Conference Realignment Driven By The Web And A Changing Media Business

Conference Realignment Driven By The Web And A Changing Media Business

(photo courtesy: The Football God)

When Pac 10/12 Commissioner Larry Scott announced that there were not expanding, effectively ending momentum for Texas and Oklahoma to join the conference, he stopped the second major domino in conference realignment from falling (Texas A&M to the SEC was the first). Had that domino gone down, all hell would have broken loose.

It’s a good thing the train slowed down before things got out of hand, because no one involved seems to understand what they are doing. Not surprisingly, talks broke down over the existence of the Longhorn Network, the Texas’ cable channel partnership with ESPN. It’s an obvious dealbreaker if one member of the conference has a supplemental $15M per year media rights deal.

Except no one has followed this train of thought through to its logical conclusion. Doesn’t that suggest that the entire business model of “a conference” is broken? There are sure to be many more college-specific networks coming and in each case, the most valuable members of a given conference are going to have to turn down something like $10M-$15M per year to remain a conference member.

Tradition is important to college football, but not $10M-$15M-per-year-important. (We’ll leave the likely broken economics of the Longhorn Network for another post, because the concept is not wrong)

With almost every college football game available via a high quality HD stream at a minimum, the regional reach of television rights become a limitation. As a Tulane alum, I wasn’t able to view the stream of the UAB away game because of “local” rights (as in “local” to New Orleans), despite the fact that I’m on the west coast. And with the Longhorn Network’s flawed premise, only a few hundred thousand subscribers have access so far and football season is here (yes, I know that’s not the end game).

You also have all of the “mid major” conferences with broken business models. CUSA members, for example, get about $1M per year in television revenue. But being a member means you have to schedule a number of unattractive football opponents in meaningless games. When you can broadcast your own feed via the Web, it doesn’t take that many streams at $50 per season (or $15 for an individual game) to reach that same $1M you’d get from being tied to a conference like CUSA.

It won’t be long before universities at the top and bottom of the current power structure find their existing conference affiliations good for anything more than ease of scheduling.

These are all questions that do not yet have clear answers, but you can be sure that the media landscape will be dramatically different in five years. Heck, the media landscape will be dramatically different in two years given the pace that changes are occurring, not to mention any fallout from the heat being turned up on the obviously-crooked folks behind the BCS and existing bowl structure. That will give a reprieve to a bunch of lucky college administrators who will have a chance to look before they leap.