“We have better schools, better markets and better ratings.”
– An anonymous PAC athletic director on why he won’t be surprised when the Pac-12 beats the Big 12’s number.
This is all parts of a 4 part series on the reasons why the Pac10 is struggling to make a media deal. Each individual series can be found starting here with Part 1 and ending with Part 4.
Why the PAC10 is Struggling to Make a Media Deal – Part 1
BY JEFF FULLER & KRINDORR
“We have better schools, better markets and better ratings.”
– An anonymous PAC athletic director on why he won’t be surprised when the Pac-12 beats the Big 12’s number.
It’s certainly an audacious quote, particularly when considering the ongoing difficulty the PAC is having in getting ANY media deal to a vote. But is it actually true?
The answer is a resounding “Maybe.”
“Better” schools can be defined a lot of ways, but there’s an argument to be made for the PAC in almost any regard:
- Academically, both conferences have their stronger and weaker schools, but Cal, Stanford, and UW alone trump anything the Big 12 can offer
- On the football field, the PAC is riding high, having just placed 6 teams (fully half the conference!) in the top 25 – as many as the mighty SEC and twice the number of B1G teams.
- On the basketball court … well, we all know basketball doesn’t REALLY matter, right?
The PAC markets are undeniably bigger – while Ames, Iowa; Manhattan, Kansas and Lubbock, Texas are all nice places with great fans, they simply can’t boast the potential audience size of San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, or Denver.
And even ratings seem to favor the PAC. Over the last 5 non-COVID years, the average regular-season Big 12 game* (not involving Texas or Oklahoma) has drawn 1.07 million viewers. The average regular-season PAC game* (not involving USC or UCLA) has drawn 1.58 million – 48% more than the Big 12.
*only considering games for which ratings are available
So, given all those strengths, why is the PAC10 struggling to consummate a media deal commensurate with the other P5 conferences? The PAC10 is into their eight month of media deal negotiations with nothing better than “lukewarm” interest from potential partners. In contrast, Brett Yormark and the Big12 made the process look easy, by sewing up a $32 Million/yr deal in a matter of weeks (though not taking [having to take] the rights to open market assuredly hastened the process).
There are two answers here – “denial” and “trajectory”
By focusing on the most positive aspects it’s easy to paint the PAC as strong. That’s exactly what happened in the examples above. Yes, 6 PAC teams finished ranked in the last year. On the other hand, the PAC12 hasn’t placed a team into the College Football Playoff in the past six years, with only two total appearances, only one semi-final win, and no championships since its inception nearly a decade ago.
Yes, rated PAC games have strongly outdrawn rated Big 12 games… but that’s a huge caveat, focusing on only rated games. The PAC12 has had far fewer games broadcast on rated channels than any other P5 conference, with an average of 59 rated games from 2013-21 per remaining PAC10 schools. By comparison the average Big 12 has had 84 rated games in the same period. This means we’re comparing only the best PAC games to nearly every Big 12 game. Indeed, one might wonder about the level of demand for PAC10 games in the first place.
Looking at only part of the data is going to give only part of the story, and if you choose to ignore or deny those facts that don’t support your case, you end up with a disconnect between what you think you’re worth and what the market will pay. That’s the denial.
But the larger issue is trajectory.
“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
Just like the conference is evaluating expansion candidates or streaming possibilities based on what they could be, so too are media companies evaluating the PAC not on what they CURRENTLY are, but on what they WILL be over the life of the deal.
That’s trajectory; and for the PAC10? It’s a big problem.
By just about any metric analyzed, from on-field success of revenue sports, to fan engagement (as measured by both attendance and social media presence), to TV viewership, to total conference payout trends, if the PAC12 isn’t in net negative territory, they are at least falling behind the growth curves of the other P5 conferences. Do they realize this? By all public proclamations and messaging, it doesn’t seem like it.
Some eye-openings results when considering the PAC10’s “Trajectory”:
1) TV Viewership: Comparing 2015-2019 data to the most recent years, the PAC has shown a 4% decline in viewers per game. Over the same period, the Big 12 has shown a 6% increase in per game viewership
2) Attendance: PAC football attendance has been in freefall, DECLINING an average of 5.8% per school over the last 5 years, compared to a 6.4% INCREASE per school for the new Big12 – resulting in the Big 12 clearly passing the PAC in this regard. The trends in basketball attendance are even worse for the PAC
3) Market Size: Even market size, the long-time trump card of the PAC over a so-called “Truckstop Conference” is in decline. Nielson data shows an year over year loss in television households within the PAC team’s local markets, whereas the Big 12 markets continue to grow. Combine that with the fact that the Big12 media markets are filled with a higher percentage of college sports fans, and it’s possible that the new Big12 actually ALREADY has more valuable TV markets from a college sports broadcasting perspective than the PAC10. If not, then it appears to only be a matter of time.
Over the coming days, we’ll be taking a much deeper dive into these and other topics (including Brand, On-field performance, Academics and Fanbase Engagement), comparing the PAC10 to the looming presence of a growing and aggressive Big 12 and even including a special write-up assessing potential PAC expansion options and their level of saturation within their local markets.
Despite occasional positives (the PAC’s academic prowess still ranks comfortably ahead of the Big 12, even after the loss of USC and UCLA), the overall story is clearly one of stagnation and/or decline with metric after metric highlighting this downward trend.
This reality is evident in even the top-line numbers. Below is the 3-year running average annual payout that each P5 conference has been distributing to their member schools: (Tweeted this out this last year. Link to Google Spreadsheet and source links for FY 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, & 2021 .)
