Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pac-12 Running Out of Time to Get on DirecTV

DirecTV just brought The Weather Channel to its knees. Will the Pac-12 follow suit and beg for forgiveness?

The Pac-12 Network is about to enter its third year of existence, yet there are no signs that it soon will be carried by DirecTV, one of the nation's top programming distributors—and the major one among sports fans. The two sides haven't even had any tangible discussions in 2014, so a resolution to the impasse is anything but imminent.

And that's very bad news for the Pac-12.

With the SEC Network about to enter the fray in August, the Pac-12 can ill afford being shut out of DirecTV for a third year and likely beyond. Should the SEC join the Big Ten to launch its network on DirecTV, it'll further cement Pac-12's status as an also-ran with its TV network further marginalized.

The biggest mistake the Pac-12 and its commissioner Larry Scott made was not to bring DirecTV into the fold when the network was launched in August 2012. And soon after the initial talks fell apart, the Pac-12 carried on a confrontational tactic that asked its fans to switch from DirecTV, with conference athletic directors leading the charge, including this one from Sandy Barbour:

The Weather Channel used the same playbook when it was dropped by DirecTV in January, taking out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to taunt DirecTV. Scott should ask David Kenny, the CEO of TWC's parent company, how that worked out. Kenny finally got TWC back on DirecTV on April 9 by pledging to cut back on reality TV shows and issuing a humiliating apology.

Make no mistake: DirecTV is in no rush to make a deal with the Pac-12. It has already sustained whatever loss of subscribers it was going to be hit with over the past two years and is not at risk to lose a chunk more. It also needs to prioritize whom it needs to make a deal with in an increasingly crowded and expensive sports programming market.

With more than 20 million subscribers around the nation and nearly two million in its base in Southern California, DirecTV is currently embroiled in a spat with Time Warner Cable, which launched a new Dodgers channel this spring. All major carriers in SoCal so far have resisted Time Warner's fee demand of nearly $5 per subscriber and having the channel placed on the basic tier.

On a different front, DirecTV is actively in negotiations with the SEC Network ahead of its Aug. 14 launch. DirecTV has to seriously engage the SEC after its opening gambit was met with tremendous blowback from SEC fans, as well as the fact that the SEC Network is co-owned by ESPN, the most powerful entity in sports television.

The Pac-12, on the other hand, has no such clout. By deciding not to take on a partner, the conference left its network with no leverage whatsoever. And since the Pac-12 fanbase is not as rabid as SEC fans and the conference footprint contains six NFL franchises, massive fan defection from DirecTV just hasn't materialized. DirecTV remains the exclusive provider of the NFL Sunday Ticket through 2014.

Being shut out of DirecTV for two years has hurt the Pac-12's recruiting and branding, not just in football but also other sports, particularly men's basketball. This past March, a majority of the Pac-12's conference tournament games were available only to a fraction of the national audience, when every other major conference had every game on TV.

The endgame here isn't going to be pleasant for Scott, who must compromise way more than DirecTV would be willing. The Pac-12 needs to lower its demands and perhaps offer give-backs to other distributors that already carry the network.

Time is of the essence. Once DirecTV cuts a deal with the Dodgers and the SEC, there will be little to no room left for the Pac-12.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What a 16-Team CFP Playoff Would've Looked Like

The Oklahoma Sooners, your 2013 college football national champions!

Would you have a problem with that?

If you don't, then you must have loved the NCAA basketball tournament, where a fourth-place team from a slightly-less-than-power conference just won the national title. If you do, perhaps you're more of a college football purist who think regular season should matter—a lot.

Either way, we're not here to take sides. Rather, we're here to present some hypotheticals mixed in with facts. Transitive property is used—but not too liberally—to advance a scenario where the Sooners would've won it all last season.

Pundits and critics who disliked the BCS have long advocated for a playoff that involved more than two teams, and they're not even close to being satisfied with the upcoming four-team College Football Playoff. At a minimum, they want 16 teams.

