohio State (5.2 million) ranked first, followed by Alabama (5.1), Michigan (4.2), Notre Dame (3.6) and LSU (3.2), the biggest brands predictably attracting the most eyeballs. The ACC had just three programs — Clemson (ninth), Florida State (14th) and Miami (23rd) — ranked in the top 30. And even in the SEC, the ratings drop precipitously when the blue bloods aren’t playing.
“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, my God, the SEC has this magic.’ But you don’t realize how pedestrian the numbers are when the big schools aren’t involved,” the college athletics source said. “Like Mississippi-Mississippi State — the only thing that helps that game is that it’s on Thanksgiving. When you say how about fill-in-the-blank team versus someone other than Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn and LSU? The numbers fall off a cliff.”
It remains to be seen if and when the disparity in those numbers could be the driving force behind more rounds of realignment, grouping many of the nation’s most recognizable brand-name schools and leaving everyone else behind. But it could be the next major wave of landscape-shifting.