While it’s tempting and easy to brush away the decline in 2021 as COVID-related, it shouldn’t hide the fact that even pre-COVID PAC revenues were growing at a much slower rate than their two closest competitors – the Big 12 and the ACC. Also recall that the Big12 will be receiving $100M in buyout from the year-early exit of OU & UT while the PAC owes Comcast $50M and the growing gap will be harder to close.
At the VERY least, this and the aforementioned trends are alarming and create uncertainty about the future value of the PAC – an uncertainty which manifests in lower media valuations. Add to that uncertainty a fear of losing their top remaining brands of Oregon & Washington to the B1G.
And with that, we circle back to “denial” – while the PAC and Big 12 appear to be on relatively equal ground at the moment, they are headed in opposite directions. And the PAC insists on being viewed not as what they might be in the future, not even as what they are today, but as what they were a decade ago.
Part 2–How Strong Are PAC10 “Brands” & Fan Bases?
Conference realignment is a brutal business. The PAC10 leftovers can commiserate with the Big12 “leftovers” on the pain of losing their top brand. USC was the top Football brand in the PAC12 as was Texas in the Big12. Zack Miller’s ranking of Football Program Value (discussed below) confirms this with Texas (8th), Oklahoma (10th), USC (19th), and Oregon (24th) topping their respective conferences. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) for the PAC10, the B1G desired the whole of the LA market more than they coveted getting the PAC12’s second best brand, Oregon.
There are various ways to try to measure a school’s brand value and fan base, none ideal. Attendance figures, TV viewership, and social media engagement all give a partial glimpse of a school’s brand value, but will all be discussed in their own forthcoming installments in this series. However, as a preview, our analysis of these and enrollment/alumni metrics continue to drive home a few key points:
- The PAC10 holds many advantages over the Big12 in relevant metrics such as TV viewership, TV market size, total alumni, enrollment, and overall football brands.
- Despite these advantages, the PAC10 seems to be a bit of a “Paper Tiger,” as they lag behind the Big12 in many brand/fan base metrics such as attendance, social media engagement, and overall sports popularity on “Google Trends.”
- The Big12 is either closing the gap, or, in some cases, has surpassed the PAC12, in nearly all these metrics.
The last point is vital– the trajectory and potential of a conference are pivotal. Recall Jon Wilner, speaking of SMU’s possible addition to the PAC10, stated:
“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”
So, where does each school currently rate on alumni and enrollment figures?
Figure 1: (Link to Spreadsheet)
Total living alumni and student enrollment clearly represent the “low hanging fruit” of likely fans. In these metrics, the PAC10 has a marked advantage over the Big12 with an average of nearly 75K more claimed “total living alumni” per school and nearly 120K more alumni per Linkedin stats.
[Interestingly, the elite academic institutions, Stanford, UCLA and Cal, have significantly more Linkedin Alumni than their claimed “total living alumni” figure. Not exactly sure what to make of this, but it could be anything from employees or current students claiming to be alumni (or maybe there are plenty of “resume fibbers” on Linkedin?)]
Current enrollment figures similarly show a solid advantage for the PAC10 over the Big12, about 3K more undergrads and ~6K more total enrollees per school. In fact, Arizona State leads the entire nation with 63K undergrads & 75K in total enrollment. It appears that the Big12 placed a premium on large student bodies (especially undergrads, who are more likely to become lifelong fans than grad students) when adding new schools. UCF, Houston, BYU and Cincy are all within the top 5 in their new conference (UCF trails only ASU nationally with ~61K undergrads & ~72K total enrollees.) The Big12’s average total enrollment of the remaining 8 schools was only ~25K, compared to the PAC10’s @ ~39K per school–a huge gap. Adding UCF, UH, BYU, & Cincy brought the Big12’s average markedly, from ~25K to ~33K.
Potential PAC12 expansion candidates show mixed results here with SDSU having 31K undergrads, above the PAC10’s average, but SMU would be far below, with just ~7K undergrads and ~12K total enrollees. Those figures are in the realm of Stanford and TCU, which have the smallest enrollment of their respective conferences. Obviously not a deal breaker, but probably a strike against the Mustangs.
While having a large student body provides potential for developing a large fan base, how actually engaged are those students in sports? Recent Niche polling at each campus contained the question: “How popular are varsity sports on campus?”
Double the number of PAC10 students responded either that sports “were attended, but not a huge part of campus life” or “nobody pays attention” compared to Big12 students (combined 24% vs 12%; compiled data at spreadsheet) This level of investment, or fan engagement, appears to be a strong and consistent advantage the Big12 holds over the PAC10, and seems to be rather congenital, starting even from a student’s days on campus. (See footnote for further discussion/analysis on these findings)
Speaking of SDSU & SMU, Zack Miller’s Football Program Value rankings, referenced above, were not kind to them, coming in at 80th and 81st respectively among the 90 schools he evaluated (see Table 3 below). This compares to the PAC10’s average of 44th and the Big12’s average of 47th. Adding the Aztecs and Mustangs to the PAC10 would flip them from three spots ahead of the Big12, to 3 spots behind, dropping to 50th. The inclusion of a wide variety of metrics (Attendance, TV Viewership, Valuation, Market size/share, & Social Media following) help make Miller’s system among the broadest attempts at ranking programs. I applaud Miller for his work compiling these rankings, while realizing some of the shortfalls.