So they'll get 16 teams in our model, and it works because proportionally it best resembles the basketball tournament:

Now, this is how the playoff field at the end of the 2013 regular season would've looked like after the selection committee picked six at-large teams to go with 10 conference champions and then seeded them. The only restriction is that no conference may place more than two at-large entries:

First Round (campus sites)
1. Florida State (ACC) vs. 16. UL-Lafayette (Sun Belt)***
2. Auburn (SEC) vs. 15. Rice (C-USA)***
3. Michigan State (Big Ten) vs. Bowling Green (MAC)***
4. Stanford (Pac-12) vs. Fresno State (MWC)**
5. Baylor (Big 12) vs. Central Florida (AAC)*
6. Alabama (at-large) vs. 11. Oklahoma (at-large)*
7. Ohio State (at-large) vs. 10. Clemson (at-large)*
8. South Carolina (at-large) vs. 9. Oregon (at-large)**

South Carolina just edged Missouri for the last at-large spot from the SEC because it won head-to-head and had a much better out of conference schedule.

Based on results from actual games (*), use of transitive property (**) and simulation (***), these would've been the quarterfinal matchups. We decided to use an NFL-style format where the highest-seeded team always plays the lowest-seeded team instead of using a rigid bracket:

Quarterfinals (campus sites)
1. Florida State vs. 12. Central Florida***
2. Auburn vs. 11 Oklahoma**
3. Michigan State vs. 10. Clemson**
4. Stanford vs. 9. Oregon*

The winning teams then would take a week off before heading to the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl for the semifinal games:

1. Florida State vs. 11. Oklahoma (Sugar Bowl)**
3. Michigan State vs. 4. Stanford (Rose Bowl)*

3. Michigan State vs. 11. Oklahoma (AT&T Stadium)**

The Sooners, pulling off a string of upsets thanks to the hot hand of freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, advanced to the national championship game in Arlington ... er, North Texas. In the same JerryWorld where UConn's basketball team completed its improbable run, OU would upstage Michigan State for its own national title.

Is this a just outcome? You decide. Vote in our poll and comment below.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Michigan Seeing the Light at the Big House

For only the third time in its venerable history, Michigan Stadium will host a night game. When the Wolverines take on Penn State on Oct. 11 at 7 p.m., it will be the first Big Ten game to be played entirely under the lights at the Big House.

It's about time.

Night games are a fact of life now in college football, and there really isn't anything wrong with that. Saturday is the ideal night to stay up late anyway. You can sleep in the day of and after the game, still catch the late Sunday Mass or service and be awake enough for the first NFL kickoff at 1 p.m. This isn't like starting a World Series game at 8 p.m. on a school night.

As for Michigan and the Big Ten, it's a sign of the times.

Though its Big Ten title drought has now reached a decade, Michigan is still among the five most powerful brand names in college football. The Big House, with its 109,901 seats, is still the biggest stadium in the land. Having games played in primetime under the lights is an important part of staying competitive and relevant in the 21st century.

The SEC has made Saturday night games an attraction during the BCS era, with a few epic battles between LSU and Alabama coming immediately to mind. The Pac-12 has also used night games to get increased face-time, with a built-in time-zone advantage as those primetime games start at a not-so-late 5 p.m. kickoff time.

The Big Ten—particularly Michigan—has resisted playing at night until recent years, with tradition and weather the primary considerations. The Big House finally hosted its first night game in 2011, when Michigan rallied to a miraculous win over Notre Dame. The Wolverines repeated that feat last year with another electrifying win over the Irish.

The choice of Penn State as the foe for the 2014 night game is inspired. While the Nittany Lions are still on probation for the Jerry Sandusky transgressions, they're also one of the marquee names in college football. These teams, who have not met in Ann Arbor since 2009, are now division rivals in the realigned Big Ten.

Perhaps the most memorable Michigan-Penn State game ended under the lights, even though it didn't start at night. In 2005, Mario Manningham caught a Chad Henne TD pass on the game's final play as Michigan handed the Lions their only loss of the season, one that denied them a shot at the BCS championship.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke endorsed playing under the lights, according to a statement released by the school:

"The night game atmosphere created by our fans has been electric and we expect that same type of energy for our first-ever conference night game against Penn State. Our players really enjoy playing in primetime at Michigan Stadium."

