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.

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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.

Football season approacheth!

I suppose I should probably get this site ready for football season. To be honest, I’m tempted to stop following the lineal titles; I haven’t done anything with them outside of these introductory posts in a few years and here I am putting up this post with the start of the college football season literally hours away. Besides, the advent of a true college football playoff makes those titles more likely to see unifications and less likely to see split titles in the first place and thus less fun. But we charge forth into the breach regardless.

(I’ve had a few people ask me on Twitter when the Flex Schedule Watch starts. It has always started four or five weeks into the NFL season, whenever CBS and Fox’s protections are due.)

The NFL title is pretty straightforward, bouncing around a few different Western teams over the course of last season before winding up back with the Seahawks heading into the playoffs; I’ll be tracking a “DeflateGate” title that remains with the Seahawks. On the college side, Florida State went undefeated until the Rose Bowl so Ohio State starts the season with the 2006 Boise State title; Michigan State lost 2009 Boise State to Oregon in their second game of the season, but after Oregon lost to Arizona the title bounced around the Pac-12 for a while and never made its way back to Oregon, ending the regular season with Washington, so it starts with Oklahoma State and could be unified with Princeton-Yale, now in the hands of TCU (although TCU has to avoid losing to Minnesota first).

The Hunt for Your Favorite Team’s Games

If you were a fan of the Oregon Ducks, the #2 team in the country, and you wanted to catch all your team’s games, you would have had to watch them on all of these channels:

  • South Dakota: Pac-12 Networks
  • Michigan State: Fox
  • Wyoming: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Washington State: ESPN
  • Arizona: ESPN
  • @UCLA: Fox
  • Washington: Fox Sports 1
  • California (from Levi’s Stadium): Fox Sports 1
  • Stanford: Fox
  • @Utah: ESPN
  • Colorado: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Oregon State: ABC
  • Arizona (Pac-12 Championship from Levi’s Stadium): Fox

If you were a fan of the USC Trojans, you would have spent time on all of these channels:

  • Fresno State: Fox
  • @Stanford: ABC
  • @Boston College: ESPN
  • Oregon State: ESPN
  • Arizona State: Fox
  • @Arizona: ESPN2
  • Colorado: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Utah: Fox Sports 1
  • @Washington State: Pac-12 Networks
  • California: ESPN
  • @UCLA: ABC
  • Notre Dame: Fox

If you were a fan of the #3 TCU Horned Frogs, you would have been watching these channels:

  • Samford: Fox Sports Southwest (or if not them, SportSouth, a handful of Plus feeds, or FCS Central)
  • Minnesota: Fox Sports 1
  • @SMU: CBS Sports Network
  • Oklahoma: Fox
  • @Baylor: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Oklahoma State: Fox Sports 1
  • Texas Tech: Fox
  • @West Virginia: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Kansas State: Fox
  • @Kansas: Fox Sports 1
  • @Texas: Fox Sports 1
  • Iowa State: ABC

If you were a fan of the Texas Longhorns, you would have been watching these channels:

  • North Texas: Longhorn Network
  • BYU: Fox Sports 1
  • UCLA (from JerryWorld): Fox
  • @Kansas: Fox Sports 1
  • Baylor: ABC (or ESPN3)
  • Oklahoma (from Fair Park): ABC
  • Iowa State: Longhorn Network
  • @Kansas State: ESPN
  • @Texas Tech: Fox Sports 1
  • West Virginia: Fox Sports 1
  • @Oklahoma State: Fox
  • TCU: Fox Sports 1

This isn’t limited to the Pac-12 and Big 12, two conferences whose rights are split between two different companies. The best teams tend to be plastered all over their conferences’ biggest channels, but if you were a fan of the Florida Gators, you would have been watching these channels:

  • Idaho: ESPNU
  • Eastern Michigan: SEC Network
  • Kentucky: SEC Network
  • @Alabama: CBS
  • @Tennessee: SEC Network
  • LSU: SEC Network
  • Missouri: ESPN2
  • Georgia (from Jacksonville): CBS
  • @Vanderbilt: SEC Network
  • South Carolina: SEC Network
  • Eastern Kentucky: SEC Network alternate feed
  • @Florida State: ESPN

If you were a fan of the Wisconsin Badgers you would have been watching these channels:

  • LSU (from Houston): ESPN
  • Western Illinois: BTN
  • Bowling Green: ESPN2
  • South Florida: ESPNU
  • @Northwestern: ESPN2
  • Illinois: ESPN2
  • Maryland: BTN
  • @Rutgers: ESPN
  • @Purdue: ESPNU
  • Nebraska: ABC
  • @Iowa: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Minnesota: BTN
  • Ohio State (Big Ten Championship from Indianapolis): Fox