Miller’s results are somewhat skewed by including the WSJ’s relatively dated “College Football Value Rankings” from 2018 (Table here.) This ranking system relatively punishes anyone not receiving a P5 conference payout and produces some quirky results even within the P5 teams (is Northwestern football really 3X more valuable than West Virginia? Is Oregon State worth more than BYU? Is Cal 5X more valuable than Houston? Is Arizona State worth more than Clemson and are they each 10X more valuable than Cincinnati?) In fact, only BYU (60th), Boise St.(63rd), and UCF (65th) surpassed ANY P5 programs at all, those being the usual laggards of Vandy, Boston College, Wake Forest, Duke, & Rutgers plus the odd placement of WVU as the LEAST valuable of any P5 football program (FYI SMU and SDSU were 74th and 80th respectively in these WSJ valuations.)
[Miller also included Nate Silver’s 2011 attempt at quantifying each school’s football fanbase in his valuation system. We discuss Silver’s and Tony Altimore’s similar attempt in this companion piece.] Here
“Popularity on Google Trends” is another interesting metric, and one that New York Time’s Nate Silver recently used when exploring who the B1G should add next (see clip below of a footnote from said article about this system):
We replicated Silver’s exact parameters for the PAC10, Big12, and potential expansion candidates and found that Oregon was solidly above any remaining team at 88.9% relative sports value compared to Texas. They even beat out departing USC/UCLA by a large margin (their CFPlayoff appearance in 2015 was a large factor bringing their value up; but even removing 2015 for the Ducks, they still led the way at 70.9% and the PAC10’s average team value only dropped from 30.8% to 29.0%.) It’s not unreasonable to conclude that Oregon is the biggest sports brand the PAC12 has had over the past decade, but that the B1G placed such a premium on large TV markets and academics, that they decided to pass on the Ducks on their first westward expansionary foray.
Kansas led the way for the Big12 in this combined sports metric of “Popularity in Google Trends,” showing the enormous strength of their “Blue Blood” Basketball program. Interestingly, two new Big12 additions, UCF and BYU, surpassed 8 of the 10 remaining PAC10 schools over this 7 year period, trailing only Oregon and Washington. Only two of the Big12’s teams, TCU, and Houston fell below the 24% threshold, whereas half of the PAC10 schools did. Eight PAC10 brands (80%–all but Oregon and UW) fell below the 30% threshold,
Figure 6: (Spreadsheet link)
These findings, again, call into question SDSU and SMU’s relative media contract value as they came in at 14.4% and 11.5% respectively, well below the PAC10’s average of 25.2%. In fact, their COMBINED value (25.9%) barely reached the PAC10’s average. Compare that to the two lowest of the Big12 newcomers: Houston at 20.2% and Cincinnati at 24.1%– a combined value of 44.3%, well above the Big12’s average of 33.3%. This 33.3% figure, well above the PAC10’s 25.2% for the 2015-22 time period, shows the Big12 has had a stronger sports brand in recent years. Given the long-term and well-recognized historical brand superiority of the PAC12, these findings seem to show a relative decline of the PAC10 (vs surge for the Big12) in brand popularity.
Just searching the last year’s data for all three sports, The Big12 still maintained a sizable average popularity gap of 30.6% compared to the PAC10’s 22.3%, representing a slightly widening gap between the two conferences, even when just selecting for the last 12 months.
Put a different way, according to “Popularity on Google Trends” data:
- Big12 sports have been 32% more popular than PAC10 sports since 2015-22
- Big12 sports have been 37% more popular than PAC10 sports during the last 12 months
Lastly, looking at “Google Trends” search data for each individual Football Team in 2021-22 compared to a long-term window (2004-present) showed a relative uptick of only 1% per team in the PAC10 compared to an increase of 34.5% for the new Big12. Additionally, The PAC showed a higher value over the last two decades (22.7% vs 19.5% for the Big12) whereas the Big12 takes the lead in the more recent window analyzed (26.2% vs 22.9%).
This data fits with our thesis that, despite some baked in strengths and advantages, the PAC10 has been on a concerning negative trajectory for quite some time, that this is why the PAC10 is struggling to secure a lucrative media deal.
Stay Tuned for the next installment: Part 3–TV Viewership.
- 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, we proceeded with what was already compiled.
- Similarly, the enrollment figures have recently changed since they were extracted from USNWR’s site. The USNWR links generally show a small decreased enrollment at most schools. However, a sampling of Forbes current enrollment data shows nearly all schools with increased enrollment compared to what USNWR reported for either year (examples for UCF, ASU, Washington, Texas Tech, BYU, Cal, UCLA, Rice, TCU, Utah, SDSU, & SMU)
- Figures related to Footnote 1 below:
Part 2a–Comparing Silver & Altimore’s Pac10 Fan base rankings
Zack Miller’s ranking system also included Nate Silver’s 2011 attempt at quantifying each school’s total football fan base. Often debated, Silver did attempt to provide a “total fans” estimate for each FBS school and employed some interesting methodology. While largely in line with “passing the smell test” with the results, there were a few “stinkers.” Oregon was only allotted 628K fans (45th) compared to Cal’s 950K fans (31st). Illinois at 27th with only 100K fewer fans than Georgia’s 1.1M (22nd) didn’t seem quite right. And Georgia Tech at 11th nationally with 1.7M fans was quite head-scratching…
We considered including both Silver’s 2011 fan base findings and comparing them to Tony Altimore’s more recent attempt, but the findings for both were puzzling enough as to call into question the underlying methodologies (GIGO principle: “Garbage In = Garbage Out.”) While both are to be commended for delving into this complex question, we felt it best to not include either as truly accurate measures. Similar to the oddities listed with Silver’s attempt, Altimore’s findings, which he calls a “synthesis of 2011, 2014 & 2019 NYT + 538 studies,” (though we could not find an explanation of how these were weighted) vaulted Oregon up to 7th in the nation, with 5.54M estimated fans, ahead of Alabama, LSU, and Georgia. His findings claimed that Syracuse had the 14th largest FOOTBALL fan base with 3.45M fans, ahead of Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida State, Nebraska, and Clemson. Claiming that Ohio State (#1 with 11.26M fans) had nearly double the fans as Michigan didn’t win him any friends or respect in Ann Arbor either. USC at #10 seemed overvalued as well when they rank 22nd in average attendance and 25th in TV Viewership over the last few years.