The 2014 game will be televised on ESPN (or ESPN2) as part of a revamped primetime schedule for the network. The Wolverines have been a Bristol favorite for Big Ten night games, though until the coming season they've always played on the road.

About the only thing to spoil the idea is a lack of moderation. As long as Michigan plays only sparingly at night and never past mid-October, the Big House under the lights will be a welcome new sight for college football.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Selection Committee Doesn't Need Recusal Policy

The College Football Playoff committee, charged with selecting the four-team playoff beginning in the 2014 season, has put together a recusal policy for its 13 members. The proposal is now being considered by the 10 conference commissioners for approval.

Let's hope that policy proposal is just a blank piece of paper.

Why? Because frankly the committee should not need it. And having a recusal policy is worse than not actually having one.

The recusal policy is a copycat legacy from the selection committees of other NCAA sports, particularly basketball, where committee members have to excuse themselves when their institutions are up for discussion. It's there to give an air of transparency and propriety.

But it doesn't really work.

While it's a nice cover, most of the time the recused member often returns to the room only to find that his school was treated fabulously by his cohorts. It's not hard to figure why—when you have to spend 72 hours breathing the same stale air and eating day-old cold pizza, you're not going to antagonize your fellow inmate if you don't have to.

And the concept of a recusal policy particularly is ill-suited for the College Football Playoff committee.

Unlike the selection committees for other sports, this committee is composed of an eclectic assortment of individuals, not just a bunch of athletic directors and conference commissioners. Only five of the 13 members are active ADs, and a majority of them don't currently work in college athletics.

They come from diverse backgrounds, often with a long list of employment history. Most of them have advanced degrees and attended multiple colleges. It would be absurd to ask them to recuse themselves just because somewhere along the road they once drew a paycheck or earned a diploma from an institution in question.

Take Tyrone Willingham, who's been a head coach at three schools and an assistant at a handful of others. If he has to leave the room every time one of those schools comes up for discussion, he might as well find a sofa in the hallway and get comfortable.

And where do you draw the line beyond employers and alma maters? Archie Manning's son Peyton went to Tennessee, whereas Oliver Luck's son Andrew went to Stanford. How about the chair, Jeff Long, who was a high school teammate of Michigan coach Brady Hoke and whose wife is from Ann Arbor?

The bottom line is that these are grownups who have over 100 years of experience in college athletics, not to mention government, military, business, law and journalism. They should know how to handle themselves even in a messy situation—that's why they're on the committee in the first place.

If a playoff spot is up for grabs involving one of the schools near and dear to a committee member, he or she should stay in the room and be part of the discussion. The committee then should be able to rigorously and intelligently defend its decision, without the cop-out of a recusal policy.

We expect nothing less.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Why 4-Team Playoff Is Good Enough

What if last season's college football playoff yielded this quartet of teams vying for the national championship: Florida State, South Carolina, USC and Vanderbilt?

Would you be OK with that?

That's exactly what the basketball Final Four has given us, if we line up the teams according to the official rankings given by the selection committee (for basketball) against the final regular season AP poll (for football).

The parallels are pretty apt, actually. We have a consensus No. 1 (Florida/Florida State), a very good team from a top conference that didn't win its title (Wisconsin/South Carolina), an extremely talented team that underachieved for part of the season (Kentucky/USC) and a middle-of-the-pack team from a power conference (UConn/Vandy).

But unless Florida wins the basketball title as Florida State did in football, would anybody say the NCAA Tournament gave us the best team of the season?

No, it'd have given us the best team in a six-game stretch, a mere 15 percent of the year.
This is why when someone clamors for a full-blown "playoff" for college football, you should climb to the peak of the nearest mountain and yell "stop!"

College Football Playoff will debut next season and give us a four-team playoff. That is going to be good enough. Any more it will significantly reduce the importance of the regular season. A 16-team playoff, as some have proposed, will render it nearly meaningless.

As it is right now, a 16-team playoff will allow 13 percent of all FBS teams to have a shot at the national championship. That's only slightly lower than the 19 percent of Division I teams that gets to play in the 68-team NCAA Tournament.