And if you were a fan of the Miami Hurricanes you would have been watching these channels:

  • @Louisville: ESPN
  • Florida A&M: ESPN3
  • Arkansas State: ESPNU
  • @Nebraska: ESPN2
  • Duke: ESPN2
  • @Georgia Tech: ESPN2
  • Cincinnati: Fox Sports Florida (or if not them, one of a handful of other RSNs or ESPN3)
  • @Virginia Tech: ESPN
  • North Carolina: ACC Network (CBS4 in Miami (incidentially pre-empting Air Force-Army and potentially encroaching on Georgia-Florida), ESPN3 if no station in your area)
  • Florida State: ABC
  • @Virginia: ESPN2
  • Pittsburgh: ESPN2

Every one of these schools has their games spread across at least five different networks. As mentioned, the better teams in the conferences with fewer partners have it better; Oregon and TCU had exactly five networks each (as would have #1 Alabama had I included them), #4 Florida State had all but one of their games on ABC or ESPN, and #5 Ohio State had ten straight games on either ABC or BTN, but if you’re not one of those top teams following your team is an exercise in hunting down what network has your team’s game this week. And I haven’t included any teams outside the power 5 because you’re less likely to be following them on TV, but rest assured it isn’t because they don’t have to go through this; if anything they may have it worse. To follow all of Boise State’s games, you would have had to watch ESPN, ESPN2, ABC (or ESPN2), CBS Sports Network, ESPNU, and for the Mountain West Championship, CBS. Lesser Mountain West teams would likely have needed to find where their game was streaming on the “Mountain West Network” at least once; Conference USA teams, including Marshall, had to hopscotch between Fox Sports 1, CBS Sports Network, FSN, Fox College Sports, and whatever station was airing the American Sports Network game(s), with ESPN swooping in for the conference championship game, all just for conference games; the MAC and Sun Belt faced the prospect of watching most of their games on ESPN3; and all the Group of Five conferences except Conference USA faced the prospect of at least some games on ESPN3 or ESPNEWS.

I mentioned last week that the oversaturation of the cable network market is made apparent when cable networks play format musical chairs in a desperate attempt to attract an audience, but don’t think the relative health and lavishing of attention and money on the sports network market doesn’t mean it’s not immune to this problem. There is ultimately a very short list of sports and sports events that will attract substantial audiences to a network. College sports is much more decentralized than professional sports, allowing all the general-purpose sports networks (except NBCSN) to make a serious effort to grab a piece of the rights to whatever college conferences are popular enough to draw audiences. Whatever conferences’ rights they can’t get, they lure their most popular schools to play road games against schools in conferences whose rights they do have. That may be good for the chances of getting strong nonconference games (ESPN’s dominion over college football has resulted in them arranging attractive non-conference matchups for the purpose of their own ratings, but power-conference teams have also taken road trips to C-USA schools they wouldn’t otherwise visit so FS1 can have them, or to schools in conferences CBS Sports Network has the rights to), but it means fans often find themselves jumping from network to network to find the one that has their school’s game this week, lured to networks desperate for their eyeballs – before we even get to conference-owned networks or, in the case of the ACC, Big 12, and non-power five schools, the multiple platforms for games that would otherwise air on a conference network.

The relative centralization of pro sports, where each league rarely has more than one or two rights partners, means this is less of a problem there, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. The situation in the NFL, with two networks airing most of the games of each of the two conferences with some of them getting siphoned off to NBC, ESPN, and CBS/NFLN, is fairly simple, just in terms of why certain games are on certain networks based on their time slots, and in the other major sports most of your team’s games will air on their respective regional sports network, with a few occasions when you have to switch to the national partner, which is an event marking you as a good team and can be fairly easily predicted by what day it falls on. (The NHL has NBC and NBCSN; the NBA has ABC, ESPN and TNT. MLB is the least simple; it’s okay in the regular season with Fox, ESPN and Fox Sports 1, but then TBS and MLBN join in during the postseason under a scheme that doesn’t quite make sense because of baseball bungling their last contract negotiations.) In college football, only the worst, least-attractive teams can count on appearing on the conference network or other regional partner on a regular basis; for the others, not being on national television is the exception and not the rule, and unlike with the NFL, that means switching between several different partners seemingly at random with no correlation with time slot (as if it wasn’t bad enough the time slots themselves are only being determined two weeks in advance), for reasons that only make sense if you pay close attention to how the meat of the college football schedule is made, and doesn’t always make sense even then.