We ran a quick analysis comparing these two systems and found the following results:
Table 2 Link here)
While the eye-catching finding is Altimore showing a large increase in PAC10 fan bases (especially relative to the other conferences,) the majority of this can be explained by the disparate findings for the Oregon Ducks alone, nearly a nine-fold increase. While it’s pretty clear that Silver’s system vastly underestimated Oregon’s fan base, it’s also pretty apparent that Altimore’s system overestimated it. As with most things, the truth is surely somewhere in the middle. Again, it’s complex and confusing and we don’t feel comfortable putting too much stock into either of these systems.
Part 3 – Comparing Pac10 Television Viewership
For all the reasonable and important discussion of markets, brands, attendance, and on-field success, the one metric that matters most to network (or streaming) executives is how many people watch the games. Those other factors can provide warning signs for a pending increase or decrease in viewership, but viewership is where the money is made.
Unfortunately, viewership is also one of the most difficult factors to assess, especially without the in-depth data available to network and conference insiders – and with so many armchair statisticians out to support a predefined conclusion. So let’s take a brief foray into how the sausage is made.
That said, if you just want to get to the results, you can skip this next section – feel free to scroll down to where they start and nobody will blame you.
Consider the following claims:
- Over the last 5 non-COVID years, regular-season games involving Big 12 teams have drawn an average of 1.27M viewers. The average regular-season game with a PAC participant only drew 967k – putting the Big 12 32% ahead of the PAC in viewership. Clearly the Big 12 is MUCH stronger.
- Over the last 5 non-COVID years, regular-season games of the remaining Big 12 members have drawn an average of 1.07M viewers, compared to 1.58M for the remaining PAC teams. That puts the PAC 48% ahead of the Big 12. Clearly the PAC is much stronger.
- Over the last 5 non-COVID years, the average viewership of games involving future Big 12 members is 646k. The average viewership of games involving the remaining PAC10+SDSU/SMU is 645k. Clearly the two conferences are basically equal.
So, which statement is true? The answer is … all of them, depending on how you parse the data. The PAC average can easily be 970k or 1.6M or 645k if it suits an agenda.
How? Statement 1 includes every regular-season game played (including Texas, Oklahoma, USC and UCLA) while counting viewership as zero for every game where ratings are unavailable (see Zach Miller’s work for an analysis that makes this assumption). Statement 2 includes only games which received ratings, making it a much smaller sample size for the PAC. It also excludes every game which involved Texas, Oklahoma, USC or UCLA. Statement 3 reverts back to including unrated games as zero viewers, but now adds BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF…as well as the two most widely-discussed potential PAC additions.
So in an effort to provide an unbiased review, we have to determine how to treat different networks, timeslots and opponents, as well as how to handle games for which ratings aren’t available. For the duration of this article, we’ll be using the following assumptions
- Team viewership will be assessed based on their viewership score. There’s some math behind this, but it basically boils down to a way to bridge the gap between no credit for unrated games and blindly assuming that those games (often weaker) would draw the same as the games for which we do have data – neither of which is correct. Viewership score serves as a mathematical estimate of where the average viewership would be if every game were televised.
- TV networks and slots will generally be ignored. This seems counterintuitive, given the clearly huge importance of networks and timeslots. Wyoming would clearly draw more if every game were on FOX at Noon. Alabama would draw fewer viewers than they do now if every game were on FS2 at 11:30 PM. However in this case, we’re basically trusting the TV executives to have reasons and logic behind their decision. There’s a reason Wyoming isn’t in the prime slot and Alabama isn’t relegated to late night on obscure channels. Choosing to put a program in a prime viewing window is, in itself, a strong reflection of their assessed viewership value. Similarly, choosing to not air a game on a rated channel often reflects an assessment of that program’s drawing power.
- Similarly, opponent will be ignored. Viewership Score, by its nature, already mitigates the impact of outliers and on a long enough time-scale, the average past opponent becomes fairly in-line with the average future opponent. It’s worth noting that this simplification may result in new P5 additions being slightly underrated as their opponent profile actually will change.
***Welcome back – we’re done talking about methods and processes now – onto the interesting things
So, bottom line question – which conference draws better without their marquee names?
At first glance, the answer appears to be the PAC. The Big 12 was ahead, but losing those Texas and Oklahoma games hurt the Big 12 substantially more than losing the USC and UCLA games hurt the PAC.
But that’s not all there is to the story. If it were, the PAC would likely already have the TV deal they’re looking for. The remaining PAC teams HAVE drawn better – but remember that media rights deals are looking at the future and not at the past. In this case we need to not only consider the trajectory but also price in a level of uncertainty.
Consider the below list of the highest 27 viewed Big 12 and PAC games (not involving departing members) over the last 3 (non-COVID) years
While the PAC numbers for the recent past clearly ARE higher (partially but not entirely due to having more teams and therefore more games), there’s a few dangerous warning signs for the PAC hidden in this chart
Firstly, the PAC10 is dangerously reliant on Oregon for any sort of strong viewership.