Why does college football want to emulate that model? Does a team that finished ninth in its conference with a .500 record really deserve to be crowned "national champion" as UConn was in 2011? That would be like allowing Vanderbilt or Texas A&M to win last year's football title if they were to get hot in a playoff.

The thing is, college football's extremely narrow path to the national championship—from the poll era to the BCS and now the CFP—makes for the most meaningful and rigorous regular season. Except for rare cases such as 2003 and 2011, there really is no such thing as a "meaningless regular-season game" for any team with aspirations for the national title.

In American sports, pro or college, there is no regular season that is remotely close to college football's in terms of integrity. There will never be a game where a title contender gets to rest its starters in preparation for a playoff game (OK, those late-season SEC vs. FCS games excluded, but that's a different issue).

Any playoff that's more watered down than the four-team version of the CFP will do irrevocable damage to the regular season. If you want to observe what a meaningless regular-season game looks like for a title contender, just tune to any NCAA basketball game that took place before the show on Selection Sunday.

Does college football want that?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Groundhog Day: NCAA vs. Big Time Football

Imagine that there's only one college football game on TV every Saturday. Just one.

Imagine that your favorite team can be on TV only once all season. Just once.

This isn't some doomsday scenario on some parallel planet. This was reality only about 30 years ago.
That only changed—so now you have an embarrassment of riches as far as televised games go—because big-time college football programs took the NCAA to court. And won.

In the landmark NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 1984 against the NCAA, a decision that freed the big-time college football programs to cut their own TV deals and opened up the cash flow spigot. There is nothing that has done more to transform college football into a money-making machine that it is today.

Outraged by the NCAA's 1970s TV policy that they viewed as an illegal restraint of trade, the big football powers of the day formed the College Football Association to take on the governing body. The 64-member CFA consisted of the Atlantic Coast, Big Eight, Southeastern, Southwest and Western Athletic conferences, plus major independents including Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt and the service academies—curiously, the Big Ten and Pac-10 declined to join.

With strength by numbers, the CFA aggressively confronted the NCAA, which haughtily threatened the members with various forms of sanctions. The jousting finally reached the courts, with the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia taking the lead. When the Supreme Court sided with the schools, the NCAA effectively lost all control of the financial windfall that soon flooded the coffers of major Division I-A football programs.

Now history is on the verge of repeating itself.

With the NCAA under siege from various lawsuits all relating to the issue of player compensation—mostly in football and men's basketball, the only real revenue-generating sports—the "Big Five" conferences are mulling another split from the NCAA. Thirty years ago it was about finances, this time it's about governance.

These 65 schools (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, plus Notre Dame) understand the current compensation model is unsustainable and probably won't stand up in court. While the programs are reaping millions from television contracts, apparel deals and ticket and merchandise sales, the players are punished for receiving even the most inconsequential fringe benefits.

The drive to split the revenue-rich power programs gained momentum early this year when the majority of an NCAA seminar attendees voted in favor of granting them more autonomy. Thursday's ruling by the National Labor Relations Board to allow Northwestern football players to unionize will only accelerate that process.

These institutions simply make too much money to not allow the labor (ahem, "student-athletes") to have a piece of that financial pie. The lower-rung Division I programs (both FBS and FCS), on the other hand, are constantly in the red and cannot afford to increase the aid packages their players receive. This schism is what caused the NCAA to table a $2,000-per-player stipend proposal in 2012.

Top Revenue-Generating Football Programs (in Milliions)
Notre Dame$69.0$25.8$43.2
Ohio State$58.1$34.0$24.1
* Data from U.S. Department of Education (2011-12 academic year)

But they can't kick the can down the road for much longer. The financial wellbeing of all these schools—founded on winning the NCAA v. OU case—is now being threatened by lawsuits filed by others. They understand that in order to preserve most of the riches, they must share some of it with those who contributed all the sweat labor—broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions and all.

The NCAA is headed toward the ash heap of history. Big-time college football can't save the NCAA (or maybe they don't want to), so its best bet is to abandon the sinking ship instead of going down with it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Notre Dame Enters CFP Under Cloud of Uncertainty

Notre Dame will enter the College Football Playoff era with a boatload of cash.

