Building a College Football Super League, Part III: Replacing FBS

Yesterday we identified the schools that might form a super league and suggested that a 32-team league would strike the best balance between maximizing the value of the schools selected and ensuring a) that Clemson would be among the schools selected, minimizing the possibility that the best team in what’s left of FBS would be able to claim to be the “true” national champion and reducing the incentive for fans to simply declare FBS their college football competition of choice, and b) in turn, convincing Notre Dame that they need to surrender their independence and join the league to maintain their relevance, rather than lending their brand name and relevance to FBS. But there were some tight margins in selecting the last few teams, and we had to stretch a bit to pick Clemson and Notre Dame’s rival Stanford. So whoever’s forming this league could conceivably decide it’s worth it to expand it a bit and remove the stress over justifiably picking those teams, and once they start going down that path it won’t be long before they’ve reached the point of eliminating FBS as a threat to the league’s claim to be the undisputed top tier of college football entirely. It would effectively take less inspiration from the European super league and more from the Premier League, which was effectively a secession of the existing top flight of English football from the established Football League. What schools would that involve? I’m going to try to keep the analysis to a minimum for this post, but I’m not sure I succeeded. 

Read moreBuilding a College Football Super League, Part III: Replacing FBS

Building a College Football Super League, Part II: Selecting the Teams

Having laid out how I’m going to measure the value of schools when choosing them for a super league, it’s time to actually select the teams. I originally intended not to say a lot and just take the teams, and later on that’s what I’ll do, but I started out expounding at length about why certain teams were being selected or turning up on the list when they did, and ended up saying so much that I ended up breaking it into two parts. This part will cover what I imagine to be the smallest possible league, and we’ll look at larger league sizes tomorrow.

We’ll start with the eight schools most commonly cited as being among college football’s “blue bloods”, listed in order of their value after the academics step:

  1. Texas
  2. Michigan
  3. Notre Dame
  4. Ohio State
  5. Nebraska
  6. Alabama
  7. Oklahoma
  8. USC

Read moreBuilding a College Football Super League, Part II: Selecting the Teams

Building a College Football Super League, Part I: Measuring the Value


Earlier this past month, the Pac-12 effectively imploded as a result of its inability to secure a sufficiently attractive media rights deal in the aftermath of USC and UCLA’s departure to the Big Ten, with three schools departing to the Big 12 and two to the Big Ten in a single day. This does mitigate one of the problems with the USC and UCLA move by giving them West Coast partners to play and making them less isolated in that way, but it makes most of the others worse. There are still no schools in the Big Ten between Nebraska and Los Angeles, and we’re now looking at conferences 18, 20, or even more schools in size, with no real steps to make them feel like actual conferences and no real guarantee of a clear conference champion with every conference moving to go without divisions and simply send their top two teams to the conference championship game – only a scheduling and TV rights alliance promising the ability of teams to play the most valuable schools in the conference in football fairly regularly and to earn TV rights fees partly based off of the association with those schools. With an effectively national conference and no divisions, the Big Ten is making its Midwest and Eastern teams in non-revenue sports make the long trek west, or vice versa, all the more often, and to travel decent distances within the West.

It all had the effect of turning my thoughts back towards my wondering what might have been if college football’s biggest schools had decided to leave the auspices of the NCAA and formed a “super league” – whether a relatively modest secession of just the most valuable schools, or a full-fledged split of FBS itself taking most of the Power 5 with it as the Knight Commission proposed – and my desire to create a more robust means of determining what schools might join such a league than I engaged in at the start of the year. The dawning start of the college football season in earnest is as good a time as any to present my more rigorous findings. This post will document my attempt to find a formula to measure the viability of teams for a super league; the next post will attempt to actually identify the teams, and a future post may explore how this affects the conferences for the schools left behind and in other sports. 

Read moreBuilding a College Football Super League, Part I: Measuring the Value

Pining for a (True) College Football Super League

The College Football Playoff is officially expanding to 12 teams in 2024, and I couldn’t care less. This should be an exciting moment, the advent of a month-long extravaganza that will allow college football to crown a true, controversy-free national champion, and instead it feels like the worst fears of the BCS defenders have been realized, that college football has been turned into something unrecognizable, a big-money corporate cash grab not much different from the NFL instead of the tradition-filled pastime it once was. Granted, it’s been a corporate cash grab for a lot longer than the purists are willing to acknowledge, and becoming more so was probably pretty much inevitable so long as communities without professional teams invested the local college team with the level of importance of a pro team, but it still feels like the sport is becoming a shadow of its former self.