Nine of the 10 highest viewed PAC games involve Oregon. Taking it a step further, 19 of the 20 highest viewed PAC games involve either Oregon or Washington. Only one PAC game has topped 1.6M viewers in the last 3 years without involving USC, UCLA, Oregon or Washington.
This creates two issues. First, the ongoing concern about Oregon and/or Washington departing to the Big 10 leaves media partners with uncertainty, which depresses the market. But the larger issue is that, even with Oregon in the PAC fold, there’s a strong demand for first choice of games…but not much interest in getting second choice (or lower). This matches reports that ESPN and Amazon have both expressed interest in one game a week, but don’t really care for the rest of the package.
This issue is then further exacerbated by the weak potential expansion options for the PAC. Going back to the first chart, the Big 12 was able to bring in high viewership teams that were basically on par with their remaining members (despite the lower-profile nature of playing outside the P5). The PAC lacks those same options. For a conference already struggling to get interest beyond the game of the week, San Diego St and SMU aren’t game-changers.
Secondly (and most importantly) the PAC10 is on a dangerous trajectory.
When considering the 27 highest-viewed games across 3 years, you’d expect there to generally be the same number from each year – Nine (which is why 27 was chosen instead of 25)
But of the PAC’s top 27 games, 12 were in 2019, 10 in 2021 and only 5 in 2022. 12 -> 10 -> 5…that’s not a good trend.
By comparison, the Big 12 is rising with nearly half (13/27) of their highest-viewed games (non-OUT category) in the last year.
This second point is evident both in the big conference-level picture and at the individual program level.
Looking at composite viewership score by conference over the last two years, we again see the PAC (USC/UCLA games excluded) slightly ahead of the Big 12 (Texas/Oklahoma games excluded). Both are close to the ACC and miles behind the Big Ten and SEC, as would be expected.
It’s certainly not breaking any news by stating those two conferences are well ahead of the other 3, though it is worth noting the remaining 10 PAC teams have been just a nose ahead of the remaining 8 Big 12 teams. But the really interesting thing is looking at the trajectory (again, all games involving teams changing conferences are excluded from this metric)
As a whole, the PAC is the major conference with BY FAR the largest viewership drop in that time frame, with the composite conference viewership score (for games not involving USC or UCLA) dropping by 14.5% in that interval.
By comparison, the composite conference viewership score for the 8 remaining Big 12 teams (in games not involving Texas or Oklahoma)? It improved 29.9% in the same time frame, easily the best of any major conference. Certainly it’s easier for the Big 12 to improve from their more humble numbers than it is for the SEC or B1G…but 30% is impressive no matter who you are.
Drilling down to the individual teams shows the same story
Just at first glance, there’s a LOT of blue (PAC) on the left, declining side of that chart. And a LOT of red (Big 12) on the right, growth side.
Looking individually at the remaining PAC teams, only 4/10 had a higher viewership score in the 2021-2022 seasons than they had in 2018-2019. Those include Oregon St and Cal (who improved on a baseline of basically nothing), Oregon (who is actively attempting to leave the conference) and Utah.
While it’s worth noting that San Diego St has also seen a strong uptick in percent viewership, the initial viewership (like that of Cal, Kansas and Oregon St) is so low as to make the large percent increase less meaningful than first appearances would indicate. On the other hand SMU not only draws poorly, but is also on a downward trajectory, drawing even less than they previously had. While SDSU has some merit, any plan which sees SMU as the savior of the PAC is severely misguided.
Unfortunately for the PAC, there’s simply no other better option available after the Big 12 took BYU and Cincinnati (both with high viewership and improving), UCF (coming down, but still fairly high viewership) and Houston (frankly more an upside bet on population than based on viewership or viewership trends). But the conference is in desperate need of reinforcements.
2022 marked the first time the remaining 8 Big 12 teams had stronger viewership than the remaining 10 PAC teams. But with one conference (the Big 12) increasing viewership 30% over the last 3 years, and the other (PAC) decreasing viewership metrics by 15%, is it any wonder that networks would rather hitch themselves to the Big 12?
If the media rights deal was for the recent past (or even arguably for the right now), the PAC would have an argument to be ahead of or equal to the Big 12. But in paying for the future, network executives have to consider trajectory. And right now, the two conferences are equal in viewership (or very nearly so)…but headed strongly in opposite directions
**NOTE: As a bonus, those interested in the viewership score of teams not shown here can feel free to peruse the below table or at this link
1 Viewership Score is calculated using 3 values, the average of all games, the average of all RATED games, and the median of all RATED games. By taking the harmonic mean of the RATED game average and the RATED game median, we can reduce the impact of outlier games (for example, when a team plays Alabama or Ohio St). We then again take the harmonic mean of that resulting value with the average of all games, accounting for the many games which were not aired.
2 TV viewership is influenced by a several factors: including time slot, channel, who the opponent is, is one or are both teams ranked, how competitive is the matchup is expected to be, how much the networks/talk shows have promoted the game, how close/exciting the game ends up being, what other games are going on at the same time, and what the lead-in games/programs are. You could put Bishop Sycamore vs The Little Sisters of the Poor in a prime Saturday afternoon ABC spot following the Red River Rivalry and it would garner 1-2 million viewers. Many teams have been able to garner high average viewership numbers because they routinely play against the bigger brands and their games vs lesser brands are removed from the viewership stats to bring down their “average viewership.”. Case in point is Oregon State, which only had 40 rated games over a 9 year period (2013-21), but averaged 1.1M viewers per game. Playing Oregon and Washington accounted for most of those games and the Beaver’s solid average viewership number… but is it correct to give them the credit for the viewership when it was more about who they were playing?