The Irish last year signed a 10-year extension with NBC, worth a reported $15 million per year, that will run through the 2025 season—effectively the entire length of the initial CFP deal. In January, the school inked the biggest apparel contract in college sports history, a 10-year deal with Under Armour for a reported $90 million.

Forbes valued Notre Dame's football program to be worth $119 million, behind only Texas. The school is swimming in so much money that it's taking on a $400 million renovation project to greatly expand and enhance the area in and around Notre Dame Stadium.

While its bank account is healthy and robust, can the same be said for Notre Dame's football program?

The BCS era certainly isn't one to write home about for the Irish, who went 0-4 in BCS bowl games during the 16-year span—the only winless program with three or more appearances. In their only national championship game appearance in 2012, they were thoroughly outclassed by Alabama in a 42-14 rout. Notre Dame finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll just twice during the BCS era.

Best Notre Dame Seasons in BCS Era
SeasonRecordBowlFinal AP Rank
19989-3Gator Bowl (L) Georgia Tech22
2000*9-3Fiesta Bowl (L) Oregon State15
200210-3Gator Bowl (L) N.C. State17
2005*9-3Fiesta Bowl (L) Ohio State9
2006*10-3Sugar Bowl (L) LSU17
2012*12-1BCS Championship (L) Alabama4
20139-4Pinstripe Bowl (W) Rutgers21

And the BCS had provisions that were much more friendly to Notre Dame's interests. The Irish were guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl if they finished in the top eight of the final BCS standings. Twice they were picked for BCS bowls despite not finishing in the top 10 and were selected over more deserving teams.

In the CFP, Notre Dame might not get such breaks.

There is no guarantee for Notre Dame to be picked for any of the four bowls if it fails to make the four-team playoff. The Irish will have a spot in the Orange Bowl only if they were deemed to be ranked higher than the top teams from the SEC and Big Ten not involved in the four-team playoff—as determined by the selection committee.

The 13-person committee will have sole discretion on the playoff teams, their seeding and the other eight teams in the lucrative CFP bowls. While the Irish appear to have a couple of "friendlies" on the committee—former coach Tyrone Willingham and former U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice, who earned a master's degree in South Bend—they're not due for any preferential treatment.

Such is the predicament for an independent team in the era of super power conferences.

By the 2015 season, after Navy joins the American Athletic Conference, there will be just two other independent teams—Army and BYU. And the Cougars just might be plucked before long by another power conference, most likely the Big 12.

Notre Dame sought to forestall a scheduling nightmare by signing up with the ACC, parking its Olympic sports teams in the conference while getting five ACC football games a year. But by remaining independent, Notre Dame still does not get the benefit of playing for a conference championship, which the committee has said it will consider with prejudice.

The Irish have made their bet by sticking with the independent path. While the decision has continued to reap financial rewards, it has not translated into glory on the football field. Notre Dame is staring at a future prospect that's as vexing as that other iconic American football brand—the Dallas Cowboys—famously rich but competitively irrelevant.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How Penn State Could Have Saved Big East Football

Imagine the College Football Playoff beginning next season not with five, but six major conferences.

The Big East is still at the table, but not splintered into a basketball version of mostly Catholic schools and a watered-down, rebranded football version that's no longer among the big boys but has to fight for scraps.

Imagine a healthy Big East football roster with these teams: Syracuse, Rutgers, Boston College, UConn, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Penn State. Oh yeah, and possibly even Notre Dame.

This conference—with or without Notre Dame—would not be relegated to the "Group of Five" as the Big East successor American Athletic Conference will be in the CFP. It would've had one of the biggest TV contracts and among the best bowl lineups. It very well might have been even bigger, having raided the northern ACC schools such as Maryland and Virginia.

All this could've happened with the change of just a single vote back in 1982.

With the NCAA tournament in full flight, ESPN touched on the demise of the once-mighty basketball conference in the excellent "Requiem for the Big East." The 30-for-30 series film touched on how football ruined the conference, that its drive to get the lucrative football TV money inevitably destroyed what was the best basketball conference in history.

But what if I told you football could've minted the Big East instead of ruined it? It came down to one vote.

