Why the PAC10 is Struggling to Make a Media Deal: Part 5–Would SDSU & SMU (or Tulane/Rice) Be Dilutive To Media Value?

“We view adding SMU as a member in similar fashion to adding Amazon as a media partner: Neither entity can be judged on its merits as of today; both must be evaluated for what they could be in the future”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Link to Part 1: Intro

Link to Part 2: Brand/Fan Base Value

Link to Part 2a: Silver vs Altimore Fan Base Estimate

Link to Part 3: TV Viewership

Link to Part 4: TV Market Value

By Jeff Fuller and Krindorr 

While we’ve previously discussed various factors weighing on the PAC’s value to media partners, largely related to a negative trajectory in key metrics, one key factor we have yet to mention is the simple economics of supply and demand.  The remaining supply of traditional linear (over-the-air networks or cable) TV slots is massively diminished after the Big10 and Big12 secured most of those slots in recently-inked deals.  Add to that a relatively limited demand for the media rights of the remaining PAC10 schools and the prospects of securing a lucrative media contract seem to diminish daily. 

Sam Bradshaw, from 365 Sports, recently provided an in-depth breakdown of each FBS conference and what they “own” for viewership time slots, clearly showing the supply vs demand predicament the PAC is facing.  While Oregon is clearly the brand/TV ratings leader among all remaining schools in both conferences, there is great uncertainty surrounding their long-term commitment to the PAC.  The Ducks’ (and UW Huskies’) wandering eyes towards the financial security of potential Big Ten membership is understandable, yet this is another massive drag on this whole process for the PAC.

The PAC is experiencing what the Big12 went through over a year ago, losing key schools and weighing the benefits and drawbacks of replacing them with new members.  The addition of BYU, UCF, Cincy, and Houston surely helped to fill much of the gap left by Texas’ and Oklahoma’s exit to the SEC, as evidenced, in part, by the fact that, to the surprise of many, the Big12 was able to increase the per-school media payout when renewing their current deal.  Can the PAC10 do the same, or did the Big12 also gobble up the only remaining financially accretive programs, just as they did to the TV slots?  

In light of this, we felt it would be instructive to compare the Big12’s four new schools to the programs rumored to be highest on the PAC’s list: mainly SDSU and SMU, but also Tulane and Rice (another link on those last two here.)  Some have mentioned Fresno St, Colorado State, and UNLV as possible candidates, but there is little chatter about them being serious candidates.

SDSU’s recent run to March Madness’ title game surely bolstered their expansion resume, and at just the right time. But will media partners view the Aztecs as additive or dilutive to TV deals when these valuations are largely based on the strength of football brands, TV markets, and a history (or foreseeable possibility) of strong viewership?

   “We view adding SMU as a member in similar fashion to adding Amazon as a media partner: Neither entity can be judged on its merits as of today; both must be evaluated for what they could be in the future”

Jon Wilner discussing possible expansion and media rights options for the PAC

Many doubt that any of the potential PAC expansion candidates are financially accretive.  Max Olson’s interview last month with Sic’Em 365 stated, in regards to his related article at The Athletic

“From the conversations Stew and I had… I don’t know, at this point, if there is a lot of consensus… or unanimous feeling about [adding] San Diego State or SMU [to the PAC10].  And, to be honest, from the sense we got talking to industry sources, who are experts on this stuff, there’s a sense that SMU and SDSU would dilute the value of the media deal.”

Could this be true when we keep hearing that adding SDSU is a “no brainer” and that SMU makes a lot of sense too?  How have they been in TV viewership? In our previous “TV Viewership” installment, we looked at the “Viewership Score” (spreadsheet below) and SDSU and SMU didn’t fare too well.  

These TV ratings don’t paint a rosy picture for any of the possible new additions to the PAC.  Any of the 4 new Big12 adds equaled or surpassed the combined viewership of SDSU & SMU.  Even worse, combining the viewership of ALL FOUR potential PAC adds is on par with Cincy or BYU alone (Rice is often excluded from TV ratings analyses since they only had 13 total rated televised games in the last decade.) The average “Viewership Score” for the Big12’s new schools was 0.78M, compared to just 0.24M for the PAC’s possible additions.  Surely these ratings would improve for whoever the PAC adds as they would presumably step up to better channel/time-slots as well as playing stronger brands, but they are all starting from a position of major ratings weakness.  

How many fans show up to your games is a fairly good indicator of your relative importance within your own market.  While some of these attendance figures (from are often questioned as to how they translate to actual people in attendance, it’s a commonly used metric which is available for every school.  As shown in the table below, none of the PAC’s potential choices exceeded a 5 yr average of 30,000 fans per game whereas no newly added Big12 school was lower than that 30K mark. In fact, BYU/Cincy/Houston/UCF averaged nearly double the number of fans per game than their PAC counterparts.  Smaller stadiums that also display a lower “percent capacity” does not project confidence that these fan bases are ready for a step up to the “big leagues.”  The spreadsheet below (link) shows the 5 year attendance figures for all eight of the programs in question.