Part 4–How Strong Are PAC10 TV Markets?
“We have better schools, better markets, and better ratings.”
– An anonymous PAC athletic director on why he won’t be surprised when the Pac-12 beats the Big 12’s media contract.
Despite losing USC/UCLA’s TV market, along with LA’s 5.8M TV homes, the PAC10 still boasts several top-30 markets like San Francisco (2.6M), Phoenix (2.1M), Seattle (2.1M), Denver (1.8M), Portland (1.3M), and Salt Lake City (1.1M.) While the Big12 now boasts some major markets like Dallas (3.0M), Houston (2.6M), Orlando (1.8M), Salt Lake City (1.1M) and Kansas City (1.0M), there are still plenty of sub-1M markets like Cincinnati, Oklahoma City, Ames, Morgantown, Waco, and tiny Lubbock (see Nielsen’s 2022 DMA –Desingnated Market Area–rankings here.) When looking at the size of each team’s market, the average PAC10 team is located in a DMA with 1.6M TV homes compared to only 1.2M for the Big12. A big win for the PAC12 and case closed right?
Certainly, having a greater number of potential viewers never hurts, but let’s dig deeper…
- What proportion of those TV homes are actually interested in watching College Football (CFB) or Basketball (CBB?)
- What proportion of those are actually fans of the specific school involved in the media deal?
- How many schools share the same media markets and how does this affect the total potential TV homes figure?
We will address the first and last questions in this piece, and deal with Question 2 in a later installment.
College sports is a big-time business, with passionate fans and billions of dollars on the line for schools, media partners and advertisers. Per Learfield’s 2021 report:
“College sports fans are the largest fan population in the US. The figure below shows the percentage of individuals in the US that are 12 years and older, and whether they identify as “fans” of major sports, and “avid fans” of major sports. Those identifying as College sports fans (overall) rank the highest in both categories-both in terms of absolute numbers and as a percentage who are “avid” fans. Estimates put the audience for college sports at upward of 182 million, including 155 million for football, 130 million for basketball, and 105 million for other college sports.”
College Football Media Value
Nate Silver, at the NYT’s 538 back in 2011, did a re-ranking of the top College football media markets as part of his analysis of each school’s total number of college football fans (which we analyzed previously)
Back then, Atlanta was the 9th largest overall Media Market, but Silver re-ranked it as #2 for College football value due to his estimate that 41% of the population there “follows college football,” a much higher percentage than any other Top Ten market. Even more drastic, the Birmingham DMA skyrocketed from 42nd up to 6th! That happens when 85% percent of your residents care that much about college football (note that the PAC10 has no representation within the top 10 of these re-ranked DMAs, while the Big12 footprint has teams in #4 and #8)
It’s no secret that some areas of the nation care about college sports more than others. The SEC is sometimes mocked for their tagline “It just means more,” but, as someone who lives in the heart of it all (Tuscaloosa… I’ve also lived in Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Utah, and grew up in California) I can tell you that it’s absolutely true. David Ubben, recently opined in The Athletic:
“The Pac-12’s footprint cares less about its sports than the SEC’s and Big Ten’s. In denial about this, former commissioner Larry Scott launched a network that was all-but-doomed from the start and made it only harder for teams in his conference to find a platform. That’s bad commissioner-ing. The Pac-12’s distribution issues stem from lack of demand.”
At the root of these issues, the PAC has to deal with a quadruple-whammy of a geography problem as far as TV value is concerned:
The portion of the US population that lives within the western footprint is relatively small, limiting the base from which to draw fans and viewers.
The vast majority (over 70%) of that western 20% live in the Pacific time zone. While this allows teams to fill the media partner’s late time-slots and get on national broadcasts, it also markedly limits the number of football fans that are still engaged (or even awake) in the Eastern and Central time zones to watch the late-kicking games. This clearly limits total viewership and overall exposure.
Recent demographic trends have shown a sharp turn away from many core PAC media markets. The most recent Nielsen Market size data (2021-22 & 2022-23) showed an average LOSS of 10,155 (-0.6%) “Total TV homes” per PAC10 school’s local DMA. Contrast that to the new Big12, which showed a year-over-year GAIN of 32,787 “Total TV homes” (+2.8%) per school.
As stated above, the footprint of the PAC10 is relatively disinterested in College Football. This is readily apparent in Nielsen’s 2016 graphic of college football fandom (from their now unavailable 2015 “The State of Sports” report). On average, this Nielsen data showed 38% interest among new Big12 home media markets compared to 30% for the PAC10.
Following the theme of mapping college football interest, the New York Times did a 2014 deep dive into the percentage of the people on Facebook who “Liked” a CFB team in each US county (a screenshot of this is available from this SI.com article for those that are behind the paywall) :
Looking at the statewide aggregated data from this study showed that only two PAC states were above the 11% threshold, compared to eight of the Big12 states. California, home of the PACs “bigger markets” advantage, showed a measly 5% in this study. Eight of the PAC’s remaining ten schools hale from states registering 11% or less; no Big12 state was lower than a 12% level, which were Texas registered. When Texas is your least-interested-in-CFB state, you’re probably in pretty good shape.
At the risk of heatmap overload, “Popularity on Google Trends” data presents a similar picture and lets us focus on individual media markets (readers are welcome to go to that link where you can pull down the “Subregion” tab to “Metro” which is conveniently based on the Nielsen DMAs.) This showed a relative average score of only 23 for the PAC DMAs compared to 35 for the Big12. This translates into just over a 50% increase in CFB interest among the Big12 markets:
For interest sake, here is what the Google Trends map looked like back in 2011, in Nate Silver’s analysis mentioned above.