In 1982, the independent football powers started to see the handwriting on the wall after the major conferences freed themselves from the bonds of the NCAA and were able to negotiate their own television deals. Penn State's Joe Paterno was contemplating the formation a new eastern football conference, but was persuaded to apply to join the nascent Big East.

By a single vote, the Big East athletic directors turned down Penn State's membership request. Needing six votes to pass, Penn State got five. Three basketball schools—Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova—voted against JoePa's Nittany Lions.

Villanova actually had played Division I football and produced NFL players including Hall of Famer Howie Long. But it shut down the football program in 1980, citing lack of support, only to bring it back four years later under pressure from the alumni. Had the vote not taken place during the 'Cats' football hiatus, Villanova would've cast the deciding vote in favor of Penn State and thus changed history.

Mike Tranghese, who was then-commissioner Dave Gavitt's right-hand man, said he told Gavitt the Big East would "rue the day" when it rejected Penn State. Tranghese would later succeed Gavitt and tried vainly to make the Big East football-relevant, but by then it was too late.

Penn State joined the Big Ten instead in 1990 and that officially began the football-and-TV-driven realignment frenzy that's still not quite finished. The Big East was raided by the Big 12, Big Ten and the ACC until it was no more.

What Big East Could've Looked Like
TeamBig East MemberCurrent Membership
Boston College1979-2005ACC
MarylandNever a memberBig Ten
Notre Dame1995-2013 (non-football)ACC (Independent football)
Penn StateRejected for membership in 1982Big Ten
Rutgers1991-2013Big Ten
Temple1991-2005, 2012-2013American
Villanova*1980-2013Big East (FCS football)
VirginiaNever a memberACC
Virginia Tech1991-2004ACC
West Virginia1991-2012Big 12

A Big East with Penn State as the kingpin in football, however, would've thrived in this age. It would've monopolized all the big media markets on the eastern seaboard and gotten a huge windfall of television dollars. (And remember, the Big East was actually the first conference to have its own network.) Even as late as 2011, before the Big East's final collapse, it was offered a $1.1 billion TV deal, which of course it foolishly turned down.

With Penn State in the fold, Notre Dame might've joined the Big East in the '80s as well, as its fanbase has always been more eastern oriented than around its midwest-based campus. And in that case the Irish would've been a full member instead of staying independent in football when they did join the Big East in 1995.

Gavitt's vision had always been making the Big East the premier basketball conference, which was achieved to an astonishing degree in the 1980s, with the crowning moment in 1985 when three conference teams made the Final Four. But by failing to tame the beast that is football, Gavitt's beloved creation ended up being eaten alive by it 30 years later.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

College Football No Longer Needs Divisions

With realignment once again taking center stage in the 2014 season, a new question has popped up. Should FBS conferences dispense with the divisional setup in football?

Next season, three of the Big Five conferences will have 14 teams each, divided into seven-team divisions. Of the 10 conferences that play FBS football, seven of them will have divisions, with their respective winners meeting in conference championship games. By 2015 (assuming there are no other changes), only the Big 12 and Sun Belt will not stage conference title games.

This is in stark contrast with college basketball. Of the 32 Division I conferences, only three (Big South, Mid-American, Ohio Valley) have divisional splits. The other 29 conferences, including all of the "Big Five," play without an internal split of teams.

College football may be moving in that direction, too.

The ACC has submitted a proposal to "deregulate" football conference championship games, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd. It's seeking to discard legislation that requires conferences to have at least 12 teams divided into two divisions in order to have a conference title game.

This proposal has wide-ranging support among all FBS conferences, and it's not difficult to see why. Divisional setups have been typically arbitrary—just look at the thankfully euthanized "Legends" and "Leaders" divisions in the Big Ten or the fact that Missouri is in the SEC "East" since joining the conference when Columbia, Mo., is west of every SEC campus except Arkansas and Texas A&M.

And with the advent of the 14-team divisions, if the current legislation is upheld, a team could conceivably go 12 years between visits to the stadium of a fellow conference member that's not in its division.

Since it's obvious that conference championship games are here to stay—there's just too much money to be made from television revenue—there's no way these conferences will voluntarily discard the divisional setup unless it's no longer required to stage a title game. But if they're freed from the binds of divisions, then conferences will have a much freer hand in how they want to stage the title games.