The last piece of the puzzle to put the CFP expansion in place was the Rose Bowl effectively being browbeaten into effectively being forced off its traditional New Year’s Day date on a regular basis (something that already happened every four years in the early days of the BCS before the creation of a separate national championship game) by college football’s poobahs setting a deadline for the Rose to fall in line. As much as the Rose Bowl might not like it, it will likely now be at its most relevant and most retain something close to its status as the “Granddaddy of them All” when it’s not played on New Year’s Day, when it serves as a semifinal instead of a quarterfinal. It probably can’t really be guaranteed its traditional Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup, but with USC and UCLA moving to the Big Ten that tradition probably wasn’t much worth keeping anyway. Any way you slice it, the Rose Bowl as we know it is dead, and with it, as I explained at the start of the season, is much of what people liked about college football as it existed.

And as I said at the end of that post, we could have avoided all this if the biggest names in college football had taken a step associated with perhaps the biggest sort of cash grab of all. 

Read morePining for a (True) College Football Super League

How the Rise of Superconferences is Killing the Soul of College Football

Thursday, June 30, 2022 may go down as the day college football as many fans knew it officially died, as that was the day the Big Ten stunned the college football world, as the addition of USC and UCLA to the conference went from being reported by various reporters, initially with the clarification that it wasn’t a done deal, to being officially announced in the space of a few hours. It’s easy to see the move as a desperation bid by the Big Ten in response to the SEC poaching Texas and Oklahoma a year earlier, which created the first sixteen-team “superconference” in college football, crippled the Big 12 and left them in a liminal state where they’re likely to be seen as only barely a power conference at best, and threatened to create a gap between the SEC and other conferences that might be insurmountable. None of the other schools in the Big 12 could bring nearly as much of a brand name or fanbase to any of the other conferences to even be worth splitting the pie more ways, let alone make up the gap to the SEC, and the Pac-12 and ACC seemed to be cohesive enough conferences, with strong relationships between their member institutions, as to be off-limits to be poached by the Big Ten or each other.

Read moreHow the Rise of Superconferences is Killing the Soul of College Football

In Defense of Conference Championship Games

For many years Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel was the loudest, most virulent voice in opposition to the old Bowl Championship Series. His characterization of the BCS as a result of a cartel of major-college teams and college football as a whole as held hostage by big-money bowl committees and their corporate sponsors shifted the terms of the college football playoff debate in the latter years of the BCS’ existence, especially after the publication of his book Death to the BCS, and his longstanding support of what I used to call the “11/5 system” further encouraged BCS opponents to dream big even as he never explicitly stated the major reason I preferred that system.

As the BCS prepared to be replaced with the College Football Playoff, Wetzel seemed to back off his support of the 11/5 model in the face of conference realignment resulting in the folding of the WAC and, at the time, the potential for a merger between the Mountain West and Conference USA opening the possibility of a sixteen-team playoff following a 9/7 model, diluting the value of the regular season beyond the realm of acceptability. Once, an 11/5 system would have resulted in the top three seeds facing progressively weaker conference champions, with the four and five seeds facing either strong, BCS-challenging mid-major champions or weak at-larges or BCS conference champions, creating real separation on the top few seed lines; now, besides the collapse of the WAC, the departure of Utah and TCU to major conferences, BYU to independence, and Chris Petersen’s departure from Boise State resulting in that program regressing from “BCS-caliber threatening-unbeaten every year” to “one of the stronger mid-major teams that regularly has to fight for the Mountain West championship”, have all had the result that the four- and five-seeds would probably be facing only moderately strong teams from the American and Mountain West, sprinkled in with the occasional Power 5-challenging team or very weak Power 5 champion facing the 5 seed. It’s easy to see why Wetzel’s support drifted to the eight-team playoff with auto bids for Power 5 champions, and it’s probably a good sign for that model that it places Wetzel in agreement with the Dallas Morning News‘ Tim Cowlishaw, once one of the most virulent and prominent defenders of the BCS when I was regularly watching him on Around the Horn. How to get there, however, is another question entirely.

Read moreIn Defense of Conference Championship Games

Do I HAVE to update the lineal titles every September?

I said last year that I was thinking of no longer tracking the lineal titles and I meant it, even though I could desperately use the extra content. This time I’m actually most of the way through the opening Saturday of college football season before I even bother to update everything. I’ve updated the NFL lineal title history but not the actual category pages, and you’ll notice that the non-DeflateGate title I said I was going to track isn’t reflected in the history at all, because the Patriots started the season undefeated for a long time while the DeflateGate title changed hands a bunch, and the main title went into the playoffs and starts the season with the Broncos while the non-DeflateGate title starts it with the Saints of all teams. (At some point I may make the format of the site more consistent across the subsites, and I may get rid of the special category pages for the lineal titles entirely at that point, so here’s a link to the NFL lineal title history should that happen.)

On the college side, the anticipated unification of 2009 Boise State with the Princeton-Yale title did in fact happen as TCU and Oklahoma State went into their game against one another undefeated, but even though the Cowboys won that game it’s TCU that enters the new season with the title, and it’s the 2006 Boise State title that returned to the College Football Playoff and starts the year in the hands of Alabama.