These three methods of gauging the geography of CFB fandom (TV viewership interest, Google searches, and social media “Likes,”) all tell the same story: CFB fans are most concentrated in the South and Midwest while they are relatively sparse in the Northeast and Pacific Southwest. This is part of the uphill climb PAC schools are facing when trying to build a fan base and attract viewers.
Delving into the Google Trends CFB results showed that half of the PAC10’s schools are in DMAs with a relative score of 20 or below. While Birmingham sets the scale at 100, Seattle, San Francisco, Spokane, and Tucson are all between 5-8 times less interested in CFB than Bama. By contrast, the Big12 has only three DMAs below a score of 30 (KC 22, Houston 26, and SLC 29). Looking at the relative CFB interest of the Salt Lake City DMA between these two conferences puts a sad reality for the PAC on full display: While SLC ranks third to last among Big12 DMAs for CFB interest, it’s second best in the PAC.
Figure (spreadsheet link)
And that brings us back to looking at a recurring theme for the PAC10, it’s on a negative trajectory. Not only are they far behind the Big12 in CFB interest, the gap is widening. The 18 year cumulative Google Trends data resulted in an average score of 23 for the PAC and 35 for the Big12. When limiting that search to just 2019-22, the PAC dropped one point to 22 while the Big12 jumped up to 38 (or 73% more.) Some may dismiss the PAC’s recent negative trajectory solely on the effects of COVID lockdowns and policies. It’s almost certainly a factor, but recall that the search was for CFB interest in general and not looking at individual teams. Also, why would the Big12 show a 8.3% increase in their CFB interest score over the same time period if COVID was such an interest killer?
College Basketball Media Value
While everyone recognizes that football rules the roost as far as school revenues and TV value, there is still significant value from the other “revenue generating sport,” Men’s basketball. Recall theLearfield report above that found there are more combined “College Sports” fans than of any professional sports league, including the NFL (though they combined Football, Basketball, and “Other College Sports” to get to that figure). They reported that 65.6% of US adults 12 and older claim to be fans of a college sport/team, and that 26.3% claim to be “avid fans.” While Basketball does lag behind Football on this survey, the gap is less than 10% in total fans and very close among “avid fans” (though surely there’s great overlap between these groups–a vast majority of CBB fans are also CFB fans and vice-a-versa.)
Most sports media executives put the relative TV value at ~70-80% for CFB with the balance for CBB. Popularity on Google Trends for 2004-present pitting CFB vs CBB puts the figures at 71%/29% with basketball only outpacing football in a handful of DMAs nationwide (Lexington/Louisville/Evansville/Syracuse.)
Drilling down on the relative passion of college basketball fans nationwide, Popularity on Google Trends of “College Basketball” from 2004-Present” again provides the answer showing the strongest concentration in the midwest. Aside from a 47% relative search value in Tucson, there is relatively very little interest in the PAC12 for CBB.
Google Trends CBB data from 2004-22 showed the average DMA of PAC10 schools had a relative average score of 27 (Louisville is #1 at 100) while the Big12’s average score was 38. That means that Big12 markets are, on average, 41% more interested in CBB than PAC10 markets. When looking at interest over the entire state where each school is located, the gap widened, with the PAC at 24 compared to the Big12’s 39 (a 63% difference.)
Figure (spreadsheet link)
In 2017, ESPN ranked the top 10 CBB media markets by average rating during broadcasts. The PAC10 had zero DMAs on the list while the Big12 has two markets in the top 6, Kansas City and Cincinnati.
Just this month (March 2023) Wallethub published a ranking of the best cities for CBB fans. Only three of the PAC10 cities (not DMAs) make the top 20 list (of their respective city size grouping) compared to nine of the new Big12 cities: that’s 30% vs 75%. Although this ranking system is a little quirky (it ranked all 295 US Cities that have at least one Division I basketball team… and the absence of Tucson in the top 25 of Large Cities and LA at #2 & well above NYC were somewhat head-scratching), the overall top line results seem to largely pass the smell test.
Combined College Sports Value, DMA Re-Ranking
Inspired by these various attempts to provide estimates and rankings of TV markets for either college football or basketball, we felt it would be a worthwhile exercise to synthesize them all in an attempt to quantify an estimate of the combined relative value of both sports within each school’s home DMA. This is a challenging and admittedly inexact process described in the footnote below. Trying to tease out who is a CFB fan and who is a CBB fan obviously presents extensive overlap between the groups.
One key factor of this re-ranking process in trying to compare conferences head-to-head is the overlap created by multiple teams within the same DMA. Should the PAC10, with Cal/Stanford & Oregon/Oregon State sharing the San Francisco/Portland DMAs respectively, or the Big12 with Kansas/KSU sharing the KC market all get to “double dip” for these markets by counting each twice? The clear answer is “No” for this analysis as we’re simply trying to estimate how many total CFB/CBB fans there are and not who those fans cheer for. This reality led to some of this analysis’ most striking findings:
- The actual number of TV homes per member school is not 1.6M PAC vs 1.2M Big12 as initially stated, but narrows dramatically to 1.2M vs 1.1M.
- The absolute value # of TV homes within Big12 vs PAC media markets has the Big12 leading with 12.8M vs 12.1M for the PAC.
- When factoring in college sports interest, the Big 12 has an estimated 4.9M total TV homes that are fans compared to just 3.2M for the PAC, or a 35% advantage.