Additionally, looking back at the two Fanbase Estimates we discussed previously (Silver vs Atlimore), just taking the average between those two estimates showed an average estimated fanbase of 426K for SDSU, but only 177K for SMU, 108K for Rice, and 96K for Tulane.  That averages out to only 220K football fans per school (301K avg when looking just at SDSU & SMU,) and compares poorly to the Big12’s new schools who showed an average of 577K.

TL/DR Conclusion to Part 5

Preemptive apologies for what follows below.  It’s A LOT of data, much of which rehashes data presented in our previous installments, albeit with focus and commentary on the expansion candidates.  In addition, we’ve included screenshots and data delving into how much impact these teams have in their own TV markets.  If you’d rather not dig through it all, that’s understandable.  Suffice it to say, the data strongly suggests that the expansion candidates the PAC has been contemplating, namely SDSU, SMU, Tulane & Rice are no where near the caliber of what the Big12 added in BYU, Cincy, Houston, and UCF when analyzing fan base, viewership, and local/national interest metrics.  

While SDSU does stand out amongst the other three (especially within their own home TV market), that’s unfortunately a little like being the sharpest butterknife in the drawer.  While Houston and SDSU aren’t that far apart in some of these metrics, the Big12 absolutely picked the 4 best available expansion candidates just over a year ago.  The PAC is dealing with what’s leftover to see if there’s any value there.  That’s not to say that SDSU or SMU might not grow into something amazing, but it would be a calculated risk for the PAC to make.


Deep Data Dive

Still with us and ready for the deep dive?  You’ve been warned.  Let’s first look through our data from previous installments with a lens sharply focused on the PAC10/Big12 expansion candidates.

Google Trends Sports Relevance

Based on the “Google Trends” relative value data in the first column below (again, which was based on the combined value of Football and Men’s & Women’s Basketball from 2015-22), it would suggest that the combined value of SDSU and SMU is about half that of USC and one-quarter that of the Texas Longhorns. Even more drastic, the combination of Tulane and Rice would only have a combined value of one-tenth that of Texas.  Having delved into these metrics for years, I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard Rice mentioned as a possible new PAC member. While Rice is an amazing academic institution, they are off-the-scale way behind in brand, fan base, and sports readiness for the P5 level.  This did remind me though, that it’s the university presidents that call the shots, and they think of academics first, and athletics second.  While that may be true, no media company is going to shovel out any extra money for such a dilutive program. 

Enrollment & Alumni Figures

Below are the enrollment and total alumni numbers.  While SDSU fits in well as a PAC member here, there is a huge drop off to SMU, Tulane, and Rice.  Contrast that to the new Big12 additions, all of which stand out among the ranks in enrollment and alumni base. Some feel that these alumni & enrollment metrics were some of the most important to the Big12 when looking for new members, and they certainly upped the conference average in enrollments and alumni when adding BYU, Cincy, Houston, and UCF. 

TV Markets

Looking at TV Markets below, SMU and Rice are in the top 10 markets of Dallas and Houston while SDSU and Tulane are in more mid-sized markets.  While college sports interest is high in markets for SMU, Rice and Tulane, the data presented below show that very little of fan passion is directed at them (It should be noted that, while the Big Ten surely didn’t shy away from adding Rutgers and Maryland even though they didn’t “own” their massive TV markets of NYC and DC, many think the media financial calculus has shifted away from total TVs/markets and more towards stronger brands and rivalries)

Of the four PAC candidates, only SMU is located in a market displaying increasing college sports interest recently compared to the last two decades.  That’s just 25% for these PAC adds compared to 75% of the Big12 teams hailing from markets that showed a positive trajectory.

Who Really “Owns” the Markets?

In our last installment, we analyzed the TV markets of both the PAC and Big12, drilling down on how vested each was in college sports.  When adding new TV markets through expansion, ideally the PAC would be adding not only large markets, but plenty of fans of the teams from those markets.  Do SDSU/SMU deliver their home markets? Does Rice even register?  What about the Green Wave in New Orleans?

We’ve found a few ways to analyze this question:

  1. Google Trends
  2. Vivid Seats tickets data (presented in the NYT 538 in 2019) 
  3. Facebook Likes data from the New York Times in 2014

Google Trends Football Team Relevance WITHIN Home Markets/States

“Google Trends” offers an interesting glimpse into a team’s relative relevance within a market. One drawback to this method is that clearly not all people searching for a team are fans of that team.  The biggest and most successful brands show the best in this metric not only because they have loads of fans, but because they draw a lot of online search interest from rivals and more casual CFB fans.