Could this problem get worse in the future? It depends, for example on whether or not the cable bubble starts to burst or how future contract negotiations play out with FS1, NBCSN, or CBS Sports Network becoming bigger players, or whether or not entities recognize the potential for confusion from switching back and forth between networks. But with the Big Ten set to rack in a big payday from being the last big contract up for bid for several years, I hope their fans know what they’re getting into. If ESPN and Fox share the rights, as I expect and sort of hope, this is what you have to look forward to.

An important announcement on plans for Da Blog and my life going forward

Except for around Christmas (including the annual blog-day post), this is the last post I will make on Da Blog from the Seattle area for the foreseeable future.

In my last blog-day post, I mentioned the possibility that my work on Da Blog would be “directly supported and nurtured”; now I can say a bit more about what that was referring to. Over the Labor Day weekend, I will be moving down to live with my dad in Los Angeles. We’ve been talking for several years about this; the plan is for Dad to support me and allow me to work on Da Blog without being distracted by school, a job, the people I live with, or the school I’ve lived across the street from for the past three years, with Dad as my “boss” to keep me focused and try to actually get an audience going and increase exposure to my writings. (While this is going on, the “Da Blog in LA” category will only be used for LA-specific posts I couldn’t have made if I weren’t there, which is to say it probably won’t be used at all.) At one point we talked about us living together for about two years; I don’t know if that’s still the plan, but I have the site’s hosting locked down through June of 2016, and if we still don’t have anything going by then – if we’re at the same place we’ve always been throughout what will then be nine and a half years of Da Blog – it may be time to give up on actually making anything of Da Blog.

Some things have been settled already, but most of the details will be fleshed out on the drive down. I may have another post after the weekend is over detailing any substantial changes coming to Da Blog in the near term as a direct result of this move.

In the meantime, I’ve updated the lineal titles in preparation for football season. It seems I never actually updated the lineal titles before last year, despite what I said in last year’s post. Both of last year’s new college football lineal titles got merged with others; the BCS title was merged with 2006 Boise State pretty quickly, while Ohio State’s claim was merged with 2009 Boise State at the Rose Bowl. This year starts with three lineal titles; Alabama went undefeated until the Miracle at Jordan-Hare and Auburn went on to the BCS Title Game, so 2006 Boise State starts the year with national champion Florida State. You can see what happened to the NFL lineal title on the history page accessible from the category page.

2013 College Football Ratings Wrap-Up

Obviously I’m several months late with this, but here are the ratings and viewership for all 347 FBS football games on a Nielsen-rated national network for the 2013 season (note that CBS Sports Network is not rated by Nielsen). Sports Media Watch has a list ordered by week; this list is ordered by number of viewers, with the number in gray interpolated. Bowl games are separated out into a separate list. All times Eastern.

Ratings and viewership for broadcast networks from SportsBusiness Daily and Sports Media Watch, for cable networks from Son of the Bronx. 18-49 ratings, when available, from TVbytheNumbers and The Futon Critic.

Read more2013 College Football Ratings Wrap-Up

The Nexus of Television and Sports in Transition, Part II: College Sports’ Faustian Bargain: A Case Study in ESPN’s Influence

No one could have imagined just how much the NCAA v. Board of Regents decision would end up changing college football. The colleges who brought the suit simply wanted more control over the television contract, and for most of the 80s the CFA didn’t offer much that was different from what the NCAA had been offering. But ESPN began offering more and more games to a nationwide audience, and in 1991 Notre Dame broke from the CFA and signed a contract to air its games nationally on NBC. The SEC and Big East followed suit in breaking from the CFA in 1995, and the floodgates opened. College football was no longer a regional phenomenon played out on Saturdays throughout the fall; now it was a national sport played nonstop for three months.

Before 1984, the national championship was a sideshow, something that people paid attention to and debated over but that was of secondary importance to people’s regional rivalries and conferences. Every year the AP and coaches’ polls were taken at the end of the season and whoever got the most votes was declared the national champion. It was an extra crown to wear at the end of the season on top of the prizes that really mattered, winning your conference or at least winning your rivalries and going to a bowl game. Now people could follow the best teams and conferences all season long, and the sport’s basically nonexistent national championship, in a sports landscape littered with playoffs and certain championship games, became unacceptable. After co-champions were crowned in 1990 and 1991, the conferences that housed the CFA schools (the Big Ten and Pac-10 had separate contracts) plus Notre Dame formed the Bowl Coalition to attempt to force a “national championship game” between the top two teams in the nation. This was superceded by the Bowl Alliance in 1995 and finally by the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 following the CFA’s demise. The BCS managed to get the Big Ten, Pac-10, and Rose Bowl on board, putting decades of the Rose Bowl pitting Big 10 and Pac-10 champions against one another at risk (or throwing it out entirely every fourth year, at least at first), but meaning for once it could claim to really and truly be the true national championship of college football.