Will an ACC Network Be Obsolete Before It Launches?

In 2013, a year after financially-struggling Maryland left the ACC for the greener pastures of the Big Ten, the Charlotte News and Observer obtained e-mails that circulated among the leadership of the University of North Carolina, perhaps the single most important school to the long-term survival of the ACC, showing their reaction to the news. Many of the e-mails expressed disbelief at a Sports Illustrated article that claimed that Maryland would make nearly $100 million more in its new conference by 2020, thanks to the Big Ten Network, than it would have made in the ACC, with UNC officials looking for confirmation that Maryland was going to make that much more money (indeed Maryland itself wasn’t aware of it until it started going through realignment talks). But for many college sports fans following the sports media and college sports realignment worlds, the fact that the Big Ten was making oodles more money than any other conference was hardly news, but something that had been widely reported throughout the sports media and had been fueling the current round of realignment from the start. Ordinary college sports fans and bloggers knew more about the financial disparities between the major conferences than the university presidents within them whose job it was to make informed decisions. As Frank the Tank, one of the bloggers most responsible for exposing the implications of those disparities, put it:

It would have been one thing if these were average sports fans just focused on on-the-field results, but it’s quite amazing that university leaders and athletic department officials didn’t seem to be as informed on college sports financial matters as, say, most of the people reading this blog or those that followed the reporting of mainstream media members like Brett McMurphy of, Andy Staples of and Dennis Dodd of It’s an indication of the insularity of many universities and athletic departments and partially explains why the inertia in favor of the status quo is often stronger than many conference expansionistas would like to believe. What we’re seeing is that it takes a real external crisis for the vast majority of power conference schools to take notice of the information that’s out there and consider switching leagues.

I thought of this upon hearing about the ACC’s move announced last week to try to rectify this disparity, which has only grown to their further disadvantage with the launch of the SEC (and Pac-12) Network, yet the circumstances surrounding it have changed considerably since 2012. The sports-network market has always been built on the con of the cable bundle, where people with little to no interest in sports see large chunks of their cable bill get shipped off to pay for sports networks, and recent years have seen one piece of news after another suggesting that bundle is being increasingly undermined. My generation sees little value in the bundle and has increasingly been “cord-cutting” to get their entertainment from sources like Netflix and Amazon, getting away from bloated bundles that exist largely to subsidize sports networks. Investors are increasingly concerned about what the trend means for the sports-network market and especially ESPN, which finds itself caught between the rock of cord-cutting and the hard place of their desire to keep the cable bundle going for as long as possible; no less an institution than Moody’s has predicted the end of the cable bundle and that regional sports networks are looking like an increasingly dicey proposition. Meanwhile, cable companies, blamed for higher prices even as they struggle to keep pace with the rising price of sports networks, have increasingly taken stands against the launch of more and more new networks, as evidenced by the carriage struggles of SportsNet LA and the network formerly known as CSN Houston, with SportsNet LA remaining uncarried even as Time Warner Cable has reduced its price and even in Vin Scully’s final season.

Against this backdrop, the ACC has been the one major college conference with a substantial number of third-tier games still airing on broadcast television through regional syndication on Raycom. Assuming broadcast stations could get their act together and ensure wide coverage without relying on the crutch of retransmission consent (hardly a sure thing), I felt that, for all the ACC may have looked longingly at the SEC and Big Ten Networks and the revenue they make, staying the course could prove to give them a massive advantage in exposure if the market flipped and the SEC Network and BTN found themselves limited to what could be a distinct minority of people willing to pay relatively large amounts of money for them or for bundles including them, especially among poorer recruits, and especially if the ACC made an aggressive move to distribute their syndication package nationwide.

Instead, last week the ACC and ESPN announced an extension of their existing media rights agreement for the next twenty years, with the launch of a new “ACC Network Plus” digital network this fall leading up to the launch of a full-fledged linear ACC Network in 2019. I’d be shocked if the cable bundle still looked anything like it does today by 2036, and frankly I’d be surprised if it still looked viable in 2019. Reportedly, the long delay for the launch is related to the expiration of ESPN’s carriage agreements with cable providers, meaning ESPN would rather hold off on the launch of the ACC Network until it can tie it in with its established linear networks. But the addition of the ACC Network to ESPN’s bundle could be what causes the bundle to collapse entirely and marks the fall of ESPN’s empire.