- Even when scaling back for relative per-school interest (i.e. 12 schools in Big12 vs 10 in PAC), the average Big12 member had 406K college sports fan TV homes, compared to 321K for the PAC (21%).
- An estimated 38.0% of TV homes within the Big12 media footprint are college sports fans compared to 26.6% for the PAC.
Figure (spreadsheet link)
Before the addition of Houston, UCF, Cincinnati, & BYU, the remaining eight Big12 schools could only claim DMAs totaling 6.28M TV homes, and only an estimated 2.64M college-sports-interested TV homes. Bringing in these 4 schools/DMAs brought 6.54M more total TV homes (104% increase) and an estimated 2.24M more (85% increase) college-sports-interested TV homes into the Big12. While nobody remotely claims that these all represent Big12 school fans, the wider distribution and increased potential eyeballs catch the attention of media executives.
The Elephant in the Room
Does all this TV market analysis really matter after all? It’s quite clear from the data presented that the PAC12 has always had a huge advantage over the Big12 as far as total TV homes and even in estimated total CFB/CBB fans within their home DMAs. The current PAC12 claims ~2.5X more total TV homes and ~1.5X more estimated CFB/CBB fans than the current Big12. Despite this, the Big12 has held a TV ratings and brand advantage over the PAC12 for decades, due largely to the behemoth programs of Texas and OU. Obviously, simply using home DMAs doesn’t tell the whole story.
Case in point: the old Big12 didn’t have any team claiming the home DMA of Houston, but you can be sure that Texas was at or near the top there, with plenty of Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU fans sprinkled in. Similarly, no one in the Big12 previously or currently claims San Antonio (#31, 1.06M TV homes) as a home DMA, but there are plenty of fans of all of these TX-based teams there. The cumulative number of BU, TTU, TCU, and Houston fans in San Antonio is not negligible (similarly for USC/UCLA fans in the San Diego DMA), yet this analysis could not account for them. That’s one reason why all of this should be taken with a grain of salt. Then again, this exercise has surely been instructive to show that the PAC’s claim of “better markets” is a dubious one, at best.
Concerning Demographic Trends?
Long-term (13 year) analysis of Nielsen DMA size shows the average market size per school has GROWN 10% for the PAC10 compared to GROWING 14% per new Big12 school (keep in mind that Nielsen started counting BBO–BroadBand Only–among their total TV homes in 2021, boosting the numbers for nearly all DMA’s quite a bit). Recall the aforementioned one-year data in TV homes showed an even more striking and concerning trajectory for the PAC, that there were fewer TV homes in 2022 PAC DMAs than in 2021. Combine this with the evidence presented above that the Big12 media markets are filled with a higher percentage of college sports fans, and it’s apparent that the new Big12 actually already has more valuable TV markets from a sports broadcasting perspective than what remains of the PAC.
*Stay tuned for the next installment: Sports 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.
Trying to tease out who is a CFB fan and who is a CBB fan obviously presents extensive overlap between the groups. Heaviest weightings were given to football over basketball, and especially to Nielsen’s 2016 TV “Percentage of CFB Fans” data as mentioned above. However, some limitations of Nielsen’s data set include:
- They created 5 artificial groups for graphical purposes resulting in a range, sometimes with a wide span, rather than giving the exact percentage they measured in each market. This was especially true for the highest (46.0%-66.5%) and lowest (17.5%-28.2%) sub-groups. While each range was credited with the midpoint value, there’s obviously a large difference between 46% and 66.5%. Also, larger markets tended to have much smaller percentage of college sports fans (professional sports competition, demographic challenges) and were mostly in the 17.5%-28.2% range, but even a few percentage points of difference can translate into a very large absolute value due to the sheer number of TV homes in the largest markets.
- Nielsen’s data is now 7-8 years old.
To address both of these problems, current Google Trends data were used to simultaneously help tease out where, within each range, the more accurate figure would be as well as to contemporize it.
This linked spreadsheet shows the factors used in detail:
- For College Football, the total number of TV homes in each team’s DMA was multiplied by the following factors:
- Nielsen’s 2016 “Percent of people interested in CFB”– 40% weight.
- NYT 2014 “Percent of Facebook users who are CFB fans” in Team’s home COUNTY– 10% weight
- NYT 2014 “Percent of Facebook users who are CFB fans” in Team’s home STATE– 5% weight
- Google Trends “College Football” relative interest in DMA from 2004-22– 30% weight
- Google Trends “College Football” relative interest in DMA from 2019-21– 10% weight
- Google Trends “College Football” relative interest in DMA from 2021-22– 5% weight
- For College Basketball, the total number of TV homes in each team’s DMA was multiplied by the following factors:
- Google Trends “College Basketball” relative interest score (used as a simple percentage) in home DMA from 2004-22– 75% weight
- Google Trends “College Basketball” relative interest score (used as a simple percentage) in home STATE from 2004-22– 25% weight
The resulting weighted Google Trends figure required dampening to account for the relatively limited TV value of CBB compared to CFB as discussed above. This was done by taking Wallethub’s 2023 Best Basketball Cities Raw score (converted to a simple percentage) and multiplying it by 0.667. The corresponding value was then multiplied by the Google Trends re-weighted figure. This percentage was then multiplied by the DMA’s Total TV homes, resulting in an estimate of the number of TV homes that are ADDITIONAL CBB fans (over and above the CFB fan figure.)
Link to Part 2: Brand/Fan Base Value
Link to Part 2a: Silver vs Altimore Fan Base Estimate
Link to Part 4–How Strong Are PAC12 TV Markets?