Except it wasn’t. Despite many tweaks to the formula over the years, the BCS only focused attention on just how much college football wasn’t set up to crown a true national champion. Controversy over the national champion – and if not that the championship game matchup, and if not that the teams in the other BCS bowls – appeared nearly every year of the BCS’ existence, and beyond that teams from the so-called “mid-major” conferences were utterly precluded from playing for the national championship. Their ability to play at the level of the major conferences had long been in doubt, but a series of high-profile wins over major-conference teams on the occasions they did make BCS bowls made more people wonder whether they – or at least, the Mountain West’s Utah, TCU, and BYU, and the WAC’s Boise State – really did deserve to play for national championships. Calls for a true playoff mounted over the years, and eventually the commissioners relented, instituting the new six-bowl, four-team College Football Playoff system to begin next year.

ESPN also created proliferation in the bowl system in general. There were only eleven bowl games in 1975, sixteen in 1983, and nineteen as late as 1994 (and eighteen for the next two years); for perspective, there were 107 teams in Division I-A in 1994, and any team with a winning record was eligible for a bowl, so you would expect 53-54 teams to be eligible for 38 invitations, most of them going to members of the power conferences. By 2000 there were 25 bowls; luckily Division I-A had grown to 116 teams as schools sought the vast amounts of television money pouring into college football’s top division, so there were 58 teams to fill the 50 spots. In 2002 three new bowls were added, bringing the total to 28, but only one team had joined I-A, so the 58-59 teams now had to fill 56 spots – in other words, you were nearly guaranteed a bowl if you finished with a winning record.

Then the NCAA decided to add a twelfth game to FBS teams’ schedules and allow 6-6 teams to go to bowl games, meaning the way was clear for more than half of teams in FBS to go to bowl games; four games started up in 2006 alone, opening 64 bowl spots for the 119-team FBS. As of the 2013-14 season there were 35 bowl games – only two of which are not on an ESPN platform – and a further flurry of teams entering the FBS ranks has expanded their number to 124, with five more to come. Naturally, although the new CFP will remove the BCS Championship Game from the slate of bowl games, there are already four games lined up to take its place, with several more looking to join their ranks.

ESPN and NCAA v. Board of Regents also shattered tradition and stability in the very makeup and identity of conferences. In 1984, no major college conference had more than ten teams, and most of them had most of their lineups remaining the same for decades. But in the 1980s, many members of the Southwest Conference, made up mostly of Texas schools, were hit with NCAA sanctions, including SMU’s infamous “death penalty” in 1987. In 1992, Arkansas left the SWC for the SEC, which had found a loophole in the NCAA bylaws that would allow it to split into two divisions and hold a conference championship game if it had 12 members, and so added then-independent South Carolina as well to hit the 12-team mark. That inspired Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor – half of the SWC’s then-membership – to join with the members of the Big Eight conference, including Oklahoma and Nebraska, to form the Big 12 conference, complete with their own title game, starting in 1996. The remaining four schools fell into mid-major conferences.

Television money and the BCS meant your conference defined your prospects. The more appearances on national television your conference, and thus your team, had, the more visibility you had in the public eye and the more attractive your school was to recruits. And if your school was a member of one of the six “BCS conferences”, the financial benefits couldn’t be counted; the worst team in a BCS conference made much more money off the BCS than the best team in a non-BCS conference could ever hope for. Independence – there were 26 independent schools in the 1990 season, five of which were ranked, more than any single conference – was no longer a viable option unless you were Notre Dame, whose independence survived only because of a combination of being one of the five most storied programs in the country (if not the most storied), its alumni being dead-set against joining a conference for any reason, and the fact NBC was willing to pay it to air its games and only its games.

The Big East, a basketball conference that had been formed primarily with monetary considerations in mind and greatly benefitted from ESPN’s money and exposure, only formed its football conference in 1991, adding five schools to fill out an eight-team football lineup, meaning only three of its prior members were members of the football conference. Though it enjoyed BCS status (thanks to initially having powerhouse Miami and later adding some of the better teams from Conference USA like Louisville), the Big East saw repeated defections to the ACC and the tension between its football and basketball sides ultimately caused it to split in two. Conference USA itself was only formed in 1996, composed mostly of independents whose previous non-football-sponsoring conferences had just merged. The WAC briefly expanded to 16 teams at the same time, taking in three of the SWC’s refugees, but that proved to be too unwieldy a size and it soon broke in two, with half its schools leaving to form the Mountain West in 1999; the MAC, meanwhile, added two schools in 1997 and also started staging a conference title game.