The Texas-based teams: SMU (and Rice) vs Houston Comparison

The Houston Cougars have always struggled for brand relevance within their home TV market, especially against Texas and Texas A&M.  This Google Trends analysis of football teams from 2004-present shows that Houston has had roughly half the relevance of the Longhorns and the Aggies within the Houston media market, and even trail LSU by a good margin.

Now let’s compare the Coogs relevance in the Houston market to SMU’s relevance in the Dallas market:

Houston is generally considered the weakest brand and fan base of the Big12’s new additions, but they bring with them a great upside with a large enrollment and the nation’s 7th largest TV market.  While Dallas and Houston are relatively similar TV markets, Houston shows far greater relevance within their hometown than SMU does in DFW.   Rice, barely registers at all at just 2%, nearly 8X lower than Houston, and roughly 15X lower than the Longhorns and Aggies. Ouch.

Leaving out the SEC Texas-based schools, how do the Big12’s 4 Texas teams compare SMU? Only Houston lags behind SMU in the Mustang’s home DMA of Dallas, with TCU having 3X the relevance, and TTU nearly double.  Neither Houston nor SMU fares well in each-other’s markets, but Houston is at least dominant to the other Big12 brands within their home market garnering nearly half of the search interest.

What about SMU’s value throughout the rest of Texas?  Surely there’s plenty of nostalgia from the old SWC days, right?  The Mustangs don’t break 2% in any Texas Media Market outside of Dallas, and only have a 1% value in the massive Houston market where Texas, TAMU, Oklahoma and TCU garner 44X, 38X, 11X, and 6X more interest respectively.

For the state of Texas as a whole, SMU’s relative interest is meager, at best, when compared to both the massive SEC brands and the remaining Big12 brands. It’s hard to see how SMU would add significant value to a media deal based on the mounting evidence presented thus far.

The old WAC/MWC Rivals: SDSU vs BYU Comparison

San Diego St is at least the top brand in their home market which, in 2022, was the 3oth largest with 1.11M TV homes (though San Diego lost 25,290, or -2.3%, of their TV homes from 2021 to 2022).  The Aztecs claim nearly 38% relative search interest in San Diego when compared to USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and BYU. 

When searching the state of California as a whole, the Aztecs only got 7% of the team searches relative to USC (49%), UCLA (26%), Notre Dame (14%) and BYU (4%). Scrolling over the different DMAs (Designated Market Area) in California, it’s clear that nearly all of SDSU’s interest comes from the San Diego DMA.  As a case in point, BYU has double the search interest in Los Angeles as SDSU.

Expanding the theme of these five team’s search interest, but nationwide, showed SDSU as 4X smaller than BYU or UCLA, 8X smaller than USC, and 16X smaller than the Irish.

Now let’s use BYU, a recent “winner” in the conference realignment world, and compare the Cougars to SDSU, a relevant comparison also because the SLC and San Diego DMAs are almost exactly the same size.  Interestingly, the Salt Lake DMA just surpassed San Diego this past year to become the 29th largest in the nation, with 1.15M TV homes.  There were 47,860 TV homes added year over year, representing a 4.2% uptick.  BYU has the largest share of team interest within the SLC market since 2004, edging out the Utes.

BYU’s 44% value in the presence of other strong local brands exceeds SDSU’s 37% in San Diego.  Also, whereas SDSU’s interest fell off completely outside of their own DMA, BYU was the top team (among the 5 queried above) in FOUR OTHER media markets, including Las Vegas, Grand Junction, Idaho Falls, and Tri-Cities, WA. 

VIVID Seats Ticket Sales Data

The NYT’s 538 gained access to Vivid Seat’s cumulative ticket sales data spanning 2012-18, listing the top three CFB teams in each of over 3000 counties (as well as the raw percentage of the searched school, even if it’s not in the top 3.)  How do potential expansion candidates SDSU & SMU stack up?  Do they even deliver their home counties? Sadly, for their expansion hopes, the answer is a resounding “No!”

Searching for “San Diego State Aztecs” on this interactive map reveals that SDSU plays second fiddle to the Navy Midshipmen in their home county.  The Aztecs account for only 14.6% of total CFB ticket sales in San Diego County.  Even more concerning, SDSU doesn’t cross the 10% threshold in any other county in the nation, and aren’t among the top 3 teams in any other county in California.  Some speak of adding SDSU to help tap back into the massive LA market, but the Aztecs account for only 0.6% of sales there, while even geographically-distant BYU rivals that small figure at 0.4%.