Cable operators have been chafing under ESPN’s tops-in-the-industry subscriber fees for a long time, with Dish Network chairman Charles Ergen suggesting in 2011, following the signing of an expensive Monday Night Football deal, that certain companies might decide to go without ESPN and market their service as a low-cost alternative for non-sports fans, and in recent years many such operators have been experimenting with sports-free packages that offer a selection of popular channels at a lower price, resulting in ESPN’s carriage falling considerably. But no cable or satellite company has taken the plunge and experimented with cutting ESPN out of their lineups entirely, instead limiting the availability of their sports-free packages to avoid violating their ESPN contracts, and online “skinny bundles” that have won considerable acclaim for being an “alternative to the cable bundle”, including Dish’s own Sling TV, have made themselves part of the problem by including ESPN and other sports networks. For now, pay-TV providers feel they must have ESPN’s high-value programming such as MNF and the College Football Playoff, even though they know it’s almost single-handedly fueling the revolt against the cable bundle, because even as the cost of sports drives people away from the cable bundle, the presence of sports is the one thing keeping people tied to it, because live events, especially sports, are the one thing linear TV does better than the Internet. The power of ESPN explains why the SEC Network, theoretically a channel of regional interest, had the largest launch in cable TV history, avoiding even the carriage battles that bedeviled the Big Ten Network.

But for as much as the SEC Network benefited from the ESPN connection, it may not have been so successful if it weren’t sufficiently valuable in its own right. The SEC and Big Ten have the most passionate fanbases and bring the most value to any sports network by a significant margin over any other conference, even any other college conference; the ACC is strong in basketball, but their football conference tends to consist of Florida State and not much else, both in terms of quality on the field and in terms of schools with passionate fanbases that can attract large audiences, and football is what drives TV deals and conference realignment. What may be more relevant to what the ACC Network has to look forward to is the fate of the Pac-12 Networks, which remains uncarried by DirecTV years after launch; it was thought the DirecTV-AT&T merger would smooth along talks, but instead it seems more likely that AT&T will drop Pac-12 Networks from U-Verse systems once that deal expires than that DirecTV will add them. According to Washington State AD Bill Moos, Pac-12 schools were hoping to receive $5 million a year from the Pac-12 Networks at this point, but instead are only collecting $1.4 million. Unlike the SEC and Big Ten Networks, the Pac-12 went it alone on their network without selling any stake to anyone that might have helped their network gain carriage (or shared in the network’s expenses), but thanks to the CSN Houston and SportsNet LA struggles – not to mention ESPN’s Longhorn Network, which recently eliminated much if not all of its studio programming – cable operators are a lot more confident in their ability to stand up to sports networks than they were in the late 2000s when they challenged the BTN.

They may not have wanted to alienate ESPN’s many loyal viewers over the SEC Network, but the ACC Network won’t bring nearly as much value to the table, and while ESPN may have largely escaped the bruising carriage battles other large programmers have fought, if they overestimate how much cable operators are willing to pay for an ACC Network, at least one large programmer may just decide they’ve had enough of ESPN pushing them around and go to war (especially since even with the wait, ESPN’s carriage deals with Comcast, Charter, and Dish Network still won’t have expired yet by 2019, meaning the ACC Network will have to stand and fall on its own merits with them). Even if they don’t, the resulting hike in people’s cable bills might just be the spur cord-cutting needs to cross a tipping point and cause large numbers of people to dump their cable subscriptions en masse – and that assumes it won’t have done so already. Cord-cutting has come a long way in just the last three years – HBO went from disdaining the possibility of a direct-to-consumer offering to offering one in less time – and there’s no reason not to assume it won’t go even further in the next three. If ESPN escapes any major controversy surrounding the ACC Network, it may only be because the popularity of the cable bundle will have shrunk enough for it not to matter, to the point that ESPN might just decide to make the ACC Network the centerpiece of their own direct-to-consumer offering. Any of these scenarios would likely result in the ACC making substantially less money than they might have planned (or, depending on the structure of the contract, ESPN taking a loss on the enterprise).

ESPN likely knows all this, and tried for a long time to dissuade the ACC from the idea, preferring to let a clause activate this summer that would have substantially increased its payouts to the conference (and which, apparently, will still activate in the interim) than to launch a network that would not only lose money or fail to achieve the conference’s goals, but would accelerate the larger trend ESPN has been trying to slow down or fight off. But all the ACC sees is the boatloads of money the Big Ten and SEC are making, even though they have no chance whatsoever at making anywhere near that much, despite the conference’s consultant, Dean Jordan, claiming that if it “performs even moderately, it’ll put the ACC in a situation where they’ll be very, very competitive financially with the upper tier of the collegiate industry”. The ACC is deluded not only about the changes sweeping the video industry, but about its own value compared to “the upper tier of the collegiate industry”. There may have been a time when ESPN could ask for any price for an ACC Network and gotten the ACC money on par with the SEC, but that time has been long past for several years now.