By 2007 only three independents remained in FBS – Notre Dame, Navy, and Army – and Army had spent several years in Conference USA. As early as 2004 Notre Dame and Navy were joined as the only independent schools by Florida Atlantic, which had just made the move to what was still called Division I-A and would join the Sun Belt the following year.

But 2007 would also completely and fundamentally redefine the nature of television money and make what conference you were in more important than ever. That year, the Big Ten, in association with Fox, launched the Big Ten Network. The Mountain West had launched its own network the previous year, but the BTN was the first network devoted to and owned by a major college conference. Much like the professional teams that launched and controlled their own networks, the Big Ten would control half the advertising and subscription revenue for the network that aired their games, rather than just collect a rights fee. Within three years, the BTN was making almost as much money for Big Ten schools as the conference’s contract with ESPN, resulting in Big Ten schools making $22 million each per year – more than three times as much as a school in any other conference, BCS or no, outside the SEC. For all its tradition and history, the Big Ten was now, more than anything else, a moneymaking alliance.

With Big Ten schools making so much money, the Big Ten could have its pick of just about any school in the country that would leap at the chance to get in on the action. In the past, even when driven by television money, realignment had been based primarily on geography and rivalries; the four Texas schools were a natural addition to the Big Eight, besides the existing bitter rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma; the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina were natural outgrowths of the SEC’s existing footprint; the Big Ten itself had added Penn State, a natural fit to its Midwestern roots. Now all that mattered to schools was the value of the conference’s television contract, and all that mattered to conferences was how an addition could maximize that value. If the Big Ten could add Texas and the bounty of television households it added to the Big Ten Network (and an inroad into those fertile recruiting grounds), or add a school that could help it make inroads into the lucrative New York market, it would. Too much geographic fit was now actually a bad thing if it didn’t help the BTN get into any new households.

Even the Big Ten’s role as a conference became less important than its television contracts to its identity. It could easily expand to a 16-team “superconference”, maybe even 20, doubling the size of what any conference might have looked like just a generation earlier, despite there still being only 12 games in an FBS season and some of those needing to be nonconference games, to say nothing of the impact such an unwieldy conference would have on other sports, including basketball. Indeed, the Pac-10 came close to recruiting three Texas schools, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State to form a superconference itself, with the arrangement only falling apart when Texas A&M elected to join the SEC instead and ESPN guaranteed the value of the Big 12’s contract to keep it together, leaving the Pac-10 with only Colorado.

The spectre of ESPN and TV money in general hovered in the background throughout the process, and sometimes moved very much into the foreground. ESPN saving the Big 12 was far from the end of it. The Big East rejected a massive TV contract from ESPN, only to lose two of its most prominent schools, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, to the ACC – and then listened to Boston College’s athletic director make comments about the move that included the money line “TV – ESPN – is the one who told us what to do”. The AD and all parties involved quickly backed off the comments, but for many bloggers it seemed an admission that ESPN was pulling all the strings on conference realignment and, in this particular case, may have given the Big East the proverbial “offer they couldn’t refuse” and the departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh were the metaphorical horse’s head in their bed. The Big East effectively divorced from itself, the conference’s Catholic schools seceding and winning the rights to take the Big East name with them, while the remnants that were left behind – those that didn’t decide they didn’t want to join after all – were left to take much less money from ESPN and go forward as the American Athletic Conference.

Longstanding rivalries were thrown by the wayside in this round of realignment in the name of chasing the almighty dollar. The “Backyard Brawl” between West Virginia and Pittsburgh was quite possibly the biggest college football rivalry in the Northeast, with only World War II interrupting it since 1919. Didn’t matter: the Big 12 needed teams to make up for defections and decided West Virginia had the best combination of a strong school and a strong football program known nationwide despite being hundreds of miles from any other team in the conference, while the ACC decided they needed to shore up their claim to being the conference of the Northeast and added Syracuse and Pittsburgh despite how far those schools were from the Atlantic coast or the rest of the conference. The “Border War” between Kansas and Missouri reflected a bitter rivalry between those states that dated to before the Civil War. Didn’t matter: the SEC needed a 14th team to go with Texas A&M and valued the population Missouri could add to the conference and the overall quality being enough to make up for adding another mouth to feed.

