College football has come a long way since the 1980’s when only a couple of games were on television every weekend. The influx of cable television and multiple channels changed the game forever. Good teams went from being on television twice a year, maybe three times with a bowl, to being on television every week. Bad teams found themselves on television more and more often. Teams in large urban areas that relied on locals to fill their seats found their stadiums empty as locals could get their football fix from sitting on their own couch. There is a reason that schools like Rice and Yale have 70,000 seat stadiums: back in the olden days there just weren’t that many games on television.
Things are different these days. For most schools in major conferences, every game except maybe one is on television. For power leagues like the SEC and B1G, most of the games are televised nationally. Schools in all conferences (except the Big 12) either distribute money from television contracts equally among all schools in the conference or will in the near future when all the conferences (except the Big 12) have conference wide networks. The ACC is kind of a wildcard at this time because its future is uncertain despite having a geographical advantage over the Big 12.
What a conference wants to do to maximize its television potential is strengthen its brand. It can do this by having marquee matchups that demand high television ratings. Also, since all conference games are televised these days, the non-marquee matchups are also important since some network will have to televise those games, and that network obviously wants someone to watch.
How do you determine how much a conference is worth, or, for that matter, how much a team is worth? Well, that’s kind of tricky. First of all, it can vary from year to year. Obviously, if a team goes 0-11, that team just isn’t as interesting and will pull lower ratings. However, the variance is not as great as you might expect. Lou Holtz’s first year at South Carolina, the Gamecocks went 0-11, but sold out every game and saw a boost in television ratings. South Carolina is a very popular team, and always has an excitement level following the program. Adding a coach like Lou Holtz pushed them up a notch, and Holtz delivered by turning the program around in subsequent years.
What a school wants in its football program is excitement. The school wants its football stadium to be large and packed, and it wants its games on television in prime slots. To get this, football programs need to create a sense of excitement about the football program.
There are several ways to create this excitement, the most important of which is to have a lot of fans. Fans get excited about their teams and they make it a point to watch their teams play in person or on television. However, you can’t garner fans overnight by email campaigns or billboards or ticket giveaways. This is something that takes a while to develop. (There are exceptions, like the Miami Hurricanes, but Miami appears to have been just a temporary glitch and is seeing its fan base erode.)
Large state schools in regions of the country that are football crazy have the most fans. A large school has more alumni, and alumni are usually fans. More fans create even more fans and a heightened a level of excitement. A heightened level of excitement in turn creates even more fans.
The research on how many fans teams have has already been done through analyzing google searches and using surverys. Here is a link:
The next way to create excitement is to play exciting games. If you are a school that has a top ten fan base but you play schools with virtually no fans, there is only excitement on one side, the game is not relevant nationally, and the television interest is cut significantly. On the other side of the coin, if a school with a small fan base plays a school with a very large fan base, that may be the biggest game of the year for the small school and create more interest than the rest of its games. From the large school’s view, the game is unimportant and has less of an excitement factor than most of its other games.
All of this is fairly obvious so far. What we at HSJ wanted to do was to give this meaning, to apply a quantitative value to the excitement level of a team. First of all, we applied a number to each team in the top 50 of the NY Times reasearch. For simplicity’s sake, we took the top ten teams with the most fans, and assigned them five points per game. Any game they play has an excitement level of five points. Teams 11-20 get 4, teams 21-30 get 3, teams 31-40 get 2, teams 41-50 get 1, and teams 60+ get <-1>. Now, you can look at the schedule before the season and assign a value to every game. For the most part, this excitement level will be fairly close to how the season plays out. There are some exceptions, though. In the Lou Holtz to South Carolina example we cited above, South Carolina bumped themselves up a point every game and increased their excitement level simply by hiring Lou Holtz. Kansas State went undefeated this year. Their excitement level is negative 1, so they moved up to zero about midseason and might have even moved up to 1 before they lost to Baylor.