ESPN President John Skipper points out that 93 of the top 100 TV programs in the ratings in 2015 were sports, compared to 14 just five years ago, and takes that as evidence that live sports is growing more popular and that the insatiable appetite for it will justify an ACC network, not that linear television is growing less popular among people who don’t watch live sports. The ACC is confident that ESPN will “find a way to make this work” no matter how untenable the cable bundle becomes in the interim. But that assumes live sports will maintain their elevated position, that the economics of the video content market won’t recalibrate themselves to favor video-on-demand services and linear television becomes the specific subset of the larger video landscape delivering a specific type of content, live content of all types, that it should be, that the linear market doesn’t greatly and rapidly contract to the level actually warranted by the provenance and popularity of live events that are out there, that conference-specific networks reliant on subscription revenue and showing lower-tier games don’t become an increasingly dicey proposition when they have to stand and fall based on their target audience alone. In that case, the best-case scenario for the ACC could be that the SEC and Big Ten networks become equally untenable, and if that happens they’ll still be in better shape than the ACC. I don’t know if the ACC will ever realize the scenario they passed up, but I do know they could find themselves cursing their foolishness – especially if their decision turns out to be the proximate cause of exposing its own foolishness.

Want to learn more about all this? As this post goes up, you still have a few hours left to get my book THE GAME TO SHOW THE GAMES on your Kindle for FREE! Or you can order the paperback or get it on your Kindle for cheap anytime! Find out more about the book by clicking the cover on the sidebar!

TGTSTG Bonus Content: The Saga of the Longhorn Network

ESPN and Fox had saved the Big 12. Their commitment to pay the Big 12 the same with 10 schools as with 12 schools, coupled with virtually the entire college football world outside the Pac-10 converging to try to prevent conference realignment Armageddon, enabled Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe to offer Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma enough of a financial inducement to stay in their conference and not defect to the Pac-10. Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds effectively said as much, though not in so many words. Though a Longhorns network was “really important” to the school, and a move to the Pac-10 would have precluded that by forcing the school to surrender their rights to the conference for their own network, it wasn’t the “deal-breaker” to back out of the deal. Chris Plonsky, who headed the school’s women’s sports, similarly said that the ability to start a network wasn’t the “linchpin” that kept them in the Big 12, but it was a “very important variable”. Certainly it was a key element allowing the math to work out, and was widely perceived as the bedrock on which the foundation of the entire conference would be built going forward. Unlike other conferences that could plausibly claim to have an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality, the Big 12, it was just made clear, existed only because Texas allowed it to exist, and Texas allowed it to exist because it could collect much more money than the conference’s other schools, with many millions staked on a Longhorn network, an entire network dedicated to one school and potentially beamed directly into the campuses of many of its conference rivals, that would prevent the Big 12 from even considering going down the conference network path their peers were headed down. But Texas, despite having one of the biggest brand names and fan bases in college sports, was about to learn starting their own network would not be easy.

If anyone was as disappointed in the outcome as Larry Scott and the Pac-12, it was probably cable operators and satellite providers across the country. The formation of a handful of superconferences at least would have kept to a minimum the number of networks each of them would have tried to launch. Now, however, Texas, Oklahoma, and even Missouri were each talking about launching their own networks, and it wasn’t clear whether or not SEC or ACC schools would try to follow suit. There seemed to be a sense that launching a network was an automatic ATM guaranteed to let the money flow in. Cable operators wanted to make clear that things were not that easy and that they would take steps to protect their bottom line, and potentially, their customers’ bills. And they intended to make an example out of a Longhorn network.

Perhaps sensing the uphill battle ahead, Texas planned to invest no money in the enterprise and carry no risk if it failed. It would find a partner that could help with distribution and was willing to shoulder all the risk. Fox seemed to be the early leader in the clubhouse; it held most of the rights a new network would need and could conceivably use FSN’s existing deals with cable operators and satellite providers to get the network widely distributed right from the start. Fox also had experience partnering with the Big Ten on the Big Ten Network, something the other major contender, ESPN, had no experience in. But ESPN was able to make a renewed push to score the rights to, and full ownership of, the Longhorn Network. It would have to launch the network from scratch and go through all the bruising battles with cable operators, but as it turned out, if Texas did have to launch the network from scratch, it couldn’t ask for a better partner than ESPN.

The road was very bumpy to start. Even before engaging in high-level negotiations with cable operators, the network had an early misstep when ESPN decided it would be a good idea to air high-school football game, only for other schools to wonder whether that might violate NCAA recruiting rules or otherwise give Texas a recruiting advantage above and beyond that represented by the network itself. That, coupled with ESPN securing the rights to a conference football game, caused some to wonder whether the conference was on the brink of collapse again, and helped push Texas A&M and Missouri to jump ship to the SEC.