The Big Ten ultimately decided to add Nebraska, a team from a small market but a football powerhouse with a national following and another natural geographic and cultural outgrowth for the conference, while the Pac-10 added Utah to complement Colorado and decided to start their own conference network without help from anyone else and retaining a considerable amount of inventory for itself. The result earned so much money that the SEC reconsidered their position on conference networks. The SEC’s contract was up for renegotiation shortly after the BTN was unveiled and ESPN effectively bribed them away from starting their own network by paying them over a billion dollars, taking control of virtually their entire inventory, and giving them one of the most widely-distributed syndication packages in the country, but the SEC, despite having the richest contract and in the midst of an unprecedented run of national championships, added Texas A&M and Missouri in part as a pretext to renegotiate the contract to start a network, even if the terms of the contract effectively made partnering with ESPN the only way to do so.

Meanwhile the Big Ten, despite sitting at twelve teams (in a much-commented-on irony, the Big 12 sat at ten), the sweet spot to hold a conference championship game, decided they needed to expand further, and while in the past Penn State and Nebraska had been good cultural fits for the rest of the conference, this time they added Maryland and Rutgers, two schools on the eastern seaboard a good distance away from any other Big Ten schools, Maryland a rising basketball power that had recently started a budding intra-ACC rivalry with Duke but facing massive financial problems, Rutgers a school that had played in the first-ever college football game and had had a brief flowering of success but was still an uninspiring school with an apathetic at best fanbase. More than anything else, the addition of Maryland and Rutgers showed how the priorities had changed: it was more than anything about preventing the ACC from having an undisputed claim to the Northeast and putting the BTN on cable systems in the big markets of Washington, DC and New York City respectively.

ESPN has had near-monopoly status over the sports landscape for a long time – and by the mid-2000s, it had reached the point that the Justice Department began looking into it. At issue was the notion of “warehousing” inventory with college conferences: ESPN was signing deals left and right with just about every collegiate conference, taking in way more inventory than they had space to air it on ESPN and ESPN2, but refusing to sell their excess to anyone else. Many smaller conferences accused ESPN of hoarding inventory to keep it away from potential competitors and limit conferences’ exposure.

The issue was brought to a head by a fledgling network named College Sports Television, or CSTV, which had launched in 2002. CSTV, the first network dedicated entirely to college sports, was too small to have any shot at any rights from the major conferences, but it hoped to pick up some rights from the better mid-majors – only to find that ESPN had all the rights they were looking for and weren’t giving them up, and threatened any conferences that looked to do business with CSTV.

In 2004, CSTV took their case to the Justice Department. Though then-President George Bodenheimer recently dismissed the importance of the investigation, ESPN’s lawyers took it seriously and cautioned executives to tread lightly. ESPN was in the midst of negotiations with the Western Athletic Conference at the time, whose commissioner wanted to make a deal with CSTV that would yield more money and TV appearances, while the school presidents wanted a deal with ESPN that could offer wider exposure. Reportedly, when the commissioner asked an ESPN executive, how ESPN could continue its warehousing practices in the wake of the Justice Department’s investigation, the executive dismissed the idea.

Clearly, though, the investigation had an effect. CSTV would soon lure the Mountain West Conference away from ESPN, and ESPN agreed to share rights to Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 with the upstart network. Shortly thereafter, CSTV would be acquired by CBS, giving it big pockets and a major media corporation to help it make inroads on cable systems; it has since metamorphosed into the all-purpose CBS Sports Network. And the following March, ESPN would launch a new network, ESPNU, that would be its answer to CSTV but – more than that – would provide more space for ESPN to show content it had under contract and thus reduce warehousing complaints. The fact that it would provide more fuel for Disney’s bundle and a new revenue stream certainly didn’t hurt.

Today, ESPNU is in 75.6 million households and collects a 20-cent subscriber fee, putting another $15 million in ESPN’s coffers every month, or $181 million a year. CBS Sports Network, meanwhile, only recently crossed the 50-million mark and collects a slightly lower subscriber fee, netting just over $10 million a month or $120 million a year – and it doesn’t have the deep pockets ESPN has from its myriad of other networks.

No sport has been influenced more by television, and specifically ESPN, over the last few decades than college football, and the proof is printed right on the tickets – or rather, it’s in what’s not printed: the kickoff time. The dates and opponents may be scheduled months or years in advance, but for most of the season, nearly every Saturday game in a power conference has its kickoff time up in the air, waiting for its TV partners to inform them what games will air when and on what networks, which occurs twelve days before game day, in some cases only six. Other sports and leagues have embraced this notion of “flexible scheduling”, but none have taken it as far as college football, where fans (and coaches, and players, and school officials) have literally no clue when their game will kick off until less than two weeks in advance.