The situation gets a little murky right here. Maryland and Rutgers are making the jump to the B1G conference. The reason for this is the B1G can charge a premium in Maryland and New York for cable and dish subscribers that carry the Big 10 Network, and this means more money for the conference. The tricky part of this is that Rutgers and Maryland will be the 9th and 14th teams in the B1G in terms of fans. The B1G is lowering the excitement of the league for some up front cash. In the long run, this will hurt the B1G brand, but in the short term this will mean an influx of cash. The B1G is banking that the influx of cash to each school will help those schools strengthen their brands, increase fan support, and raise the excitement in the league. We’ll have to wait several years before we see if this works.
Using our quantitative analysis of excitement for football programs, let’s look at four teams that have moved away from the Big 12: Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Missouri. For each school, we chose the closest school in the Big 12 in terms of fan support:
For Texas A&M, we chose Texas. Texas has a slight advantage in fan support for now.
For Nebraska, we chose Oklahoma. Nebraska has a few more fans than Oklahoma.
For Missouri, we chose Texas Tech. Missouri has quite a bit more fans, but it was the closest match other than Oklahoma.
For Colorado, we chose Iowa State. Iowa State has more fans, but it’s close.
The results are eye opening. They make you realize why schools like TCU jump conferences every two years. Schools can build their brand by playing in bigger games and thus build their fan base. A larger fan base makes it much easier to field a winning team.
Colorado vs. Iowa State
The excitement level for Iowa State’s season was higher than Colorado’s. For the conference schedule, Colorado averaged approximately about a .7 for excitement level while Iowa State came in at 1.4. It appears here that Colorado made a risk leaving a stronger conference for one without as much fan interest, or at least that’s the way the schedule played out this year. However, Colorado will make more money in the PAC 12, and they should be able to use that money to strengthen their program. The before season numbers have probably changed due to Colorado’s poor season and this discrepancy this year went even more Iowa State’s way.
Missouri vs Texas Tech
Missouri definitely made the right move to go to the SEC. The excitement level for Mizzou’s conference schedule came in at 49 compared to Texas Tech’s 29, but that’s with Tech having an additional game. The average excitement level for a Mizzou game this year was 6.1, and Texas Tech’s average was 3.2. The excitement for a Missouri game was almost twice that of a Texas Tech game. This is not including the excitement for Mizzou fans for their first season in the SEC.
Nebraska vs Oklahoma
These two teams used to be big rivals. After they joined the Big 12, they weren’t allowed to play each other every year anymore, and the rivalry subsequently died. In fact, Nebraska had no trouble leaving its old rival and bolting to the B1G, setting a precedent for three other Big 12 schools. Nebraska played in more big games this year than Oklahoma, and it wasn’t even close. In an 8 game conference schedule, Nebraska racked up 62 excitement points for a 7.8 rating. The kicker here is that Nebraska also gets to play in a championship game which isn’t even included here. Oklahoma, on the other hand, averaged only a five excitement level in their games for a total of 45 in a nine game schedule. This is a huge difference.
Texas A&M vs Texas
This one is very similar to Nebraska and Oklahoma’s results. The Aggies racked up an excitement level of 67 in their first year of the SEC on the schedule alone. This number should be much higher with a probable Heisman winner and the excitement of playing in the SEC. Texas, on the other hand, racked up 53 excitement points in an extra game for an average of 5.9 excitement points a game, much less than 8.4 excitement points per game for Texas A&M, and this, again, is before the Heisman hype and the SEC first season is factored into the numbers.
Colorado’s schedule appears a bit weaker in terms of excitement than it was in the Big 12 before yearly adjustments, but the increase in revenue probably justifies their move. Nebraska, Mizzou, and Texas A&M have increased the excitement levels of their football teams between 30% and 50%. These programs should see their teams strengthen in the coming years. More excitement equals more exposure equals more fans and creates a culture of expected success, even if playing against a higher level of competition.