Upon further comparison, BYU’s Vivid Seats ticket sales were among the top 3 schools in at least one county in all 10 states in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones. They were also the #1 top school in almost half the counties in Utah and in at least one county in 3 bordering states.  The Cougars crossed the 10% threshold of ticket sales in at least one county in all 5 bordering states, plus Montana and California.

Searching for “SMU Mustangs” on this interactive map reveals that they’re among the top 3 ticket sellers in only one county, the tiny rural Titus County (Pop ~30K) in east Texas where they accounted for 9.7% of the ticket sales. The Mustangs were not among top 3 teams in their home county (Dallas Co. where they were responsible for a paltry 6.4% of sales) nor in any of the surrounding counties in the DFW metroplex. 

Contrast those figures to SMU’s AAC rival, the Houston Cougars, who were within the top 3 ticket sellers in at least 8 different counties in south Texas.  This included being the #3 team (accounting for 9.6% of sales) within their massive home Harris County and its 4.7M residents, a place loaded with many wealthy fans of mammoth brands such as Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and LSU.  

Cincinnati and UCF also place within the top 3 schools in several counties in and around their campus despite competing against (and often overshadowed by) their neighboring behemoth B1G/SEC fanbases.

And Rice?  It just gets downright embarrassing as the Owls represented just 1.5% of all ticket sales within their own county.  That’s 18X less than the Texas A&M Aggies and over 6X less than the Houston Cougars.  Plus, Rice is the only team I’ve found in their whole system that gives the “Errr… your team is not that big a deal, ya know?  Its tickets make up no more than 3.9 percent of any county sales” message.  That doesn’t inspire confidence no matter how big their research budget and endowment may be.

Facebook Likes Data

The New York Times Published a 2014 “NCAA Fan Map” based on Facebook Likes data by Zip Code.  It’s been criticized on multiple sides as vastly over-estimating teams/brands that came to prominence within the few years before it was published.  Due to the relative novelty of expressing fandom on social media at that time, it would relatively undervalue longer established brands that weren’t peaking in those years.  Social media fandom is also susceptible to grabbing incredibly “soft support” via aggressive advertising campaigns (often young women who “Like” a team for regional/bandwagon reasons.) 

In the article, after stating that the Texas Longhorns dominate the vast majority of Texas, they point out: 

“The other major Texas programs hold serve in their hometowns: College Station (Texas A&M), Waco (Baylor), Fort Worth (Texas Christ), Lubbock (Texas Tech), and even El Paso (UTEP). Only Southern Methodist, handed the “death penalty” by the N.C.A.A. in 1987, fails to break through.” 

However, it should be noted that, while there is no mention of either the Houston Cougars or the Rice Owls in their discussion of Texas teams, Houston also failed to take the top spot in any one TX Zip Code.  The Rice Owls didn’t even crack the top 3 in any Texas Zip Code, indicative, once again, of their extreme lack of relevance in CFB. 

SMU reached the top 3 in only four total Zip Codes, logging between 8-9% of the total CFB Facebook Likes in 75225, 75205, 75214, & 75219.  However, in each of these 4 home zip codes, the Mustangs were a distant 2nd or 3rd to the Longhorns, who garnered ~3X more Likes on average, even in the Zip Codes at and around SMU’s Campus.

Comparing SMU to Houston again is rather instructive.  The Cougars were in the top 3 in over fifty different Zip Codes, being able to claim between 9-20% of the likes throughout most of the Houston DMA and some surrounding areas. Student Body’s Opinion of Sports Passion on Campus 

Below are posted the results of’s student 2021 surveys about how much students feel like their classmates are engaged in varsity sports.  (scroll down for screenshots of the study results for  the four potential PAC expansion candidates, followed by the four the Big12 added.)  The results, compiled and averaged among all the teams from both conferences, show, once again, that Big12 sports passion already exceeds the PAC.  The gap would widen massively if SDSU/SMU/Rice/Tulane were added.  

When sorting by students who thought varsity sports were “not a huge part” of campus life (as in the spreadsheet below link,) only three of the new Big12 schools had more than 14% in this category.  Compare that to only three PAC10 schools (plus all 4 potential additions) having less than 14%.

 If you’re still reading, you’ve made it to the end of Part 5 (and you might need to have your head examined!)

*Stay tuned for the next installment: “Sport’s Success”

**Disclaimer: The data aggregation has been a long-term effort over several months and some of the metrics (Especially “Google Trends”) were compiled during or, at times,  preceding the 2022 football season.  Due to the rather time-sensitive nature of PAC12 Conference expansion, I just went with what I had already compiled.  For this reason, clicking on some of the links may result in slightly different figures than are in the screenshots.

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