Meanwhile, ESPN went to distributors asking for 40 cents a subscriber, expensive for a cable channel but chump change compared to major-conference and regional sports networks (BTN started out charging 70 cents). Nonetheless, as the launch approached the network was far apart in talks with Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Comcast, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding high school and conference games, and in DirecTV’s case, because they wanted to wait for conference realignment to settle down (A&M was actively engaged in negotiations with the SEC as the network launched). It did have a deal with Verizon, but lacking a deal with TWC meant most people in Austin and a substantial proportion of people across the state wouldn’t be able to watch Texas’ 2011 home football opener against Rice. With even Verizon’s deal not kicking in until about a week after the network launched, the Longhorn Network opened in just 20,000 households. For all the controversy the network had engendered, almost no one, even within Austin let alone the state of Texas, could see it, and in a prelude to the CSN Houston and SportsNet LA showdowns to come, cable and satellite operators were remaining steadfast; by June, TWC and DirecTV weren’t even talking about carrying the network.

The network added AT&T U-Verse in time for the 2012 season, but the network was starting to look like folly; Oklahoma had gone deep into negotiations with Fox on a branded network, but what eventually emerged was merely a block of programming on Fox’s existing regional sports networks, while football coach Mack Brown, always uncomfortable with the level of access LHN wanted, seemed to imply that the distractions and added intelligence LHN provided may have contributed to Texas’ slow start that season. By 2013, it looked like LHN would enter a third season still without coverage on the largest distributors, casting a shadow over ESPN’s efforts to launch the SEC Network.

But just as the season prepared to begin, ESPN finally reached an agreement for Time Warner Cable to carry the Longhorn network. In March 2014, Disney reached a wide-ranging deal with Dish Network that included carriage for the Longhorn and SEC Networks, with DirecTV doing the same in December. What, exactly, changed to cause such a breakthrough, and whether it was a concession more on ESPN’s part or with distributors, may never be known, but one thing that is clear is that ESPN’s leverage with its panopoly of other networks was key to securing deals, certainly with satellite providers. Would the Longhorn Network have been able to overcome its early struggles to secure deals with distributors with any other partner, or certainly if Texas had opted to go it alone? It’s a question worth asking, and it helps explain why the ACC is still thinking about pursuing a network as a conference rather than individual schools looking into their own networks. Ultimately, the Longhorn Network’s success, as qualified as it is, may have more to do with the power of ESPN’s brand than Texas’.

Note: I’m probably not going to finish this initial series of Bonus Content posts this week; among other things, I still need to help put the finishing touches on the paperback. Hopefully the entire series will be done by the end of next week with whatever other posts I want to put together coming out over the rest of the month.

In Defense of the New Year’s Eve College Football Playoff Semifinals (sort of)

The results are in, and while most people who weren’t among college football’s dealmakers (or otherwise employed in the sports media industry) expected large declines for the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve, blowouts resulted in the declines being bigger than pretty much anyone expected. The Cotton Bowl between Michigan State and Alabama drew 18.552 million viewers, while the Oklahoma-Clemson Orange Bowl drew 15.640 million. After last year’s semifinals topped all four BCS Championship Games on ESPN, both games this year did worse than every game of the NBA Finals and not only did worse than ESPN’s NFL Wild Card game, the Orange Bowl had fewer viewers than the Bengals-Broncos regular season game three days earlier (and would have done worse than more games if ESPN’s MNF slate weren’t so underwhelming this year). In the valuable adults 18-49 demographic, the games drew ratings of 5.5 and 4.7 respectively; last year’s games had ratings of 8.9 and 8.3, resulting in overall declines of about 40% in both measures. Were the Rose Bowl not itself a blowout (and didn’t involve questionably-attractive Iowa), I wouldn’t be surprised if it embarrassed college football’s power brokers by doing better than one or both semifinals. According to Sports Media Watch, the games were the lowest-rated games with championship implications dating all the way back to the 1992 establishment of the Bowl Coalition.

Pretty much everyone that isn’t among college football’s power brokers, from fans to sportswriters and even ESPN itself (which tried and failed to move the semifinals to January 2 this year), thinks holding the semifinals on New Year’s Eve two out of every three years is a monumentally stupid idea. Many people work on New Year’s Eve and can’t catch the mid-afternoon game (or on the West Coast, the late game), and after they get off work they want to go out to a party (where Nielsen’s ratings don’t reach) to watch the countdown, not a college football game, no matter how important. Especially for those who thought the hatred for college football’s kingpins would die down once we finally got a playoff, the hatred being leveled at the New Year’s Eve semis is hard to fathom; Richard Deitsch went so far as to compare it to New Coke. But unlike New Coke, and despite the catastrophic declines, Bill Hancock says there’s no plans to change anything going forward. This seems unfathomable to pretty much everyone outside the offices of the College Football Playoff. The New Year’s Eve semis are universally reviled, seemingly destined to fail, and eminently disastrous. Why would college football’s power brokers want to double down on that?

