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By Jeff Fuller and 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 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.)