They may decide to match up the teams with the best records, thus maximizing the potential of their champions' chances of qualifying for the College Football Playoff. They also would be able to stage a title game without having 12 teams (think of the 10-team Big 12), thus eliminating the pressing need that fueled realignment in the first place.

For the fans and television executives, this is also a no-brainer. There will be more varied matchups within all conferences and theoretically the championship games would be more attractive since they won't be subject to the whimsical nature of the divisions.

It just makes too much sense. But since this is the NCAA we're talking about, the approval of the proposal is far from a sure thing.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

College Football's Fierce TV Competition

The fierce competition between college football's major conferences is no longer limited on the playing field. The "Big Five" conferences often fight their battles in boardrooms and bank vaults—and now also in outer space.

As in the television network war, beamed via satellite to a screen (or six) in your own home.

With the launching of the SEC Network this summer, three of the Big Five conferences will have their own TV networks, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 already having been on the air for several years. But it was another, upstart conference that touched off the TV arms race.

The Mtn. begin broadcasting Sept. 1, 2006, a revolutionary idea that was to transform the landscape of college sports. The Mountain West Conference and its partners (CBS and Comcast), though, never were able to resolve lingering distribution issues. Then the conference alignment wave swept in and effectively led to the demise of The Mtn., which went off the air June 1, 2012.

The Big Ten launched its network a year after The Mtn. and had issues of its own. But it's becoming the gold standard of conference networks, now reaching more than 90 million U.S. households. And with the conference's latest expansion, the BTN is hoping to gain greater viewership shares in the huge metropolitan areas of New York City and Baltimore/Washington. In fact, you can say that Rutgers and Maryland are added more for TV eyeballs than for athletic or academic excellence.

College Conference TV Networks
Big Ten NetworkFox, Big TenAug. 200790 millionMost major carriers
Pac-12 NetworkPac-12Aug. 201248 millionNo DirecTV, Verizon FiOS
SEC NetworkESPNAug. 201420 millionDISH, AT&T U-Verse
Longhorn NetworkESPN, UTAug. 201125 millionNo DirecTV, Comcast
BYUtvBYUJan. 200065 millionDirecTV, DISH, some cable

Lately the SEC is very much in the TV news, as its network—a wholly-owned enterprise by ESPN operated out of Charlotte—sets to debut with Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer as its No. 1 team in the booth. ESPN is aggressively going after distributors before it goes on the air in August, trying not to repeat the mistakes made by both the BTN and Pac-12 Network. The BTN spent its first year only sporadically available in Big Ten country, and the Pac-12 is still without a deal with DirecTV after two seasons.

The SEC Network is asking for more money within its footprint ($1.30 per subscriber) than even the BTN ($1), but with ESPN's clout and the rabid nature of SEC fans, it's banking on getting that. It secured a major agreement when it came to terms with DISH Network last week. ESPN also leveraged that into a deal for the Longhorn Network, which it co-owns with the University of Texas.

The big question now is how DirecTV will handle this avalanche of college conference networks.

Under current president and CEO Mike White, the nation's largest satellite carrier has taken an increasing hardline against rising programming costs. It famously dropped The Weather Channel in January and has held its ground against both the Pac-12 and Longhorn networks.

But the SEC could prove to be a different beast. After initially indicating that it "has no current plans to carry the SEC Network," DirecTV was forced to recant that statement a day later after receiving from SEC fans a torrent of complaints and threats to drop the carrier. How this negotiation goes may very well determine DirecTV's future as the leading carrier of sports programming.

DirecTV built that reputation on having the exclusive NFL Sunday Ticket, with its current deal set to expire after the 2014 season. DirecTV is paying $1 billion per season for the rights, which it has owned since Sunday Ticket's inaugural season in 1994. But neither the NFL nor DirecTV is in a rush to reach a new agreement, leaving the door open for other carriers to get in on the package.

If DirecTV does not come to terms with the SEC Network before the season opens in late August, it may be a signal that it's drastically cutting back on sports programming. DirecTV may very well decide there's no more money to be made as a sports carrier if it says no to both the NFL and SEC, the most valuable football properties in this football-mad nation.