The second-biggest sport in America is fractured, and that’s the beauty of it.
While the NFL is a runaway juggernaut, the second-most watched sport in the USA is college football. Its three playoff games were watched by between 18 and 19 million Americans this past season, while the Bucks-Suns NBA Finals drew a maximum of 12.5 million viewers for the deciding game six.
The combination of being American football, which the nation has grown to love more than anything else, and passionate, localised rivalries driven by the 130 schools competing at the top level (Football Bowl Subdivision or FBS), has created massive revenues.
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But it’s completely uneven – more like the Premier League than the NFL. Teams that have found a home in the most competitive leagues, whether through historic ties, prime locations or plain politics, make much more money year-on-year thanks to television rights deals.
For example, there are the 14 schools in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), home to the reigning national champions Alabama, 2019 champions LSU, 2017 runners-up Georgia and more.
Having expanded from a 12 to a 14-team conference a decade ago, the SEC schools currently enjoy $US45 million a year each, but a new TV deal with ESPN starting in 2024 worth around $US3 billion will bump that up to something like $US68 million a year.
But let’s look at the other end of the scale; the Mid American Conference (MAC), a regional group of 12 schools which has created future NFL superstars like Ben Roethlisberger and Khalil Mack, earned around $US8 million from its TV deal last season. In total. As in, to be split between the 12.
The MAC is a minnow; let’s compare the SEC to a similar conference instead, the Big 12 – home to college football juggernauts Texas and Oklahoma, two of the six winningest schools in the sport’s history and frequent title contenders (though not as much for Texas in recent years). Big 12 schools currently earn around $US40 million a year from their TV deal.
The problem is that’s about to change, because out of nowhere last month, Texas and Oklahoma declared they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC.
This is college football realignment; schools searching for greener pastures and more green, period. And it’s changing the core of the sport.
No longer will Texas and Oklahoma play their local rivals – Texas Tech, Texas Christian, Oklahoma State and the like – on a yearly basis. It’s a four-hour flight between Norman, Oklahoma and Gainesville, Florida (home of the University of Florida), but the Sooners and Gators will soon be conference mates.
As the big drawing cards of the Big 12, this decision will ruin said local rivals. Their conference TV deal will be torn up, worth tens of millions less a season.
The Texas Senate held a six-hour hearing just days after reports broke of Texas and Oklahoma’s exit, with elected officials furiously questioning school and league higher-ups about the plan.
“If you are as big and great as you think you are, you should have made the Big 12 equal or better than the SEC and you didn’t do it,” Republican senator Charles Perry – who represents Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University – told Texas president Jay Hartzell.
“I kind of feel sorry for the SEC. Cousin Eddie is coming home and he don’t leave until he’s wrecked the whole house.”
An analyst told the Texas Senate the state stood to lose $US900 million a year in annual gross product because of the impact on the non-University of Texas schools who were behind left behind.
Texas and Oklahoma have said they will honour their commitment to the Big 12 until the current TV deal expires in 2025; but they’ve said that because they have to, legally. It’s believed they’ll exit before that four-year deal ends, gladly coughing up more than $US100 million in would-be TV payments and exit fees – current pain for future gain, given the enormous sums on offer in the SEC.
It’s not as if these schools need the extra money. Texas’ athletic department earns well over $US200 million a year, the most in the sport, and Oklahoma is close to the top 10. It’s a move that will make the rich richer.
And it’s a move that could accelerate the sport’s shift towards a European football-like Super League quicker than many already feared.
While there are 130 schools in college football’s top division, realistically only the 64 in the ‘Power Five’ conferences – the Big 12 and SEC, plus the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten and Pac-12 – are in the running to make the four-team playoff, never mind win the national championship.
And of those 64, many are perennial doormats. In the SEC for example there’s Vanderbilt, a private school in Tennessee that feels lucky to win six of the 12 games on its schedule each season, never mind the dozens of schools that are almost always making up the numbers below the sport’s elite.
Generously, there are between 20 and 25 schools that can say they have a realistic chance of winning the national championship in the next five years.
It’s these schools that have driven conference realignment before and will do so again. A decade ago, Texas and Oklahoma were expected to flee the Big 12 for the Pac-12 (then the Pac-10); they ended up staying, but the seismic shift saw the major conferences all swallow up best-of-the-rest teams from the non-Power conferences in that period.
In turn, the gap between the haves (Power Five conferences) and have-nots grew.
Now Texas and Oklahoma’s move to the SEC will grow that gap again; that looming $US3 billion TV deal with ESPN may get even bigger once the schools officially join.
Funnily enough, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby alleged ESPN was involved in Texas and Oklahoma’s exit, issuing a cease and desist letter to the network – which his conference is partnered with – claiming it had “taken certain actions that are intended to not only harm the Big 12 Conference but to result in financial benefits for ESPN”. ESPN said the allegations have no merit.
And as soon as the Texas-Oklahoma move was revealed, all eyes turned to the other conferences. Would they try and grow larger, in order to grow their own TV deals and ensure they weren’t left behind the SEC?
Or would the SEC grow even bigger than its planned unwieldy 16-team grouping, poaching the largest schools from its Power Five rivals?
Many foresee a future where that happens. After all, if the top schools are the ones driving most of the revenue and winning all of the championships, why don’t they just start playing each other? It’s the same logic that almost created a football Super League across the Atlantic.
A USA Today report cited one analyst who predicted a 32-team college football super league would give the top schools two and a half times as much TV revenue as they earn now – in the $US100 million a year range.
And the key here is that college football is always inching towards this future. Barcelona and Real Madrid aren’t joining the Premier League any time soon, but Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC is the rough equivalent.
Will this happen in the near future? Probably not. The SEC’s new ESPN deal lasts until the middle of next decade; plus college football is currently more focused on expanding its playoff from four teams to potentially 12. This will bring in a huge financial boost that may calm the expansion farm, for a little while at least.
But the sport is chipping away at its foundations. The Texas-Oklahoma move will hurt its current Big 12 compatriots; the abandoned eight may fall away into the non-power conferences, or at best find a soft landing by either merging with the ‘best of the rest’ schools’, or splitting up and joining other conferences entirely.
Big schools see dollar signs down the road and leave their friends behind to seek them. It’s how the sport has been run for decades, and there’s no reason to believe it’ll stop.