The glib, short answer – the answer that’s partly the one the power brokers give when pressed on the issue – is that they are trying to establish a “new tradition”, or rather, two new traditions. The one they bring up is the notion of the New Year’s Six as a unit, as a two-day celebration of college football, across New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That notion is eminently flawed by itself for the same reason, but even with that, you could still have semifinals in the early afternoon and night of New Year’s Day, bracketing the Rose Bowl, as many have suggested. The problem with that is the other tradition college football is trying to establish: the notion of the Sugar Bowl between the SEC and Big 12 champions as a tradition on par with the Rose Bowl. Moving it around the schedule like the other New Year’s Six games (not to mention holding it on New Year’s Eve two out of three years) isn’t exactly conducive to establishing a new tradition.

The long answer begins with how this relates specifically to why the CFP rejected ESPN’s request to move the CFP semifinals to January 2. In July Ilan Ben-Hanan, vice-president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, told Deitsch they wanted to make the change to take advantage of a “one-year-only opportunity” created by a quirk in the calendar: the fact that January 2 would fall on a Saturday. Had it not been the second year of the playoff and New Year’s Six (and had ESPN made the suggestion earlier, when it would have been easier to move around stadium bookings), the CFP may have very well accepted the offer. But all parties knew that changing viewer habits in order to establish a new tradition on New Year’s Eve would be a tall order, and a task that would only be undermined by holding off on playing playoff games on New Year’s Eve the first two years and depriving New Year’s Eve of New Year’s Six games entirely in the second. In order to firmly establish New Year’s Eve as belonging to college football and as one of college football’s three biggest dates in the minds of most Americans, college football had to make sure it stayed the course and kept putting big college football games, like clockwork, on New Year’s Eve every year, not switch things up and move it to the first and second the second year with the semifinals on the second, confounding expectations.

As Ben-Hanan alludes to, the January 2 “solution” is one very specific to a calendar that has New Year’s Eve on a Thursday. Next year, because 2016 is a leap year, it’s New Year’s Eve that falls on a Saturday, which makes it the superior option to the day after the New Year’s bowls (which tradition and the NFL dictate get bumped to the second when New Year’s Day is a Sunday) for the semifinals to be held. And pretty much any other year, New Year’s Eve is pretty much always the better time to hold the semifinals than January 2. There may be plenty of people working when New Year’s Eve is a weekday, but there are certainly fewer people working and people working fewer hours than on January 2, or any other weekday in the general vicinity of New Year’s that’s not New Year’s Day itself. There’s no reason for the CFP to really reconsider anything until 2019, and with New Year’s Eve 2018 falling on Monday, there may be more people getting that day off than normal as a bridge to New Year’s Day, meaning fully half the CFP’s 12-year contract may pass before they have any reason to really reconsider anything. If anything, I would argue the CFP’s sin was in not considering the calendar when it set the initial rotation; 2017-18 is not a year that should be the Rose and Sugar Bowls’ turn in the semifinal rotation, because if you apply the no-NYD-bowl-on-Sunday rule to New Year’s Eve, then the absolute best-case scenario comes when New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday, when the New Year’s Eve bowls not only fall on a weekend but on a day where people aren’t going out at the end of the night. And while people watching the games at work or at a party may be a problem with regards to ratings now, that’s changing as we speak; Nielsen hopes to have its new “total audience measurement” integrated with its main ratings in time for next year’s New Year’s Six, and ESPN apparently worked with Nielsen to measure even people watching at bars and parties, though those numbers won’t be available for a few weeks at the moment.

What this really tells me is the tension between the two traditions college football is trying to establish, between college football’s past and its future, and just how committed college football’s power brokers really are to the playoff. When the SEC-Big 12 bowl was announced, I wondered if it would end up undermining the playoff, and in a way it is. While the CFP is finding college football’s existing bowl tradition inconvenient to their plans, the power conferences find themselves more attached to the Rose Bowl tradition than the playoff, doubling down on it by giving the plum New Year’s Day spots to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, making four out of five power conferences invested in that tradition and forcing the CFP to work around it.

The concept of the New Year’s Six was always sort of a harebrained idea to get to that point (unless the idea was to set the playoff up to fail). Not only does it force the semifinals to conflict with New Year’s Eve two out of three years, it actually undermines the Rose and Sugar Bowls those years, because the best teams will play in the most meaningful games, the playoff semifinals, before those two games and interest will fall off a cliff after that until the national championship. The playoff was always going to undermine the bowl system, and the emphasis on conference champions means that at least two of the four teams that would play in the Rose and Sugar Bowls will always be taken away for the sake of the playoff, so committing to those games as the finale of the New Year’s Six was always a bit of a losing proposition. Then there’s the fact that the remaining two New Year’s Six games are played in the early afternoon, hardly a time that screams “marquee game” and forcing the Fiesta Bowl to be played at 11 AM Mountain, and the Citrus and Outback Bowls haven’t cleared out from occupying that time slot on New Year’s Day, forcing whatever NY6 bowl ends up there to face more and better competition than pretty much any other bowl on the entire slate.