College football, in other words, has become a made-for-TV event. After the Board of Regents decision, ESPN convinced smaller conferences to break from tradition and play games on Thursday; today, Thursday is a destination night populated mostly by the biggest conferences, and ESPN has populated most of the week from Tuesday to Saturday with college football. ESPN has even gotten into the business of playing matchmaker, finding schools with holes in their nonconference schedules and booking matchups between them to create attractions people will watch every week of the season. In an age where schools are constantly maximizing their wins in order to increase their chances of qualifying for bowls or playing for the national championship, such ESPN creations are just about the only place where quality nonconference matchups happen in the regular season outside of regularly scheduled rivalries. ESPN even owns the software used by virtually every school – and even competing networks – to schedule games, known as the Pigskin Access Scheduling System (PASS).

The “BCS busters”, such as TCU and Boise State, could owe their success to ESPN and their willingness to play games when ESPN asked them to, even if it fell in the middle of the week and heavily inconvenienced fans. Those games meant exposure, exposure that could be golden for a school that couldn’t otherwise count on it. TCU was mired in the dumps a few years after being left behind by the Southwest Conference’s collapse, but it built its way back up by accommodating ESPN and playing all throughout the week, even playing on Friday and thus competing against high school football, a religion in Texas. It paid off: even after the Mountain West left ESPN in 2006, TCU had such success it made repeated trips to BCS bowls, even the vaunted Rose Bowl, and eventually made it back to the big time, rejoining several of its fellow Southwest Conference-mates in the Big 12 in 2012, where they scored a Thanksgiving-night upset win over mighty Texas.

Boise State followed the same formula upon joining the Western Athletic Conference, a conference that had weekday slots to fill on ESPN, in 2001, just five years after entering Division I-A. Before long, Boise State scored a landmark victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, and the WAC’s rights payments from ESPN were the envy of most other non-BCS conferences. But once Boise State decided to make even more money in the Mountain West, it was the beginning of the end for the WAC. Its rights fee from ESPN plummeted to less than a third of its former value, and as the Mountain West lost teams to other conferences, it repeatedly raided the WAC’s best schools, and soon the WAC became almost unrecognizable. With only seven football-playing schools left, 2012 was the WAC’s last year even sponsoring a football conference, and now as a non-football conference it’s populated by such schools as Seattle University, which only recently even returned to Division I.

Louisville was one of the first to boast of the benefits ESPN provided it. In 1995, it had just joined Conference USA, and decided to construct a new, state-of-the-art football stadium to replace one that was pushing 40 years old. After finishing 1-10 in 1997, it hired a new coach that brought a television-friendly pass-happy offense to the football team, a ticket Boise State would also use to attract ESPN’s attention. Conference USA signed a contract in 2001 that made it the first conference to colonize Tuesday and Wednesday nights for football, but most of its schools balked at the notion of going so far against tradition, at a time when even Thursday night games were only grudgingly accepted. Louisville, then mostly a commuter school, was not one of them. They played as many as five or six games in the middle of the week the first two years of the contract, or half of their entire schedule. The school effectively had to blaze its own trail for how to prepare with such an unusual schedule, but it paid off in exposure and in wins. Louisville became a national name in a way it never had been before, and by 2006 it not only found itself in a BCS conference (the Big East), it wound up going 12-1 and playing in (and winning) the Orange Bowl. Two Thursday night games against other national-caliber opponents that year became some of the highest rated college football games in the history of ESPN, convincing more prominent schools Thursday nights were worth the disruption.

This year Louisville will join the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference, and with it will come much more television money – but even beyond that is the ability to hit up local businesses and alumni for more donations to improve the athletic department’s facilities off the back of its national-caliber programs. And on-field success has also built Louisville into an academic power as well: better students and professors, more students living on campus, more scholarships, more academic achievements.

ESPN has also gotten into the business of owning many of its own bowls, because it knows how important bowl games are to filling up its December schedule, no matter what teams play in them. The nine bowls it owns are some of the lowest-rated of the season, and many might not exist without ESPN propping them up. But prop them up it does, because even the lowest-rated bowls still attract millions of viewers, viewers even ESPN would struggle to attract any other way, viewers drawn to the live programming that is ESPN’s biggest strength. Those millions of viewers are now one of the biggest rewards of trips to bowls, which can help a mediocre program draw recruits and stay where they are or even move further up the chain. They help explain why a school whose team goes 6-6 leaps at the opportunity to go to a bowl, even a tiny one, even if the vast majority of schools end up losing money on the enterprise.