Any better solutions, however, would be limited, because you still want to communicate the notion of the New Year’s Six as a unit and, while you’d like to end the New Year’s Six with the semifinals when possible, you can’t move them too far away from the Rose and Sugar Bowls because, besides the Rose Bowl’s tradition, they’re likely to have the best non-semifinal matchups. Stretching the NY6 over at least three days, though, seems desirable, allowing all six bowls to get prime spots no earlier than the late afternoon. Combine that with a more calendar-conscious semifinal rotation and I think there’s a better solution that would work for the College Football Playoff by maximizing the number of times the semifinals are played on Saturday when they aren’t the Rose or Sugar. I mentioned above that the Rose and Sugar Bowls should never be the semifinals when New Year’s Day is a Sunday; let me amend that to say the Rose and Sugar Bowls should always be the semifinals when New Year’s Day is a Wednesday or Saturday, and never be the semifinals when it falls on any other day, unless a leap year causes one of those days (particularly Wednesday) to be skipped. If New Year’s Day is a Friday or Thursday, play the semis the following Saturday (and if Thursday, the other two bowls on the intervening day); if it’s a Sunday or Monday, play the preceding Saturday; if it’s a Tuesday and doesn’t start a leap year, play on New Year’s Eve. Note that, other than the timing of bowls that are neither the Rose, Sugar, or semifinals, this is only inconsistent with the CFP’s “new tradition” if New Year’s Day is a Friday or Thursday.

Had the CFP taken this approach, they might have still had the Rose and Sugar Bowls host the first year to make up for missing a Wednesday year by one year, but then they wouldn’t host again until 2020, and then again in 2022. Through next year this would have been consistent with ESPN getting their way this year (other than the timing of non-Rose/Sugar/Semifinal bowls), and other than when the Rose and Sugar host, would have remained so right up until the last year of the contract if ESPN got their way again in 2020-2021 (somewhat incredibly, a Rose/Sugar year in real life).

But then, neither the power brokers nor ESPN have much reason to change course; the CFP’s contract is set for the next ten years and they make the same money no matter what, so they only really have any reason to change course if the New Year’s Eve semifinals prove actively destructive to the overall popularity of college football, and they certainly didn’t let a bunch of sportswriter whining get to them over the 16-year-long lifespan of the BCS so they certainly won’t do so now. The value of the CFP to ESPN, meanwhile, is mostly in how it juices up its subscriber fees, without which the CFP would almost certainly be on broadcast like it should be, and while people might be a little less attached to cable if they can’t watch the game anyway, it’s the fact that ESPN carries the games that matters to their subscriber fees, with when they’re held a more secondary consideration. If you want college football to bail from their “new tradition” in the next six years, you want cord-cutting to accelerate to the point of making a sizable dent in ESPN’s bottom line and undermining the value of their subscription revenue stream, causing these two things to collide head-on. If the CFP decides they can’t spend the rest of the contract with the playoff stuck on a glorified premium channel, they may try to force ESPN to move the remaining playoff games, if not the entire New Year’s Six, to ABC (or otherwise to offer them for free), and that would mean advertising would have to pull a lot more of the CFP’s weight, giving both ESPN and the CFP a lot more incentive to pull the semifinals off New Year’s Eve (although keeping them there would give ABC a powerhouse lead-in to the already dominant New Year’s Rockin’ Eve).

In a way, the fact the New Year’s Six was even a plausible concept says a lot about how the shift to cable changed the scheduling priorities. The BCS was scheduled for broadcast television, where the only non-primetime spots generally open to sports are on weekends and holidays, and so the Rose Bowl was the only game not placed in a primetime slot. But ESPN has complete control over its schedule without dealing with affiliates and less dependence on advertising revenue, and is more concerned with filling time than with ratings – note that ESPN has long aired afternoon bowls throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s – and so its priority was to spread out high ratings throughout the entire day while still being able to count on, if not other bowls, college and professional basketball games to attract decent ratings of their own in primetime. The move of the BCS to ESPN was the ultimate manifestation of the greed of college football’s kingpins, and since it kicked in I’ve never watched more of any BCS or New Year’s Six game than necessary to see the graphics, BottomLine treatment, or sample Megacast coverage (which admittedly makes a fairly weak boycott), not even letting a cable box sit on ESPN with the TV off lest it send data implying our household is actually standing for it. For everyone who didn’t follow suit, from Congressmen that didn’t use it as a reason to keep a closer eye on college football’s “amateur” “academic” purposes to fans who took what they were given and dutifully turned on ESPN at the appropriate times, this is what you’ve sown. Feel lucky this sort of thing hasn’t spread throughout sports – yet.