In general, success in college sports has become a high-stakes game of blackjack for schools increasingly facing tight budgets and rising tuition costs. Every school seeks to match the rise of Boise State in football or Gonzaga in basketball, becoming a national name that makes money directly for the university and gets their name into the minds of potential students. Most end up losing money on the enterprise. Of 340 Division I schools, only about 23 end up making a profit and sending money back to their schools’ general fund.

With so much at stake, academics is increasingly left by the wayside. The NCAA’s insistence on referring to its players as “student-athletes” – and its incessant commercials during the NCAA Tournament that proclaim that “most of [them] will go pro in something other than sports” – increasingly rings hollow. Conference realignment and weekday games increasingly means longer travel-times and less time to attend classes and take tests. Once a way to help build healthy bodies as well as healthy minds, college athletic departments are now professional sports teams within academic institutions – except they don’t have to pay their players.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to defend the amateur status of student-athletes, once considered the core principle of collegiate athletics, when seemingly everyone else is making money from the system hand over fist. Not that student-athletes are necessarily coming away empty-handed; these days it seems like a program and its alumni should be assumed to be paying its players under the table until proven otherwise, and the NCAA seems to be a bunch of Keystone Kops, seemingly helpless to enforce its own rules (if not actively looking the other way) and its punishment seemingly arbitrary and capricious, if not completely random, when it does come. The notion of paying for a student-athlete’s “full cost of attendance” above and beyond a player’s scholarship, room and board, is enjoying increasing popularity among college athletics’ gatekeepers, but for many, it’s far from enough.

Ed O’Bannon was a star player on UCLA’s 1995 national championship team before having a short NBA career. One day, he discovered that his likeness was being used on NCAA-branded video games, yet he wasn’t seeing a dime in revenue from them. He brought a class-action suit against the NCAA that could have a tremendous impact on the NCAA’s money flow and how college athletes are treated. So could the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling last month that Northwestern football players meet the definition of “employees” and so are allowed to form a union – implicitly allowing the same for all private universities. (Student-athletes at public universities would have to go through individual states’ labor boards.)

Lost in the increasingly heated debate over the treatment of student-athletes is the fact that the entire reason the NCAA’s claims of being an educational, amateur enterprise ring so hollow, and why the whole issue has come to a head to begin with, is because of the millions if not billions of dollars pouring into collegiate athletics that have already wiped out the purity of college sports the NCAA claims to be defending in the eyes of all but the most idealistic, deluded, or self-interested observers. That money is coming in partly to fill time on ESPN and other networks, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much if college sports weren’t so incredibly popular, with college football providing America’s most popular sports programming outside the NFL and Olympics.

Similarly, the NCAA will point out that if football or basketball stars were really so exploited by not being paid beyond the costs of their scholarship, they could play in minor leagues or, in the case of basketball, abroad, or if they wanted to, the NFL or NBA could start their own developmental leagues akin to the minor league baseball system. But players don’t go to those leagues, and the NFL shut down its developmental league, NFL Europe, not that long ago, because no one cares about them – nor do they really care all that much about minor league baseball, for that matter, despite its own history and tradition. But they care mightily about their college teams, and in turn, those audiences allow players to build their brand and starpower and grow their exposure in ways nothing else out there can.

And the reason that people care so much about college sports is the connection between the team and the school that inspires people to root for “their school’s” team regardless of who the players are and in spite of the fact all the players would much rather be in the NFL or NBA. That passion has inspired, and continues to sustain, a multibillion dollar industry that has severed the very connection that built it. Big time college athletes don’t care one whit about the school they attend beyond the team that represents it and only go to class because the conditions of their scholarship demand it. They are only there to develop their game and their brand for the professional leagues. In essence, big-time college sports consist of developmental teams for the NFL and NBA (that those leagues don’t have to pay for) that have sold their naming rights for a fanbase. Jerry Seinfeld’s crack about how professional sports fandom, especially in the post-free agency era, amounts to “rooting for laundry”, is all the more apt in modern college athletics.

That professional sports leagues have managed to survive and thrive in the post-free agency era in spite of Seinfeld’s observation suggests the same could be true of college athletics if the players were acknowledged as paid employees. Still, what could happen if the façade were lifted on the system and college sports became, if they weren’t already, professional teams whose only difference from the actual professional teams were the quality and limited career of the players and the mostly arbitrary connection to the school you attended? (At least professional teams have to have some sort of connection to a location; many college teams play well off-campus and some share arenas or fields with pro teams.) The NCAA – and ESPN – might not want to find out.

Tomorrow: How other media companies are trying to copy ESPN’s lucrative business model.